Customs vs. the Freelancer

Last week I received a page-long notice from the Israel Postal Service indicating that a shipment had arrived for me and I needed to travel all the way to Givat Shaul to pick it up!  There were lots of Hebrew words and I didn’t have the time or patience to two-finger type them all into Google Translate to figure out what on earth they wanted from me! So I scanned the document and sent it off to my good friend and lawyer Tzvi Szajnbrum for advice while I was doing some maintenance on his Voleh site.

Tzvi advised me to take the notice to the Post/Customs office in Givat Shaul and that I’d probably have to fill out a form to retrieve my merchandise.  So this morning I took the trip (with my headache and sore throat) and acquired a number upon arrival – #173, they were serving #161, it could be worse… I sat down and waited.

When #171 was called, I left my seat and started working my way to the front of the place to avoid losing my spot to an impatient Israeli, and that’s when an alert worker just coming off break noticed the paper in my hand and kindly told me I was in the wrong place!  I needed to go to the Meches (customs) office around the corner, down the hall and through the door.

A calm snooded woman sat behind a desk labeled Export and the Import desk was empty. Under normal circumstances my frustration level would have been peaking at this point, but since I wasn’t feeling well I quietly waited. The Export woman asked if she could help me – even though it wasn’t her job  (miracles do happen in this country all the time)! – and I handed her my paper.  Suddenly her kind expression changed to raised eyebrows and suspicion.

It turns out that customs was holding my package with $140 worth of women’s clothing because I am self-employed and they suspected that I was illegally importing these items for resale!  Heaven help me!

That’s when the fun began – the interrogation (paraphrasing here as I’m not going to attempt all the Hebrew)…

What is in the package?  Clothing.

Why did you import this clothing? Because I don’t know where to buy plus size women’s crinkle broomstick style skirts in Israel and in America I ordered 95% of my clothing online because I hate shopping in stores!  Likely story – what woman doesn’t like to shop? ME! There are plenty of places to shop for clothes in Israel. I’m sure there are, but where can I buy non-charedi looking plus size clothes? There are places…

What products does you company sell? I don’t sell products, I sell services and I’m not a company – I’m only an atzmai! Osek Patur or Osek Murshe? Osek Murshe. Ahh… What is your business? I am a writer. Newspaper? No, marketing and technical. What do you do? I write words!

You are an olah chadasha? Yes. When did you arrive? 4 years ago. You’re an olah, not chadasha.

[Note: she had my file open on her computer screen when this interrogation began, so she already knew most of these answers.]

When I asked what was the problem? I was told to follow her.

The nice lady then led me to a back room shipping/receiving area where an imposing man asked for my ID and pulled my file up on the computer (I have a file!) before retrieving my package (a small box approximately 12″ x 16″ x 4″ that weighed about 1.5 pounds).  He then sliced it open and searched for an invoice – it was missing.  The box had apparently been opened previously because the red and white card that I’d normally find in my mail box was inside the package.

I was then led back to the outer office and asked how much I paid for “all those clothes“.  I could see the shekel signs in her eyes and was relieved that I had the foresight to print the email receipt that Bombay Fashions had sent me for the 6 crinkle skirts, 2 house dresses and 3 pairs of leggings that cost me $175 including shipping.  She seemed impressed that I had gotten such a good deal 🙂 

(I know I could probably buy similar items in the wrong size for a little more money and lower quality at the Arab shuk, but I’m not willing to give them my money!  My experience with Bombay Fashions has been that their quality is very good, whereas similar style skirts I’ve purchased at either shuk in Jerusalem have already fallen apart.)

With a handful of computer printouts I was sent back to the post office to pay the 116 shekel VAT (this was the only part of the experience that I had actually anticipated). Then I returned to the customs office with the receipt and was told to take it back to the shipping/receiving area where the man gave me my package (freshly taped and strapped shut).

All tolled with bus trip, they wasted 4 hours of my life!

My business file indicates that I am a technical and marketing writer – so what caused someone at customs to suspect I was illegally importing and selling women’s clothing?

I wanted to scream (and normally would have, but my head was pounding), but instead I politely responded to their questions in hopes that they would realize just how stupid this whole situation was (almost as ridiculous as when they thought I was illegally importing Blistex)!  I know, that probably didn’t occur to them because bureaucrats have to find something to amuse themselves with during the hours they’re supposed to be working – and who better to pick on than an American olah?

I wrote this not to discourage you, but rather to better prepare you. And if this never happens to you, you will now have an example that will make you appreciate just how good you have it!

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