Parking Lot Disaster Reminds Israelis They Are Screw-Up Nation as Well

Creative improvisation may win battles and innovate technology but can be deadly when discipline is paramount.

Rescue workers gather where a collapse took place at the construction site of a parking lot in the Ramat Hahayal neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 5, 2016.
Gil Cohen-Magen, AFP

For the past 48 hours, Israelis have been riveted to the efforts to rescue construction workers trapped under tons of rubble in a collapsed parking lot in Tel Aviv. But the loss of human life – four dead and another three presumed missing as this article is published – isn’t the only and possibly isn’t even the main reason for the national fixation. The media is naturally drawn to the central location of the accident, in the up and coming Ramat Hachayal neighborhood, renowned for its bustling restaurants, hi-tech buzz and communications buildings, and many Israelis are transfixed by the gripping reality-style salvation operation for which the country is renowned. Most important of all, however, the country seems to be gripped by a gnawing sense that this was no accident at all, but a recurring symptom of a national malaise.

The phrase “There but for the grace of God go I”  – or its Hebrew equivalents – flashed through many Israeli minds as they gazed at the twisted steel girders, the broken concrete slabs and the many tons of sand that were all that remained of the soon to be completed 10-story of parking lot. The same accident could have taken place when the parking lot was already operational and 300 cars were trapped inside, many people thought to themselves. Then their minds wandered to the parking lots at their own places of work and from there to their apartments and homes, wondering whether their lives were also in danger because of the same kind of shoddy work, lax procedures, cost-cutting corner-cutters and plain old negligence and apathy that were quickly uncovered in the parking lot tragedy.   

Israel, of course, isn’t the only country with industrial mishaps, though the private Coalition Against Construction Accidents claims that Israel’s building industry fares worse than Europe or the U.S. in terms of fatalities per 100,000 people. Many New Yorkers still remember the crane that collapsed on a townhouse in midtown Manhattan in 2008, killing 8. Most Muslims still shudder at the memory of the crane that crumbled in Mecca last year, killing 111, injuring many more and disrupting Saudi relations with a host of other countries. And nothing can compare to the horrendous 2013 collapse of the eight-story Savar building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in which 1129 people were killed and another 2500 rescued from under the ruins. 

A comprehensive survey published by Haaretz on Tuesday listed the top factors contributing to the parking lot disaster, including lack of government oversight, penny pinching construction companies, poor supervision by the Knesset and a general lack of interest by the media, linked, unfortunately, to the fact that the victims of this and other such accidents are either Israeli Arabs, Palestinians from the West Bank or foreign workers. These factors probably hold true in one way or another for most countries, but accidents such as these don’t often strike such a raw national nerve as they do in Israel. At times like these, many Israelis suspect that they are not only a start-up nation but a screw-up nation as well.

The feeling recurs at regular intervals. It last emerged in 2012 when a lighting crane collapsed during rehearsals for the Independence Day ceremonies, killing one soldier and injuring 6 others; a decade earlier, the floor of a Jerusalem wedding hall caved in, killing 23, injuring 300 and producing one of the most horrific YouTube videos you’ll ever see; four years before that, the entire Jewish world was privy to the Israeli angst, after a bridge over the Yarkon River collapsed during the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah, the so-called “Jewish Olympics”, killing four Australian participants.

The late Yitzhak Rabin famously diagnosed the national malady in a 1992 speech to the Israeli army’s Command and Staff College; “One of our burning problems has a first and family name – it’s the saying yihiye beseder  (It’ll be all right). This idiom, which many of us hear daily in Israel, is intolerable. Behind it lurks everything that isn’t beseder (all right): Arrogance and feelings of overconfidence, power and privilege that have no place in our midst. This yihiye beseder has been accompanying us for many years. It is a symbol of an atmosphere that borders on the irresponsible in many areas of our lives. That yihiye beseder, that chummy tap on the shoulder, that wink of the eye, that assurance “Trust me”, is a sign of a lack of order and discipline, of a professionalism that isn’t there, of an idleness that exists instead. The atmosphere of hafif (carelessness), I am sorry to say, includes many sectors in Israel, not just the army. It devours us. And we have learned the hard way,” Rabin said, alluding to the lack of preparedness for the costly 1973 War, “that when we say ‘it will be all right’ it means quite the opposite.”

This is the flip side, if not the dark side, of the Israeli attributes of creativeness and improvisation that win its battles and propel its programmers and engineers to the forefront of the hi-tech industry. The same tendency to cut corners, take risks, ignore the rules and trust your instincts can be a distinct advantage on the battlefield or in Silicon Valley, but can be dangerous and sometimes deadly in endeavors where plodding and unimaginative discipline is the key to success.

The late and great Israeli satirist Ephraim Kishon wrote a column thirty years ago entitled “This is all there is”, which is the first part of a well-known Israeli maxim “This is all there is, and with this we will win.” Kishon wrote of an imaginary country called “Partachia”, named for the slang word “Partach” imported from Yiddish as well as Russian, which is a household term in Israel for sloppy, slipshod work. “Besides security, nothing interests the Partachi,” Kishon wrote, “except for the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team and Avigdor’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah party. He likes picnics too, as well as cheese, and papers of all kinds. If the Partachi Republic conquered the moon, [instead of the Partachi flag] they’ll find on the moon’s surface an American flag with the Soviet symbol, along with a sports paper, half a bar of butter and 138 empty bottles of Pepsi.”

Israelis recognize this happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care attitude in themselves, and are usually quite proud of it. They tend to look down on play-by-the rules Americans, stickler-for-details Germans, hoity-toity Brits and other disciplined nations. But every once in a while a nasty reminder comes along that improvisation, cutting corners and ad-libbing exact a price, and it can be deadly. In such moments, Israelis swell with righteous indignation, swear to change their slapdash ways, but then something else inevitably comes along, and they forget, until the next catastrophe.