A modern day Pesach story – free checking!

April 14, 2011 by

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For years, one terrible aspect of Israeli society has towered above the others as the most annoying, disgusting, frustrating and downright outrageous. I speak, dear reader, not of racial intolerance, not of environmental laziness, nor even of peace-process-disingenuity. No, the topic of this blog is much, much worse than any of these, which by comparison may be forgiven as mere… oversights. I speak here of bank charges.

“Free checking”. The phrase will be familiar and unremarkable to all American readers, and, appropriately translated, to British ones too. It works like this: I give the bank some of my money. As long as my account is in credit, I let the bank do whatever it likes with that money of mine: it can lend it to other people and charge them interest; it can invest it; it can stuff it under its mattress for all I care, but the key point is that it doesn’t charge me for that privilege. I give you my money, you don’t charge me for basic services.

In Israel, there has, until recently, been no such thing as free checking. The bank charges you for depositing money, for withdrawing money, sometimes even for checking your balance… and for pretty much anything else you want to do. How my blood used to boil every time the ATM machine said “this transaction entails a charge of 65 agorot”, and every time my monthly bank statement contained a line for “maintenance charges”. Why?, I would shout at the ATM screen. It’s my money! You’ve been playing with it. Why am I paying you for the privilege? This was good neither for my blood pressure nor for the nerves of the person standing behind me in the line.

The astute reader will have noticed, though, the use of the past tense in that previous paragraph. In recent months, one particular bank, Bank Yahav, has started advertising… my fingers tremble even as I type… Israeli checking accounts without charges. At first, I dismissed these ads. It had to be some kind of right-wing conspiracy, some kind of Im Tirtzu gambit to smoke out all the liberal Israelis who have higher-than-average expectations of customer service. But one day, I ambled into the local branch of Bank Yahav, asked some questions, checked the small print… and made a fateful decision: I was going to switch banks. I was going to free myself from slavery to Israeli bank charges.

There was some paperwork, and the process took a little longer than expected, but that’s not the point of this blog. The point of this blog is the phone conversation I had with my old bank when I told them that I had opened a checking account with a different bank, and that I wished to close my account with them.

They weren’t happy.

Why didn’t you speak to us first, they said. We would have tried to match our competitor’s rates. With all due respect, I said, I’ve been your customer for several years, and I have often asked if you offered a free checking product, and always been told no. But that was before you threatened to leave us, they said. I’m not threatening, I said. I’ve opened the other account. I’ve transferred my salary payments and direct deposits and standing orders. It’s over. But there’s no such thing in Israel as free checking, they said. The other bank is playing a bait and switch game. It’s true, I replied, that their commitment to free checking is only for the first three years. But now that I’ve discovered how easy it is to switch banks, I’ll be happy to move again if they don’t continue the deal thereafter. They won’t continue it, they said, and repeated: there’s no such thing in Israel as free checking. “Ein davar kazeh”.

And here was where the Zionist muse struck me.

“You know something”, I said, “you’re right that until now there hasn’t been free checking in Israel. So I view my actions now as a Zionist act. By leaving you, and moving to Bank Yahav, I am building the Jewish state. I am doing a profoundly Zionist deed. I am doing one small thing to improve Israeli society. Please God others will do the same as me, and if enough of us leave the banks like you and move to Bank Yahav, then eventually all the banks will follow suit, and the result will be that Israel will be a better society in one small way. This is an act of self-determination and national liberation. Please pass that message on to your supervisors.”

The bank representative had no answer, and agreed to mail me the forms to close my account.

As I hung up, my wife, who had been listening in, said to me: “You enjoyed that, didn’t you?”

I did. Oh, I did. Here’s to a Pesach with all kinds of freedoms. Chag Sameach!

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