Monday, October 19, 2009

Two Encounters

Earlier this evening, I went to visit a friend of mine at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. (It was a fairly routine procedure, and she’s fine, thank God.)

Since I hadn’t been to Hadassah Ein Kerem in quite some time, I decided to take a look at the new shopping center for a few minutes before I went to see my friend. I walked down the hallway, looking at the stores and restaurants and browsing. Suddenly, I smelled cigarette smoke. When I looked to see where it was coming from, I saw a woman sitting and smoking at a table at the end of the hall. A no-smoking sign was on the wall behind her just a few feet away.

I approached her and asked her either to smoke elsewhere or put out her cigarette. “This is a hospital complex,” I told her. “Smoking isn’t allowed here.”

She answered, “This isn’t a hospital. It’s a mall.”

“Smoking isn’t allowed in malls either,” I told her. “Besides, there’s a sign right behind you. I have to walk through here on my way into the hospital, and your smoke is making it hard for me to breathe.”

Her response: “Then don’t stand here.”

I shrugged and nodded, then slowly took out my cellphone. In these parts, a cellphone means a camera. When the woman saw what I was doing, she did a rapid disappearing act.

(I still intend to report the incident to the municipal inspection department—which, I am happy to report, now has inspectors in civilian clothes instead of in uniform. In any case, just a few moments after the woman fled my camera, a boy in a wheelchair who looked quite ill and was connected to an IV was wheeled through the area where she had been smoking seconds before.)

After my visit, I went back into the mall on my way outside and decided to stop in at another shop. As I browsed, I smelled cigarette smoke once again. When I looked to see where it was coming from, I saw a young man leaning over the counter, talking to the saleswoman. His right hand was at his side, almost behind his back, where the saleswoman couldn’t see it. Between two of his fingers was a lit cigarette.

I approached him and said, “Would you mind putting your cigarette out or going outside? The smoke is really bothering me.”

The saleswoman, a young Israeli woman, stared at the young man with whom she had been having a pleasant conversation just a moment before. “What?!” she shouted at him. “You’re standing here with a lit cigarette in your hand? What’s wrong with you? Get that cigarette out of here right now!”

And he fled.

Throughout the almost eighteen years that I have lived in Israel, when I’ve asked people to put out their cigarettes or smoke elsewhere, I’ve received responses that range from understanding to grudging cooperation to outright mockery. On occasion, one smoker has said to another, laughing, “Asur la’ashen! Smoking isn’t allowed here!” as they kept on smoking. Or they’ve turned to me in annoyance and said, “Look, lady, this isn’t America!”

But there was no mockery whatsoever in this young woman’s reaction. She was genuinely upset, angry, outraged. I think that this was the first time I had ever seen an Israeli react so strongly against smoking. For one utterly bizarre moment, I wondered whether I was looking at a younger, blonde, native-born Israeli version of myself.

As these thoughts went through my mind, the saleswoman turned to her companion, another saleswoman in the shop, and said, “Can you believe that? The nerve! Unbelievable! He was smoking, right here in the store!”

Then she turned to me and said, “Thank you for noticing that he had a lit cigarette in his hand.”

“No problem,” I said, and made my purchase, still pleasantly surprised by the reaction I’d seen.

It’s nice to see that opposition to smoking in public places isn’t just for Americans anymore.

(For anyone who may be interested, here is a link to the website of Avir Naki [clean air], an Israeli anti-tobacco group. One of its goals is to enable citizens to take legal action against violations of the laws against smoking in public places and workplaces. The site, which is in Hebrew, includes the texts of the relevant laws and a great deal of pertinent advice. It also includes a form that one may use to report violations, as well as up-to-date lists of the relevant officials at the national and local levels. I have found Avir Naki extremely helpful.)

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