For nonsmokers, Israels no promised land

tel aviv | Sabra, an asthmatic from Tel Aviv, was at a nightclub enjoying live music when the man seated next to her lit up a cigarette.

Unable to breathe and unable to speak over the loud music, Sabra gestured to the man to let him know that the smoke was bothering her. The man responded by turning toward Sabra and blowing smoke directly in her face.

That’s when Sabra punched him.

Sabra, who asked that her last name not be used, is one of countless Israelis convinced that Israel is a staunchly pro-smoking society and that asking law-enforcement authorities to enforce anti-smoking laws is an exercise in futility.

In shopping malls, banks and airports, many — even law-enforcement officials — flaunt clearly posted no-smoking rules.

Jerusalemite Charlotte Herman recalls talking to a guard at the Interior Ministry who was smoking directly beneath a no-smoking sign.

“When I showed him the sign, he claimed it referred to the 1-inch space beneath it,” Herman says. “He said that where he was standing, a couple of inches away, smoking was allowed.”

The battle between smokers and nonsmokers has become so heated in Israel that fisticuffs sometimes occur.

Dov Rabinowitz, director of the national committee against public smoking, Ma’avak B’Tabak (Struggle Against Tobacco), recalls an incident in which a doctor was attacked after asking a hospital visitor not to smoke.

According to Israel’s Health Ministry, almost 30 percent of Israelis are smokers; in development towns, which typically are poorer, the number is closer to 50 percent. Between 8,000 and 11,000 Israelis die each year from causes directly related to smoking, and about 1,000 to 1,500 are killed by secondhand smoke.

Officially, Israeli law mandates that all places of employment — including stores, movie theaters and cafes — must post signs informing customers that smoking is not allowed. Business owners may create designated smoking areas that take up no more than one-quarter of the business area. Businesses and customers flaunting the rules may be fined.

Smokers insist that anti-smoking laws are enforced every day all around them.

“This law has turned smokers into a persecuted minority,” cries Angela Ben Tsvi, waving her cigarette as she speaks. “It violates my personal rights. It violates my right to free expression. I feel like a criminal when I smoke in a cafe. I always have to look around me to see if I can light up. It’s very unpleasant.”

Ruth Ben David agrees.

“I enjoy holding a cigarette in my hand,” she says, smoking outdoors at Tel Aviv’s Espresso Bar. “I enjoy the nicotine and I enjoy the inhalation. If I pay $20 for lunch, I want to enjoy it. I want to be able to smoke my cigarette and finish it. I shouldn’t be denied that right.”

Ben David complains that she is forced outside during hot summers and cold winters if she wants to light up.

Rinat Laufmann, another smoker at Espresso Bar, says businesses should choose whether to allow smoking or whether to be entirely smoke-free, allowing smokers to choose which establishments to patronize.

Mati Gudiner, one of many smokers enjoying a cigarette at a cafe at Dizengoff Center, a popular Tel Aviv mall, asked the waitress if smoking was permitted before she lit up at a table in the mall’s walkway.

“I guess they just don’t really care” about irritating nonsmokers, Gudiner says, gesturing around her. “Case in point: ashtrays on all the tables.”

Though she is a smoker, Gudiner says the government needs to insist on enforcing the anti-smoking law.

“I think it’s just an issue of getting used to it, as with every new thing,” she says. “It’s difficult to introduce this law after people were allowed to smoke for so long. It was the same in New York and in Sydney. It was hard; people were used to smoking. But as soon as they made it a law, there was nothing to do about it.”