Stop! Before you put that backpack down for a second… don’t.
Israelis are, shall we say, just a little bit touchy about unattended luggage, purses, backpacks, of any kind.
Leave it alone for more than a few seconds and it’s automatically reclassified. It’s no longer your stuff… it becomes a חֵפֶץ חָשׁוּד / chafetz chashud = suspicious object. And that is something everyone here takes very, very seriously.
Here is the entire Kotel / Western Wall complex shut down because of a chafetz chashud:
Can you spot it in this picture?
Some moron put down a backpack and walked away… and the entire place had to be evacuated.
When you do leave something behind by accident, Israelis are very vigilant. It starts so quietly you might not notice, but the reaction is almost immediate: “Whose bag is this?”
If it’s your bag, you’d better claim it, and fast, because soon enough, everybody will be chiming in trying to figure out which dummy has left a potentially suspicious object lying around.
Ultimately, the chain of inquiry can lead to your bag being exploded for you, although this is a fairly rare occurrence.
In the science museum last year, I left a backpack on the floor while I walked about six feet away to the other side of the (very small) room. It only took about fifteen seconds for someone to spot my bag and start the call: “Whose bag is this?”
Luckily, I claimed it right away before things could get out of hand. No exploding necessary.
Unlike the dummy that day at the Kotel.
First, they cleared everybody out of the place. Then, a police car drove up, and a cop had to get out and approach the chafetz chashud. That’s his job, and I imagine it’s not a fun one, one part irritation at tourist idiots and their backpacks and one part terror that the next idiot backpack is going to blow up in your face.
In this case, they didn’t have to blow up the backpack. I guess they just examined the contents and discovered that they were harmless enough.
But the ultimate recourse for the chafetz chashud is the bor bitachon / בּוֹר בִּטָּחוֹן = security hole. You see these all over the country, but especially in Yerushalayim and near sensitive sites.
Here’s one in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City:
Borot bitachon (security holes) are locked at all times, and only the police have the key. Apparently (I haven’t verified this myself), they have a robot which puts the chafetz chashud in the bor bitachon, which is lined with concrete and filled with sand to absorb the impact of an explosion.
On every Israeli bus and train, when you get to the last stop, recorded announcements tell you to check carefully and make sure you’ve picked up every last one of your possessions.
Here’s a poster I spotted on a train not long ago:
This is a play on the word “תיק” / teek, which means handbag, purse or backpack (among other things) but is also the sound a ticking bomb makes.
Translation: Big words in blue: "Tik [the hebrew word for bag or backpack] tok, tik, tok..." Middle: "Before you leave, be certain that you didn't forget anything in the train." Fine print at the bottom: "Forgot? Ask the security man on the train."
In other countries, they probably remind you about your stuff as a courtesy. Here, I suspect the message here is mostly for the benefit of the drivers, security staff and ultimately the police who will have to get involved if you leave an item behind. And, potentially, the thousands of other travellers, pedestrians and drivers whose travel plans will have to be rerouted around your suspicious object.
Talk about inconsiderate, right?
So before you put that bag down… don’t. Hold onto it if you can, or give it to someone else to hold. If you do have to set it down somewhere for a second, then whatever you do, don’t walk away. Stay with your bags and be ready to claim them the second someone asks.
It doesn’t have to tick to be suspicious. And a security hole is not where you want your wallet ending up, if you can help it.
After you’ve been here for a while, you may pick this up almost as a sixth sense: the “sense of unattended parcels.” You’ll find yourself scanning the area where you’re standing without even realizing it.
One day, you may even be the one at the bus stop or train station platform demanding, “Whose bag is this?” And you’ll know exactly what to do if no-one answers.
But hopefully, someone will answer, a sheepish, out-of-breath or embarrassed Israeli who really ought to know better. And it will all be fine for you, and all of us who live in this slightly on-edge nation. (Can I hear an Amen?)