Uncertain future: The final pitch

The dozens of homeless people who took up shelter in what remained of Rothschild tent city faced a grim reality on what for most Jews is a joyous occasion.

By
October 6, 2011 16:08
Rosh Hashana meal on Rothschild

Rothschild meal 521. (photo credit: Ariel Zilber)

Yosef Gurfinkel is no stranger to evictions.

Having been homeless for nearly 20 years, he is well-accustomed to wandering the streets in search of his next transient sanctuary.

As the quiet hush brought on by the Rosh Hashana holiday descends on the southern tip of Rothschild Boulevard, the bespectacled, orange-bearded 58-year-old Ukraine native with a massive silver necklace protruding from his grimy denim jacket ponders his next move.

Days earlier, the leaders of the social tent protest reached a compromise with the Tel Aviv Municipality, agreeing to vacate the boulevard whence Israel’s largest civic uprising sprang this past summer. The municipality enforced the eviction on Monday.

Gurfinkel came to the Rothschild tent city after he was forced out of an abandoned building on Dov Hos Street that served as his temporary quarters.

Ironically, it was students and social protesters occupying the building that prompted police to evacuate not only them, but the other squatters on the premises.

“It was real convenient there,” recalled Gurfinkel, who slept in the building’s outdoor courtyard. “I’d get a nice shade in the afternoon whenever it was sunny outside. There was a nice cool breeze there. I lived there intermittently for eight years, but in the past year I was there all the time.”

“There’s a cat who I’ve been feeding for the last four years that I left behind,” he said. “I belong to that place. Now the only thing I have left is this tent city.

I went to the welfare authorities and asked for help.

They told me to come back in six months, but I can’t wait another six months. I’ve been in the system for years, but I’m still on the street. Aside from this tent city, I have nowhere else to go. It’s that simple.”

“I hope that the tents continue to be put up somewhere,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind living in a caravan in Hayarkon Park, something like that.”

Gurfinkel said he was one of the homeless activists who lived for two years in a bus as part of the “Bread Square” protest movement, which was launched in response to government cuts in welfare services. He said he is unable to work due to an injury he sustained years ago which left him with multiple bone fractures in his ankle.

For years, he survived on food he picked out of garbage cans containing leftovers from supermarkets and restaurants. As he enjoyed what was most likely one of his last meals on Rothschild – a plate of halla, Turkish salad, humous and diced salad – Gurfinkel hardly relishes the prospect of returning to the life of street nomad.

“As a homeless person, you can reach a point of no return,” he said. “For someone who has lived for so many years on the streets, you can get to a situation where you can’t live in a home anymore. Even if I would somehow get housing, I would still feel that something is missing.”

To the dozens of homeless people who have taken up shelter in what remains of the Rothschild tent city, the echoes of the large-scale rallies on Kaplan Street and Hamedina Square – and the shock waves that reverberated throughout Israeli society these past eight weeks – are but a distant memory. Instead, the grim reality of an uncertain future stares them in the face on a night that for most Jews is a joyous occasion.

“I opened up my home to these folks, I allowed them to take showers in my house,” said Daniel Efrati, an activist with the protest movement who spent Rosh Hashana dinner with a group of volunteers who banded together to feed the tent denizens. “I was here from the first moment, and now I feel that this is the last moment because on Sunday we’re going to have to clear out of here.”

“Those who don’t have a home will continue to wander the streets,” he said. “It’s sad. I tell all my friends that the tent cities are a means, not an end.

They are a means to attain social justice. The people in the tents now aren’t the ones who are there just to make a political statement. They have nowhere else to sleep at night. In the winter, they are going to be in real trouble.”

Efrati said that there are between 70 and 80 homeless people who have remained in the tents at Rothschild. The tent cities in Petah Tikva and Jaffa will remain standing until November 1, and a source within the movement said that informal discussions are ongoing between the municipality and the protest leaders regarding the possibility of allowing the tent dwellers on Rothschild to relocate to a temporary tent that would be pitched in the public park opposite the central railway station.

At the Rothschild tent city, the talk among the activists centered on the dissension that has been evident within the protest leadership. According to a well-placed source, there is a disagreement among the movement’s brain trust regarding the most effective methods of protest in the post-tent era. While the mainstream J14 organization headed by the more recognizable faces of this past summer’s events – Daphni Leef, Stav Shafir and Regev Contes – favors a more moderate course of action that stresses dialogue and cooperation, a radical stream headed by YairOlmert, Yigal Cohen and Yigal Rambam is calling for more drastic measures, like general strikes, boycotts of companies and shunning all contact with government officials.

“There’s no argument [within the movement] about what the ultimate goal is,” a source within the radical wing said. “Everyone wants a welfare state. There isn’t a split in the protest movement, but there is disagreement as to the tactics that need to be used. There are two different groups, and our group says that events like the roundtable discussions, the Social Congress, the whole sitting-together-and-drinking-coffee thing, and hearing lectures from intellectuals is not the way to wage a revolution. We need to be more militant. Again, nobody is talking about resorting to violence. There are many other ways that are much more effective than roundtables.”

A teacher who has authored numerous books on philosophy, Efrati counts himself among the more militant advocates of social democracy. Yet he dismisses talk of a “split” within the movement, instead preferring to focus on the gains made in the last two months as well as the wall-to-wall opposition to the Trajtenberg Committee recommendations.

“The arguments are less about ideology,” Efrati said.

“Everybody thinks that the Trajtenberg Committee report is insufficient, and it does not address the problems because on a technical level it does not demand that the government exceed its budgetary framework. All the changes that the committee is proposing are simply within the framework of the current budget.”

When asked if the protest leaders who have attracted the most media attention over the summer could have done more to raise greater awareness of the plight of the homeless, Efrati replied that this was indeed the case, although the reason, he said, could be found in the movement’s agenda.

“Listen, from their standpoint, the protest was a vehicle that sought to appeal to a mass audience, so they brought in the middle class,” he said. “It was less focused on the lower class. There were always arguments among the leadership about this issue.
They had to wrestle with the question: ‘Where do we put a greater emphasis, on the middle class, or on the lower classes?’ It’s not a pleasant thing to say, but those who really are in need are left in the end with nothing.”

On a brighter note, Efrati hailed the recent police raid of the corporate offices of dairy giant Tnuva, a development he said directly stemmed from the boycott of overpriced cottage cheese and the subsequent boycott which was declared. Last week, anti-trust authorities summoned two of the company’s top executives for questioning over their alleged failure to turn over financial data relating to its monopolistic activities, and on Sunday chairwoman Zehavit Cohen resigned.

“The antitrust authorities knew what was going on, but they didn’t have the desire or the manpower to open up a real investigation,” he said last week.

“Because of the public pressure, there is an investigation that could lead to criminal charges.”

According to Efrati, the next phase of the protest movement involves reaching out to the younger generation. Volunteers are considering the possibility of pitching information tents near schools so that children could learn more about the protest and its goals. This strategy is part and parcel of what Efrati said is the lasting legacy of the movement.

“What happened here is that the ethos in Israeli society has changed,” he said. “In the past, young people would often identify with the tycoon, the maniak [‘bastard’]. Everyone wanted to study economics, earn an MBA, and try to cheat everyone so that they themselves can become tycoons. Today, it’s changed. Now there’s a whole new ethos among the youth. This is a success that is a direct result of the protest, and it will endure.”


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