Editor's Notes: The hopeful homeless

The government must address their grievances in earnest if it wants to prevent their hitherto nonviolent protest from expanding and spinning out of control.

By
August 5, 2011 16:21
Oshrit Ben-David and her son

Oshrit Ben-David and her son. (photo credit: Steve Linde)

 
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The hand-written sign in Hebrew reads, “We’re not interested in changing the government, but in a place to sleep.” It’s hanging on the fence at the entrance to Jerusalem’s Sacher Park – usually a perfect place for picnics – where 19 families have put up tents as part of the growing housing protests across the country.

“We are all homeless,” declares Oshrit Ben-David, 28, a mother of two, sitting in a circle with a dozen protesters. “All we want is to be able to provide security to our children...”

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A teenager interrupts her: “You mean a future for your children.”

“Let me talk,” Ben-David scolds him, taking a long drag off her cigarette. “Our struggle is for the government to give us mortgages with subsidies, to realize our basic right to have a home. This is not a political struggle. It doesn’t matter if Bibi [Binyamin Netanyahu] or Tzipi [Livni] is prime minister.”

A bare-chested Tal Dahan, 34, who works for the Jerusalem Municipality, stands up.

“We all work and most of us are from Jerusalem, but we have reached a situation in which we have taken out more and more loans, and our ‘minus’ [overdraft] is getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “We are law-abiding citizens, but we don’t want to be ignored. We’ve been here for over two weeks, and no one has come to our aid.”

Asked for their opinions about the government’s plan to build more housing and lower apartment prices, Ben-David says, without hesitation: “I haven’t heard any real solutions, and if it’s not immediate, it’s not a solution. We are demanding that they sit down with us, and find out what we need right now.”



“Is this the start of a social revolution?” I ask.

“No,” she replies. “We want to change things, but our demands are not over the top.”

After the massive social protests in cities across the country on Saturday night, in which an estimated 150,000 people participated, I turned on Israel Radio Sunday morning and heard the haunting voice of Tracy Chapman singing “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution.”

The song was aired at the start of a discussion on whether the grassroots protests signaled the start of a socioeconomic revolution in Israel.

The media were quick to determine that these were the largest social protests Israel had ever witnessed, making them “historic.”

In response, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu swiftly announced the formation of an economic roundtable and pushed through what was termed “revolutionary” legislation to ease the housing crisis, but warned against “hasty and populist steps” that could harm the country’s free-market economy.

For their part, the protest leaders formulated a list of sweeping economic demands.

Neri Horowitz, a respected political scientist who today heads the Agora Policy Discussion group, says the current protest movement is significant but does not pose a threat to the government.

“This is a middle-class protest organized via Facebook with a large ‘new-age’ element on one side and cowardly politicians without a clear social policy on the other, so it’s hard to say where it’s going,” Horowitz says. “The protesting public is impatient, so I’m guessing that the government will have to come up with some fast, perhaps populist solutions, to calm them down.”

Without rejecting the possibility that the protests could pick up steam and become more politicized, Horowitz is sorry that neither the government nor the protesters are exploiting the opportunity to come up with any meaningful socioeconomic plan.

“Unfortunately, and here I agree with [Labor MK] Shelly Yacimovich, neither side is using it to formulate a real social policy, such as what Tony Blair did in the UK with his ‘Third Way’ movement [seeking a middle path between capitalism and socialism].”

Horowitz visited the protest tents in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where he spoke with protesters.

“Their demands are not unreasonable,” he says. “My impression is that the state will understand their message and ultimately do the right thing by trying to find some kind of solution.”

Asked if this movement posed a threat to the current government, he replies, matter-of-factly: “I don’t think so. This is a media spin. These are the kind of protests that fade away quickly if the media stop covering them. They don’t threaten the foundation of the system. The protesters are part of an angry middle class who suddenly find themselves without work or homes, and don’t even know how to pose a threat.

“I think housing prices in Israel are too high, and they can easily be lowered by 10 to 20 percent over a period of two or three years. The problem is that the protesters right now are not ready to wait for two or three years.”

The housing protest started, notably, on the upscale Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv last month. And there are still dozens of protesters in tents pitched along the street on which David Ben- Gurion founded the State of Israel 63 years ago.

The young, middle-class protesters on Rothschild were mocked at a recent Likud faction meeting as “sushi-eaters” and “nargila smokers.”

This type of name-calling puts down the protesters unnecessarily.

Clearly, the government must address their grievances in earnest if it wants to prevent their hitherto nonviolent protest from expanding and spinning out of control.

I was struck by a comment made by Daphni Leef, the 25- year-old who initiated the Rothschild encampment on July 14 through an invitation on her Facebook protest page.

Appearing on a TV comedy show a few days ago, she said softly: “We want social justice. Unless we’re taken seriously, we’ll just get bigger and bigger.”

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