Youth take a memorable stand for social advocacy

Reporter's Notebook: A visit to "Boulevard If I Were a Rothschild"; indeed, the “tent cities” of Israel, circa summer 2011, have made history.

Rothschild Tents 311 (photo credit: Linda Epstein)
Rothschild Tents 311
(photo credit: Linda Epstein)
The mood was definitely upbeat, without being over the top. It began small and local in Tel Aviv, and has now spread to any number of cities – big and small – throughout Israel, including in Kiryat Gat (Chicago’s Partnership city in the northern Negev).
Indeed, the “tent cities” of Israel, circa summer 2011, have made history.
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Rothschild Boulevard’s original encampment in Tel Aviv Thursday evening still spread over several blocks. Some people were cooking in makeshift kitchens; others were hanging laundry.
In the “living rooms” which had been set up, some were giving lectures on everything from “What is a social revolution?” (at the self-titled “School of Revolution”), to “What are your rights as a parent vis a vis the education of your children?” There is a library, a small wading pool for children and posters everywhere proclaiming such things as “Che and Stalin are not our symbols – Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are!” and “RevoluZion.”
While various countries surrounding Israel enjoyed their “Arab Spring,” Israel itself is undergoing its summer of discontent.
It’s neither uncommon nor surprising for Israel to focus primarily on security issues. Yet it is no surprise either that there would be an eruption around social issues at some point for anyone who was paying attention.
For the last few years, the statistics in Israel show that the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown exponentially.
Israel was accepted during the last year into the OECD; and as soon as that happened, it became clear that it is low on all charts relating to social issues.
It’s true that the overall economy of Israel is robust. Unemployment is relatively low, officially – but as with hidden school dropouts, the number of working poor is quite large.
The minimum wage is NIS 4,100 a month (just under $15,000 a year); but taxes are very high – including a VAT of 16 percent on all goods and services. If you need a lawyer, you pay 16% to the government – on top of the cost of the service itself. When you go to the grocery store, all food includes the 16% VAT.
Education is supposed to be free from K-12, but the families have to buy their children’s text books. If you want your child to participate in a school’s year-end trip, and you are earning the minimum wage, it’s simply not possible.
This summer of discontent began with the middle class in Tel Aviv, who are tired and frustrated that they are primarily the ones who pay taxes, do reserve duty in the army, etc., yet cannot save enough to even begin to think about buying their first home. They can barely pay the rent.
The good news is that the participants are using their artistic creativity and sense of humor.
There are two tents on top of each other with a sign reading: “A duplex on Rothschild – If you’re going to dream, dream all the way!” There’s also a freestanding “home” built on the boulevard with a door-handle, a peephole and a bell to ring – but no door. There’s even a segment of the tent city with a sign reading “Ministry of Street Culture” – not to mention the sign which reads: “Boulevard If I Were a Rothschild.”
And this week’s Time Out magazine for Tel Aviv, which lists everything that’s happening in the city, has a cover reading: “We’re still optimistic.”
So what’s the best part of it all? I think it’s the fact that these people – who give so much of themselves to this country – are looking to improve the quality of life for the have-nots, and they are using the only tools they have to do so: their creativity and passion.
In short – they care about the future of Israel. As one sign read: “Justice; Not Charity!
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