Growing pains in Tel Aviv's tent city

A once-spontaneous, freedom-loving protest movement is discovering the need to confront reality

Tent city protest 521 (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Tent city protest 521
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Several entrepreneurs have realized that Tel Aviv’s tent city – set up by people protesting the country’s lack of affordable housing – represents an opportunity to promote their own agenda. One man hands out a local Tel Aviv magazine and Time Out is also there distributing its publication. Nestea is handing out new versions of its “Spring Tea,” with two pretty girls and a young guy running around to promote it. Each time they give out the tea to the unwashed protesters sitting in their tents, the young man photographs the “incident” on a Tablet computer while the two girls smile beside the recipient of the free tea.
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A LOCAL author has also set up a booth with a poster advertising “Joseph Blau’s house is an authentic artists workshop that conveys to the visitor the amazing story of Joseph Blau.” Ayalim, an organization founded in 2002 by former IDF soldiers to promote the development and settlement of the Negev and Galilee, has also come. Boaz Golan, the skinny affable chairman of the organization’s youth planning section, explains that they are offering practical solutions, proposing to build 10,000 homes in small communities in the north and south of Israel.
“We are a Zionist organization that came here today and set up a booth.
We have worked for eight years and have 700 people currently in our communities. We saw the pluralism [here] and wanted to show the people we are working for something concrete and practical, morning to night.”
As evidence of the support they have gotten from the crowd there is a whole box of flyers filled out by those interested in supporting the organization.
Ayalim arrived at the protest on Thursday, July 21, and is still there on the 25th. Boaz has gone off to reserve duty but his colleague Yakir is busy trying to get students interested in their initiative.
A lot has changed since the first protesters arrived outside the Habimah Theater at the end of Tel Aviv’s Sderot Rothschild earlier this month and began protesting the increase in rental prices.
Aya, 25, a backpacker from Haifa who does not want her last name printed, recalls that she came on July 15. “Since then, we have got people donating food, and there are celebrities that come. I don’t like that aspect,” she says, “but a lot of people do.”
Shai, 24, from Ramat Gan, thinks that “It only grows, every day I see new tents and new people. It grows and grows, you can see it; once it went just to the [traffic] light [at Rothschild and Hashmonaim], now it goes on for another 100 meters.”
By July 26 the tent city that has been constructed on Sderot Rothschild ran from the theater all the way to the junction with Rehov Nahmani. With more than 200 tents, its population was more than 300, or more people. By Monday the city has grown further. Noam Weitznur, spokesman for the National Union of Israeli Students (NUIS), says the number of people present may number more than 2,000.
“It is hard to know exactly, but what I’ve seen is that it is growing every day. There is a slight lull today [July 25] because a lot of people have gone to Jerusalem today specifically to put concentrated pressure on the government to change the laws related to housing.”
About 1,000 protesters arrived in Jerusalem on Monday and vowed to stay on either outside the Knesset or on King George Avenue.
There are a lot of technical aspects to the reality of having 1,000 people living in a park that forms the median of a public boulevard. In the beginning, the protesters used the theater’s bathrooms, or those at nearby restaurants, but now the city has provided more than a dozen portable toilets. The changes the once-spontaneous protest is undergoing are obvious from the growing pains and innovations the movement is experiencing.
The first thing that strikes a visitor is the level of development. A series of tables have been formed into a large square, and the inside of the square has become a “food mill,” or communal kitchen. Except it isn’t exactly communal. Self-appointed leaders and volunteers fill out a weekly sheet.
Adi Peled, who doesn’t define herself as being in charge but whose presence clearly dominates the cooking area, describes the process: “We do four meals a day – Continental breakfast, lunch, supper and dinner.
One shift consists of six people, and there are three shifts a day. We serve a variety of food, including a vegetarian and vegan option. Very few people request kosher, although one of our volunteers is religious – but she is OK with our kitchen’s standards.
“We feed about 200 people at a meal. We get more people in the evening.” At 6 o’clock one evening, however, only a few dozen people are milling around. The food consists of a large trough of pasta with pesto sauce, and a salad.
The kitchen seems to present one of the typical obstacles one finds when a freedom- loving protest movement confronts reality. And in this, it is symbolic of the protest as a whole.
The stratification of the work, the falling back on administrative order, separates the kitchen from the rest of the people. Outsiders are not permitted into the square formed by the tables.
One agitated man, who seems to have been a former volunteer, shouts at the people: “This is a private mafia.” He is quietly taken aside by serious men who seem to have appointed themselves a sort of community security detail.
SO ISRAEL’S habits replicate themselves.
There is a sort of flavor of Israel-in-India, with the mats, ruined couches, tents and grubby people, and there is some sort of leftover culture borrowed from the army and the kibbutz. The movement also appears to be operating at two poles of Sderot Rothschild. At one end is the original tent of activists with a placard of Israel showing where other protests are erupting: Jerusalem, Beersheba, Haifa, Kiryat Shmona and elsewhere. (The map, it should be noted, does not include a Green Line, so one can’t accuse the organizers of being overly political, or from the radical Left.) The “leaders” of the movement are too busy to interact with the people, blogging on their computer and organizing signature-drive sheets.
At the other end of Rothschild, a half-kilometer away, is another large command-and-control tent staffed by members of the NUIS. Itzik Shmueli is there, hunched over his computer, taking multiple calls, giving interviews to Army Radio and other media. A diminutive man who keeps his shoulders hunched, he is the chairman of the NUIS. “We represent 300,000 students throughout the country.
Since last Friday, when the National Union joined the protests, the student union has come to the struggle for Tel Aviv and the periphery.
“The students are coming from the whole country to stay in tents. The plan is to keep up the fight until the government starts listening.”
The NUIS tent is cleaner and more organized and hi-tech than the original HQ tent. Its staff wear matching shirts. Piles of flags and banners with uniform protest quotes lie around the perimeter.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the NUIS tent is so far away from the communal kitchen and the original protest tents. There is a need to segment the protest, for each “leader” to take credit.
The people around the NUIS tent are making banners and are sure where the leadership is. Shai Bechor, a student at Bar-Ilan University who lives in Ramat Gan, is one example.
“I can take you to the leaders if you want… I came here because I think it is a just struggle. People in Israel need to see it is possible to find an apartment to buy or rent. It is very hard now, and not everyone can afford it, and it scares us… In the last three years, apartment costs have increased by 50 percent, but wages have not gone up nearly as much.”
The central problem with the protest has been its inability to come up with concrete requests, besides abstract notions such as “we’re sick of this!” which was the motto of Sunday’s Jerusalem march. Some of the protesters, like Aya, speak about bringing down the government.
“Here we started talking about making the government quit. In the beginning they weren’t sure they could say that, and now they are saying it, and then after that they said one of us should go for it.”
But many of the others are careful to distance themselves from politics and focus only on the cause of housing costs. Eschewing notions that the protest is only about Tel Aviv, Shmueli, Bechor and others speak about the “periphery” and the idea that the protesters desire more than to simply have affordable housing in expensive North Tel Aviv.
As the sun dips towards the horizon, the protest goes on. Aya, using a bullhorn, relates her experience of living in a tent throughout the country.
A few unbalanced individuals, attracted by the crowds or the free food, get into arguments. A Filipino woman sits with an elderly woman on a bench. Neither has an opinion on what they are witnessing. Across the street near the Habimah, some border policemen are watering their horses, as if before battle.
But it doesn’t seem that the city is intent on removing the protest just yet; the police are just there in case of disturbances during the nightly mini-concerts.
On Saturday night a large demonstration estimated at 10,000 people led to altercations with police and several arrests. Down at Dizengoff Center, about 800 meters away, life goes on as normal. Israeli high-school kids wearing the latest fashions flock to the movies. A woman named Inbal pushing her sleeping daughter up Rehov Dizengoff says, “I support this struggle.
My family is from Tel Aviv, and we have witnessed the increased prices. If it weren’t for my daughter, I would be there with those people in the tents.”
A kilometer in the other direction, near Levinsky Park and the Central Bus Station, people, mostly foreign refugees, are also sleeping in a park.
No politicians are visiting them.
Nearby on Rehov Yesud Hama’ala, a store advertises rental properties for NIS 2,000 to NIS 4,000 for multiple rooms. What about the protest? “No comment,” replies the aggressive owner, busy signing leases with what appear to be two foreign workers.