Peres to housing protesters: Your cause is legitimate

Activists say they will continue to live in tents until there is concrete action.

Peres and housing protest leaders_311 (photo credit: President's Office)
Peres and housing protest leaders_311
(photo credit: President's Office)
Leading student and tent city activists who are united in their protests about the high cost of living and the unavailability of affordable housing have found a champion in President Shimon Peres.
The president who invited them to Beit Hanassi on Monday to learn firsthand about what was bothering them.
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At the conclusion of the meeting, Regev Contes, a director of documentary films, told reporters: “We felt like orphans before we came.
Now we don’t, because the president has encouraged us to continue with what we are doing.”
“No one of that status has ever looked me straight in the eye before,” said Daphni Leef, one of the tent city activists, who made it clear that while she has consistently been in the forefront of the protest movement, “I speak as one of the people and not as a representative of the people.”
Though boosted in spirit by their meeting with Peres, no one in the delegation believed that the situation would change overnight or even within a week or a month.
Peres had impressed on them the urgency to sit down at a roundtable with government representatives, employers and economists to discuss the overall situation and arrive at a new national agenda.
“We haven’t seen anything concrete or operative, and until we do, we will continue to live in tents and to hold communal Shabbat gatherings,” said Leef.
The sentiment was shared by Stav Shaffir, one of the most prominent of the tent city activists, who said: “Talk is nothing more than talk. We have to get beyond it.”
At the start of the meeting, Students Association President Itzik Shmuly said: “We are demonstrating in the streets because we love our country and we want Israel to be our home. We want to build a better future for ourselves and for everyone else in Israel. Some of our friends are leaving to live elsewhere. We don’t want to do that. We have respect for state institutions and for the government.”
The demonstrators have no personal or political agendas, he said. They just want to persuade the government not to look at people in terms of statistics, but as human faces and to formulate economic policy on a more humane basis.
The invitation from Peres had been inspiring, Shmuly said, because Peres is known to be a man of vision and a man who achieves breakthroughs.
“You are an example for us, and you have given us the thrust to progress in the direction that we are seeking,” Shmuly said.
In welcoming the delegation, Peres told them that they were doing the right thing.
“I believe in you,” he said.
“I think what you’re doing is sincere and important. I think the public was surprised by the seriousness and huge size of the problem.” He also commended the demonstrators for the overall civilized behavior and lack of violence.
Leef made the point that almost everyone who reports on the demonstrations refers to the middle income bracket, “but we also care about other sectors of society, particularly the weaker socioeconomic sectors. We have to put the focus on people, because people are the state – and we have to learn to talk to each other.”
If anyone has learned that every cloud has a silver lining, it’s the tent city activists.
“In the last two-and-a-half weeks I learned a tremendous lesson about how to put other agendas aside and to sit together in a tent, Jews and Arabs, Right and Left, religious and secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, affluent and poor,” said Shaffir.
There are great dreams among the people about what the state should be, she continued.
Because Israel was always so preoccupied with war and peace, she said, it was almost embarrassing to talk something as mundane as a home. “If we can learn to decide what we want and where we want to live, all the other problems will sort themselves out,” she declared optimistically.
Turning directly to Peres, she said: “We want your help and that of the public to make that dream a reality.”
Peres was completely in favor of revamping economic policy, whereby government income would be disbursed in a manner that would benefit the quality of life of the population.
He also emphasized that round-table discussions should be in the nature of dialogue and not negotiations.
It was imperative, he said, to delve deeply into the problems and to understand them, and there has to be goodwill on all sides.
“We have to find solutions as quickly as possible,” he said.
Shaffir told reporters later that there have to be dramatic policy changes with regard to education, health, housing, quality of life and whole lot of other issues.
While she and all the others were ready to immediately sit and down at a roundtable, they were all aware that it entailed much more than merely stating the facts.
“First we have to build a renewal of confidence,” said Leef.