Beit Shemesh tent city - Olivier Fitoussi - August 8 2011
Residents of the Beit Shemesh in their tent city, August 8, 2011. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
Text size

When the residents of the protest encampment in the center of Beit Shemesh talk among themselves or to their guests, in the heat of the conversation, their fingers point southward, in the direction of Ramat Beit Shemesh and the extensive tracts of land that have already absorbed tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox families and are slated to take in more.

Another 20,000 housing units for ultra-Orthodox families are being built in the area, so the fingers that are being pointed southward are being pointed in anger.

Here, the people speak of the high cost of living, but they are also demanding political-sectorial equality. "What is happening in Beit Shemesh is an expulsion," they say. "This is a protest by people who love the place and want to live here, but we are not being given a chance. Where will our children live? Everything is going to the Haredim."

Beit Shemesh hasn't reached a boiling point like this in a long time. Like elsewhere in the country, here, too, large sections of the public are taking to the streets with the sense that they have been left behind, cut off and silenced.

But here, the situation is complex and local, and so it was strange to hear the protest encampment residents expressing solidarity with their compatriots in Tel Aviv.

"We're with them," said one, while encampment founder Motti Cohen added: "God sent Daphni Leef to us. True, she doesn't understand the root cause of the distress. So what does she understand? She understands Facebook. She was our emissary."

So why is the Beit Shemesh story an unusual one? Here, it is a protest of Likud members and it is being directed at the Likud and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the deal he cut with Shas and United Torah Judaism. According to the protesters, thanks to the trinity of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Housing Minister Ariel Atias and Mayor Moshe Abutbul, Beit Shemesh is encouraging internal migration for the Haredim, but is not doing anything to help the city's veteran residents and founders, thus creating a enormous housing problem.

They speak here about the cost of living, but they do not let go of the political issue too; and the fact that the encampment is filled with Israeli flags takes on a different meaning here than elsewhere.

"Beit Shemesh has been and will always be Zionist," read the t-shirts of the tent residents.

The Beit Shemesh encampment is now being run by a group of young secular residents of the city, partly in an effort to downplay the role of the members of the municipal opposition who set up the tents, including Motti Cohen.

Officially, everyone now says that "the encampment has nothing to do with politics," which makes it easier for Mayor Abutbul to tell Haaretz that he welcomes and supports the tent protest.

But Abutbul insists that he is building for the secular population too. "The Haredi public is screwed and has nothing," he says. "It too has to deal on an equal footing with the difficulties and suffers more. Because when it comes to the public at large, we are talking about families with one or two children and a cat or dog. When it comes to the Haredim, you are talking about 18 children who are not funded by anyone."

The driving force behind the encampment is Eli Vanunu, a long-time member of the Likud Central Committee. "Here too, as is the case with all the people of Israel, there is a problem with housing and social justice; but we don't have a problem with overcrowding," he says.

"Beit Shemesh could and should have been the solution to the housing distress in the center of the country," Vanunu continues. "There is an abundance of land here, but everything goes to the Haredim. Our children have no chance of living in Beit Shemesh. There is a program to turn the city into an ultra-Orthodox city."

Some of the tent residents here fall into the lower-middle-class bracket. Oren Asraf was born in Beit Shemesh 37 years ago, and still lives here with his wife and two children. He's a sanitation worker at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, where he earns a net salary of NIS 6,000 a month, including night shifts and weekends. He and his family live in what he calls a "non-apartment" - two rooms under a private home, with just a single window and price tag of NIS 2,500 a month.

Despite the living conditions for his family, Asraf still believes he is better off than if the family was living with his parents, as they did for a long time before.

"My father grew up in an immigrant encampment," he says. "His situation was a lot better than mine. At a young age, he managed to acquire an apartment in Beit Shemesh. I am almost 40, and I have no chance of buying here."