In Afula, Socrates Walks Among the Tents, as Housing Woes Give Way to Philosophy

Protesters, mainly students from local colleges, are getting support from near and far.

The heat in the Jezreel Valley was tolerable yesterday. That made it easier for the group of 10 men and women in their 20s to delve into debate on subjects like the Platonic state, Herzl's vision and social justice.

From time to time a passerby entered the "living room" area of the tents they put up two weeks ago in central Afula's Arlozoroff Street.

afula - Abdullah Shama - August 3 2011
Tent protesters in the northern town of Afula.Abdullah Shama

"Be strong," "we're with you," they said, some agreeing to sign a petition calling for social justice.

Some expressed their support with a gift, like the two women from nearby Kibbutz Ein Dor who came with a bag full of books for them to read, or Aviva Schuster, from Kiryat Tivon, who brought them popsicles. Most of the tent-dwellers are students at Tel Hai or Oranim college, or members of urban communes living in Afula.

They all agreed that that housing costs were an ever-growing burden. Students from the Max Stern College of Emek Yezreel have to pay about NIS 1,500 for a room at a nearby kibbutz or moshav. The dorms (where there are only 370 beds for 4,700 students ) cost NIS 850.

But the elusive home of their own was only a footnote to their discussions.

From time to time a person would ask to speak, describe his or her worldview, while the others listened without interrupting.

"We're talking here about the neo-liberal economic system that puts everything into private hands," said Shai Prizner, of the social action movement Dror Israel.

Prizner, a member of an urban kibbutz made up of educators, also said: "They tell us that if they build more apartments the prices will go down, but that's foolishness. After all, the rich people are buying land and building whatever they want on it."

Prizner says that if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu removes obstacles, as he has pledged, the wealthy will have more freedom to do what they want. "The system needs to be streamlined, but not privatized. That will be a disaster," he said.

Prizner's statements reflect the mood among Afula's tent protesters: young people who dream of a deep social revolution that will bring a new, more egalitarian order.

Tomer Eshel, 40, a married father of two, rents a home on Kibbutz Beit Keshet. He stands out among the tent protesters because of his age and marital status. But he is one of the Afula protest's prominent "ideologues." Three years ago, he decided to become a teacher in a Tiberias elementary school out of a sense of mission.

"I discovered that the children are aware of their surroundings, preserving their innocence and are ready to work hard to improve the quality of those surroundings," he said.

However, Eshel also said he found that parents and teachers convey a message to the children that they should not waste their time, that everything is wrong in Israel, all the more so in Tiberias.

"I've been trying to get friends to come and fight together to return faith in the country and to the children of Tiberias," he said.

Eshel said a home is important, "but so is restoring confidence of a whole social class that has become a puppet on a string." Noga Lavie, another tent protester, has been living in Afula for the past five years as part of a movement of artist-educators.

"The tents are a focal point where unheard people can meet. So far, people have not taken advantage of their right to fight back. They have persisted in their hatred and despair. We want to present an alternative," she said. Three minutes away from the tents, Afula seems to be in the midst of a massive construction boom. Most of the city's new residents are said to be people who left Upper Nazareth for Afula's new neighborhood. Among the 4,000 units, in high-rises, no two-bedroom apartments are to be had.

According to real estate agent Ben-Tzion Yosepov, a new three-bedroom apartment is going for NIS 770,000. Eighteen months ago, the same apartment could reportedly be had for NIS 650,000.