This Old Man: Online Saga of Tel Aviv Homeless Tugs Heartstrings

What makes Facebook such a tool that people will believe every touching story they read there, while in real life they trust no one?

Orly Vilnai
Orly Vilnai
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Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Orly Vilnai
Orly Vilnai

The story of the old man blazed through Facebook. Something about the combination of the photo of his reddened face under his stocking cap, meant to keep the nighttime cold out, and the fact that he is 80 years old and sleeping nights on a bench in central Tel Aviv left no one indifferent. Thousands of people responded, shared, said they’d give money, pick him up and take them to their house – do anything so this kindly grandpa would not have to sleep in the street as he says he had been doing for the past three months.

How quickly we accept a touching story as truth. What makes Facebook such a tool that people will believe everything they read there, while in real life they trust no one? The story of the old man sleeping on a bench in Tel Aviv contains many potentially complex elements, but good-hearted Israelis don’t ask questions. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because when it’s all about an old man like him, maybe it doesn’t matter where he’s from and where he’s going, what he did in his life to bring him to this point.

A person with a sensitive heart only wants to make sure we see no such sights in our streets, and doesn’t consider taking to task a person who may have made every possible mistake on a path that led him straight to the bench on the street, without stopping for a moment.

I was also among those who offered to help. But a conversation with this man and a deeper look brought out a different story, which I feel obliged to share with everyone who wanted to help. I am doing this only after I got his permission and spoke with his family.

The story starts a few days ago with a charming young Tel Avivian named Gal Ben-Dror, who was walking down Ibn Gvirol Street and saw an old man, Beni Ganor by name, on a bench, and next to him a suitcase and a bag. He’d been sleeping there for a long time, Ganor told him, but Ben-Dror was the only passerby who insisted on asking what he could do to help. The young man was shocked to hear that the old man’s house in Safed had burned down and he was waiting for the insurance money and had to live on the street until it came in.

Local city officials had directed him to a shelter in Jaffa for the homeless, Ganor said, but he only found drug addicts and scary people there, so he fled for his life.

Ben-Dror sought help, and approached us as well. We decided that because it was late evening, we would put Ganor up in a hotel and in the morning would see what to do. Meanwhile, Ben-Dror posted Ganor’s photo on Facebook together with the story of the house that had burned down.

A unceasing flood of responses came in. But during our meeting the next day Ganor decided to tell his true story. He hoped he would be helped even after people knew it. Without judging him.

Ganor had fled house arrest at a senior citizens’ home in Acre, which he described as hell because the other residents don’t function and he felt very lonely. He was sentenced to house arrest for setting fire to the apartment he was renting. He claimed that he set fire to the apartment while trying to kill himself, but after he came out alive he was indicted for arson. The judge ruled that because of his age and health condition he would be under house arrest in an old-age home.

Ganor has a heart condition, and when he got to the Tel Aviv beach after fleeing arrest, he felt ill and was hospitalized at Ichilov Hospital for an extended period. After he was released, he went for the benches on the street.

According to Ganor he was once wealthy, but today he lives only on his senior citizen’s pension. He has four children. He says he tried to commit suicide after the authorities told him that they were going to take away his youngest daughter, a high-school student, the youngest of his children from his second marriage. Her mother abandoned her and went back to her home country. He raised her alone at an advanced age with all his illnesses, and the welfare authorities said she had to live in a place where she would be more secure.

He has three other grown children who now take devoted care of their stepsister, but don’t want any connection with their elderly father. They can’t forgive him for their difficult childhood experiences, and for the fact that in the end he abandoned their mother and them. For reasons of privacy we won’t go into detail, but will say only that they didn’t experience any physical violence, but their desire to keep their distance from him is understandable. As mentioned, he is not in contact with his second wife, who is 30 years his junior, and therefore none of his relatives are willing or able to help him now.

Ganor talks about strategic places to sleep, like the open-sided shelter near Dizengoff Circle, and how quickly the inspectors chase people away from there and then you have to move to a bench without a roof. With sad honesty he shares his fear of losing his humanity, and how much he believes that he, like the phoenix, can get up and return to a normal life. He only wants another chance, after he missed all the chances with those who were dear to him. A chance, and a roof over his head and not to be alone.

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