The Popular Front

Yotam Feldman
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Yotam Feldman

"Today we have come to make war," Haim Bar-Yaakov, who heads Hatnua Lekiyum Bekavod (the Movement for Dignified Living), tells a private contractor who arrived to evict Yehudit Mazgauker from her apartment in Kiryat Gat.

"You're talking as if you scare me," says the contractor, who gets paid by the job. Earlier, he pushed a photographer from Indymedia who had come to document the eviction, on July 17, and told him he would be "playing with fire" if he kept on filming.

"Of course, I scare you, but it's not criminal fear - it's something else," Bar-Yaakov replies and turns to brief the 15 movement activists who have come to join the resistance. Nearly all are residents of the South, who have themselves received eviction notices during the last year and went through a similar experience, or will do so in the near future. A policeman who has been sent to the scene casts a bemused eye on the group as it gets organized.

"We will sit down in the entrance and not move," Bar-Yaakov instructs the group. "If they want us to move, they will have to do it by force. We hold on to the rails and to each other, got it? There's nothing to be afraid of; we are not doing anything illegal, only resisting. Women first. If cops come, they are not allowed to touch women - that is an obscene act."

The resisters sit themselves down on the steps according to Bar-Yaakov's instructions: three older women in the first row, men in the next rows and in the last row two young activists from the Anarchists Against the Fence group, who have come to help and express solidarity. "The youngsters in the back have a lot of experience," Bar-Yaakov explains to the others. "They conduct the same war as us at the [separation] fence every day. They know how to resist without using force."

Mazgauker, who works as a seamstress in a local textile plant, had fallen into arrears in her mortgage payments to Bank Leumi. The bank rescheduled the debt, but she could not meet the new payments either, and a year ago the bank obtained an eviction order against her. "Two contractors came and took me and all my things while I was in the house with my daughter and my grandson," she relates. "I had no way to stop it, there was no one to help me and I had no one to borrow money from to settle the debt." Following the intervention of Bar-Yaakov and his group, she returned to the apartment and obtained a loan that enabled her to meet all the mortgage payments.

After reaching the agreement she moved in with her mother. She rented out her own home, which she had gotten back, in order to raise the money to meet the mortgage payments although, according to attorney Yoram Avi-Guy, the receiver appointed by the bank to collect the debt, she did so without authorization. In the meantime, a debt of NIS 18,000 was added to the mortgage - for Avi-Guy's fee. Mazgauker, unable to raise the entire amount, asked the Bailiff's Office to allow her to pay NIS 13,000. Her request was rejected. When she failed to pay the fee to the lawyer, the bank refused to allow her to reschedule the mortgage payments.

"Arranging the lawyer's fee is a prior condition for debt rescheduling, which in practical terms means granting borrowers a new loan in order to pay off the previous loan," Bank Leumi stated. The bank also maintains that Mazgauker did not abide by previous debt- rescheduling agreements. The lawyer went to court and obtained an eviction order. A lawyer in Avi-Guy's firm, Eliyahu Levin, stated that warning letters about this were sent to her.

It's July 17. The contractor who has been hired to evict Mazgauker and the policemen who have come to keep order are nonplussed by the first row of women protesters. They try to persuade them to leave, consult with an officer at the station and bring in backup. Following a long wait and protracted negotiations, the police back off and the eviction is postponed.

"I never believed I would get through it," Mazgauker says in retrospect. She has now come to assist in the struggle against someone else's eviction. "The people I am renting to agreed to buy the apartment from the receiver, but I did not let them. I am not about to give up. I will keep on fighting for the house."

This was the 56th eviction Bar-Yaakov and his group have succeeded in preventing. Clearly, they have brought about a shift in the balance of forces between the banks and their debtors in the southern part of the country. People who do not turn to them have a hard time mustering the forces needed to resist the evictors, and leave without protesting and without another housing solution.

When people are evicted, everyone concerned profits - apart from the evictees, of course. The contractor gets paid for removing the family from its home; the police, who back up the contractor if necessary, are not called upon to carry out the eviction themselves and thus are spared possible violent confrontations - which do not play well in the media - with disadvantaged citizens; the receiver, who will sell the home, earns a commission of up to 10 percent of the price paid for it, in addition to a fee that he will collect from the bank; the bank will recoup all its money, including the interest on the late payments; and the court, which authorizes the eviction with record speed, is spared lengthy and complicated hearings.

"In cases of tardy repayments," says a spokesman for Bank Leumi, "the bank is to reach a debt-rescheduling agreement, in order to avert the evacuation of the mortgaged property and its sale. As long as a procedure of negotiation with the borrowers is under way, the legal proceedings against them are delayed."

Stay calm or be tied up

Exactly two weeks after the success in Kiryat Gat, at 8 A.M., the movement's activists show up in Be'er Sheva to attempt to block the eviction of Hananya Levy and his family from their home. Many of them were at the previous protest, too. Bar-Yaakov briefs them again: "The most important thing is to stay calm. We will resist, but not with force. The door is open, the occupants are inside, the [gas] canister is inside. Passive resistance. With the 30-40 people here, it will take 300-400 policemen to remove you, and that will never happen. What's most important is to stay calm."

Bar-Yaakov makes an effort to keep his people cool because, he says, many of the contractors try to break up the resistance by means of provocation - physical and verbal violence - against the members of the movement, to spur them to react and thus prompt police intervention. That is what happened a day earlier, in Dimona. Bar-Yaakov was there with his wife and another activist. The team brought by the contractor started to push the resisters, and both sides filed mutual complaints of assault with the police. (The eviction, by the way, did not take place.) "This is the best field test there can be for self-control," Bar-Yaakov says. "There is no doubt that you sometimes reach the feeling that you want to grab the contractor and let him have it. But violence does not help against violence."

Bar-Yaakov's anger is always personal. Three years ago he was in the same situation: He and his family - his wife and their three children - were evicted from their home due to a bank debt. After the eviction he set up a tent camp for the homeless in Be'er Sheva, and since reaching an agreement that made it possible to leave, he has been fighting week in and week out against attempts by the banks to take away the homes of people who have fallen behind with their mortgage payments.

"I told the receiver myself that he had better bring the police, because there will be resistance," says Hananya Levy, the father of three children, who is now fighting for his home. "An eviction notice cannot help when you have nothing more to give." Levy first fell into arrears in his mortgage payments nine years ago, after losing his job when the company he worked for shut down. Around the same time, his wife was fired from her job as an assistant teacher in a kindergarten.

Levy then contracted a serious illness, which prevented him from going back to work, and the couple ran into serious difficulties in repaying their debt. That sum soared to NIS 400,000, twice the original amount, when Bank Leumi slapped him with 20-percent interest for being behind in his payments. Levy says he arrived at an arrangement with the bank under which his debt would be reduced to NIS 150,000, but that the bank then reneged. Two months ago, without any prior notice, and while the negotiations were still under way, the bank obtained an eviction order.

Bank Leumi stated in response: "The impression is that the prolonged situation, under which the mortgage is not repaid, is convenient for the borrowers, while the bank sustains damage because the proceedings against them are stayed. Accordingly, the bank is obliged to resume legal proceedings against them and to set a date for the evacuation of the property. Conducting negotiations with the borrowers, which is not accompanied by the deposit of money in practice, does not delay the implementation proceedings."

Even before being served with an eviction notice, Levy had become an ardent activist in the Movement for Dignified Living and has taken part in many resistance operations. "We transform victims into activists," Bar-Yaakov says. He takes pride in the fact that 80 percent of the movement's activists are themselves victims of mortgage problems. "[The authorities] evict people who get no empathy, who confront a system that turns them into criminals, liars, parasites. So we come and believe them. That makes all the difference."

Every two weeks the movement organizes a support group, during whose meetings activists try to allay the fears of people who are facing eviction and describe for them the likely sequence of events. In these meetings Bar-Yaakov outlines his methods: "Our goal is direct, nonviolent action," he says. "Passive resistance to prevent eviction. We bring in instruments such as chains and pipes that we use to tie ourselves to the entrance." If necessary, the occupants of the apartment will threaten to blow up a gas canister if the evictors dare to enter.

Bar-Yaakov adds that he tries to talk to the contractor and the police in order to infuse them with solidarity. "The policemen and the contractors know the situation themselves," he notes. "One of the evictors who works in the area evacuated his home voluntarily in the wake of a debt. We try to get at the weak points of the other side, so that government employees will not cooperate with a particular policy, but will refuse to serve it."

Have you seen that happening before?

Bar-Yaakov: "There is a feeling that you bring them over to your side, that they will not do their job with any great enthusiasm. There are some contractors who, when they see that we are involved, put pressure on the receiver and the eviction is prevented without friction. There was one time when we didn't have time to organize activists, and only my wife and I went. The contractor saw us and called the receiver. 'Haim is here with another 30 people,' he told him. 'There is no way we can do the eviction today.' We even have a source in the Be'er Sheva police, but a coward. He always says he is on vacation."

How do you prepare the occupants?

"It is a very tricky situation for those in the house. They all have to stay calm. Anyone who is not calm is tied up," Bar-Yaakov says, pointing to the chains with which the resisters tie themselves. (The chains are prepared by the movement's logistics man, who is also a debtor.)

And is everyone calm?

"The occupants of the apartment are never calm. On the day itself they are almost completely lacking in judgment. I prepare them mentally long before. I explain to them what is going to happen and I take them to other evictions, so that by the time of their eviction they know exactly what it looks like and what will happen. Even so, we know that the family is not in a stable condition. The advice I give them is that on the day itself they have to be almost like robots and have to stay calm. They are kept busy with psychotherapeutic activities - making coffee, preparing food. But not everyone is always calm. There was one case when the family barricaded itself inside before we got there. They nailed a plank to the door and piled up heavy furniture against it. We asked them to let us in, to let us make coffee, but they wouldn't open the door. So we sat outside. That showed a pretty high level of panic. But I tell them that if we are here, they will not be thrown out of their home."

'Extortion and slaughter'

By midday, about 29 people have shown up at Levy's house. One of them is Esther Wolff, a divorcee who has had two heart attacks and cannot find a job because of her medical condition. Since receiving an eviction order, she says, she has not been able to sleep more than two or three hours a night. Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank is out to evict her, she explains, after she reached a debt-rescheduling arrangement with them - only to have the bank declare shortly afterward that it had made a mistake and issue an almost-immediate eviction order. Wolff has no relatives to move in with if she is evicted.

Sitting next to Wolff are R., who worked for the Israel Police until her retirement and has run up a mortgage-repayment debt, and Yoav Avraham, a bus driver who offered the bank his home in return for canceling his debt, but was turned down. The bank wants to recoup the entire debt that has accumulated as a result of the interest imposed on Avraham for late payments - NIS 1.2 million, which is about twice the original amount and far more than the apartment is worth.

Also on hand are activists from Anarchists Against the Fence, who came down from Tel Aviv. "Our activity is intended to topple the walls," Bar-Yaakov says in reference to their participation. "We bring the anarchists, who are described as only helping the Arabs and less with activities like this. It is in just such activities that there is a broad common base - help and solidarity and a willingness to put disputes aside. That makes the sides more open. We cooperate with everyone - Bedouin and new immigrants. We were in Kfar Shalem, we took part in setting up the tent camp of homeless people in Jerusalem, and we continue to support and strengthen them. You cannot come out against injustice done to just one population group. That is exactly what the government is trying to do: divide and rule. And to say that the Arabs are like this, that the mortgage victims are parasites and the homeless are idlers - to prevent cooperation."

After lunch, the activists wait another couple of hours before starting to wonder whether the eviction crew actually intends to show up. Usually they arrive in the morning, though the eviction order remains in force until midnight. In the late afternoon some of the would-be resisters leave, and a few remain in order to alert the others if needed.

A lack of clarity concerning the timing of the eviction is one of the means used by the receivers. The firm of attorney Yoram Avi-Guy, which was appointed the receiver in this case, too, turned down every request by the evictees and by Haaretz for information about when the operation would be carried out. According to Bar-Yaakov, the receiver thus intensifies the fears of those who have been served with the notices and brings greater pressure to bear on them to agree to debt rescheduling.

In many cases, the threat of eviction forces the debtor to take additional loans from other banks and from the "black market," thus aggravating his situation. "The debtor gets uptight, borrows from everywhere, runs up more debts and signs a rescheduling agreement, which he has no chance of fulfilling," Bar-Yaakov says. "And then he is really in trouble. The bank portrays him as unethical. 'We met him halfway,' they say, 'but he did not abide by the agreement.'"

In Bar-Yaakov's words, the bank "slaughters" the client when it discovers that he has gone through all his financial resources: "When that happens, they evict the person without any feelings, just to sell the home and pay the lawyer interest. That is our movement's slogan: 'Kodem sohatim v'az shohatim'" - first they extort, then they slaughter."

Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank gave mortgages to several of the debtors who are receiving assistance from Bar-Yaakov, among them Esther Wolff. The bank's spokesman says that "the process of taking legal measures toward realizing the property is definitely a 'no-choice' move. It is adopted only after no other way out can be found to ensure the return of the money to the bank. In that case, the bank works to realize its rights as stipulated in the law."

The spokesman rejects the allegation that the bank obtains eviction notices as a means to threaten the debtors. Citing "banking secrecy," he declined to talk about specific cases, stating only that "in every case the bank made repeated efforts over a period of years to collect the debt within the framework of a rescheduling agreement with the client and to avoid taking legal action." In a telephone conversation, the source said that the complaints against the bank result from misunderstandings: "The bank is like people - if you loan someone money, won't you want to make sure he returns the loan?"

Panthers' influence

Bar-Yaakov, 49, married to his second wife and the father of three children, attended a religious boarding school in the Negev town of Netivot, but forsook religion in high school, from which he dropped out in 10th grade. Eight years ago, he returned to religion. In the first evictions he stood out because of his sunglasses and a beard - which he has since cut off - that reached to his stomach. "I shaved because I suffered from a split personality with the beard," he explains. "I came to evictions and everyone thought I was a rabbi. Some asked for a blessing, others for a curse. I told them that at most I 'quarrel' with people," he says, making a pun on the Hebrew word for "rabbi."

After his army service Bar-Yaakov completed his matriculation and went on to study economics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva.

"When I entered university I was still captive to a capitalist worldview and I was a Likud person," he explains. "But gradually I understood things. My awareness developed, in part because of what was happening all around me when I got out of the army - protest activities in the university and the demonstrations by the Black Panthers," an Israeli social action group in the 1970s. "There is a lot we can learn from the Panthers: how to get people into the street, how to wage a struggle. They were the first to make a connection between being left-wing and social struggle."

During his studies, a tour for foreign donors was conducted in one of Be'er Sheva's rundown neighborhoods "in order to show how much the university is helping and is in touch with the common folk." Bar-Yaakov says he wanted to protest the university's refusal to support his plan - to set up a center for meetings with, and for giving advice to, neighborhood residents - and so he and some other activists blocked entry to the neighborhood during the visit. "We said that we are not a zoo where people throw us peanuts. The tour was canceled and it was a big story: Elizabeth Taylor was one of the donors, and the residents of the neighborhood were refusing to accept her."

At the end of his first year of studies, Bar-Yaakov took a "vacation," which is continuing to this day. He worked in the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and afterward was a "medical secretary." In 1990, when he was newly married and the father of an infant, he was fired from his job and began to work as an independent real-estate agent. He encountered economic difficulties, could not pay the rent and was forced to leave his home without having somewhere else to go. "After I failed in the business it took me two years to come to terms with the fall I took," he relates. "I didn't believe that I was so helpless that I would turn to the National Insurance Institute for a guaranteed income allowance. But since then I have been living on that allowance."

After being forced to leave his home, he and his family moved into an Amidar public housing apartment that had been vacated and was empty. "We had no other place to live," he says. "We hoped that in time we would be recognized as eligible for public housing." One day in January 2004, Bar-Yaakov returned to the apartment with his two children after kindergarten and discovered that he had been evicted. "All the contents of the house were downstairs. At the height of winter - three children without a roof over their heads. Our things were placed in a filthy warehouse. They were covered with mouse droppings when we got them back, so we had to throw out almost everything."

"If we had been given alternative housing it would have been a different story," says his wife Irit, "but we were thrown into the street. I had a pot of soup on the stove and I begged them to give me the pot before they threw us out." After the eviction, she adds, they stayed with friends and relatives for three months, "but it is hard for people to put up with a family of five. They can take it for a day, two days, a week, but there is a limit. That's how you lose friends and family."

It was around this time that Bar-Yaakov and other social activists began to consider the possibility of setting up a tent camp of homeless people in Be'er Sheva. Dozens of families lived in the camp for nine months. It was dismantled in early 2005 in the wake of an agreement with the then new housing and construction minister, Isaac Herzog, from the Labor Party. Bar-Yaakov describes the agreement as his greatest success to date: "We took down the tent camp honorably, following an egalitarian agreement that was signed with mutual respect. We were not thrown out and we were not evicted, and that is a feeling I can hardly describe."

'I am the wacko'

At first, Bar-Yaakov relates, his wife would not come to the tent camp. "Like every citizen who has been weakened, we lived with a feeling of shame that we were to blame for our situation. Irit would come to within 20 meters of the tent camp and give someone sandwiches for me; the children did not come either. It was only two weeks later that she started to come to the site and become involved."

During the first evictions, he notes, only the two of them showed up to help, yet they still succeeded in averting the evictions by speaking with the contractors and guiding the occupants in how to behave.

Now, though, Irit Bar-Yaakov is more radical than her husband. "I only wish Haim would let me use force against the evictors," she says. "I know he is right, that there are advantages to nonviolent activity. But if they use violence, we will certainly defend ourselves." Twelve years ago, she worked as an assistant to an eviction contractor, and already then, she remembers, she helped the evictees by giving them advance information.

She and her husband have a division of labor during evictions, she says: "Either he is the calm one and I am on edge, or the opposite, but usually I am the wacko." Two weeks ago, she protested to someone who was being evicted and was trying to reach an agreement with the contractor: "You're wasting your time," she railed at him. "Can't you see that they are playing with you? Go upstairs, barricade yourself inside, let them bring the police."

Would you have helped the settlers who were evacuated from the Gaza Strip if they had asked you?

Irit Bar-Yaakov: "I do not identify with them, I think they are brazen. They were evacuated and compensated; here people are evicted and rejected. They were evacuated from one home to another, here people are thrown into the street and not given any solution. I have a lot to say against the policy, against the banks. I am an anarchist, I do not feel like a citizen of the country. If it were up to me, I would not send my children to the army. On Independence Day the newspapers came with flags and the children wanted to put up a flag at home. 'Over my dead body,' I told them. 'If I see an Israeli flag, I burn it.' In the end, we hung up an anarchist flag."

Her husband does not style himself an anarchist and will not oppose his children's military service. "In every evacuation there is a personal motivation," he says. "I can't stand to see a family being thrown out of its home. I always remember my own eviction and the situation in which all your things are outside and the children see their things being thrown out."

Bar-Yaakov has a hard time making ends meet. "I work full time plus half-time as head of the movement, and I subsist from the guaranteed income allowance and help from the family." In his little remaining spare time he enjoys studying a page of Gemara and listening to music "of all kinds - country, black music, Hasidic."

The goals of the movement, he says, go beyond specific cases of eviction: It is lobbying for a long-term, rental law that would end the troubles caused by mortgage payments. Another aim is to create a front of organizations in the South to help the region advance, and to establish a center to develop and apply methods of direct, nonviolent action.

The movement also aspires to expand its activity in order to prevent the economic deterioration of those who are persecuted by the Bailiff's Office. "There are half a million cases," Bar-Yaakov explains. "It is a collapsing system, marked by violence, which has become a rubber-stamp operation. Dozens of victims live in the underground. The system causes many families to break up and others to adopt illegitimate criminal patterns of behavior."

What is stopping the movement from heading a broader political struggle, in the style of the Black Panthers?

Bar-Yaakov: "Every eviction we have prevented is a small victory. It strengthens and steels us and readies us for the next struggle. I believe in the right timing. If there are teams to prevent evictions in every city, the ground will be ready for a mass movement."

Maybe the problem is your commitment to nonviolence? Maybe you need a more aggressive movement?

"There is nothing easier than to demonize the enemy - that gives you the feeling that you are right. But that is not our goal. We are uniting people who have been hurt, we are turning victims into activists, into people who help one another. The feeling today is that our whole society is being privatized. Groups have lost their faith in their ability to organize and exercise influence. There are 90,000 people today who are having difficulty repaying their mortgage, and each of them does not know that the others exist. The sheer exposure and involvement make others feel that they are not alone, that they can receive help." W

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