In Jerusalem, Braving the Stinging Chill of Israel's Social Winter

With nowhere else to go, the tent-dwellers of Sacher Park are enduring the cold, their only joy coming from a court ruling that they can keep freezing in their makeshift abodes.

Alechko is making coffee. He walks out of his tiny makeshift tent, which has barely enough room for a single person and a bed. His belongings are piled off to the side, trampled in the mud on the other side of the "hot spot," which is what they call the section of the tent where coals are still flickering in the stove.

Alechko places a sooty kettle on the fire, near which some kittens are keeping warm.

Sacher - Levac - Jan 2012
Alex Levac

This is the only warm spot in the encampment, this is the only place where you can let your body thaw out a bit. Outside, the rain continues to fall intermittently, in a frigid, gray, Jerusalem morning. Through the fog you can see a jogger running past. Several of the huts are in tatters. A wandering dog sniffs through the leftover food. Welcome to the Sacher Park encampment.

Fifteen or so homeless Jerusalem families have been living here for the past six months. Alechko is Alex Reich, 64, who was born in Hungary, but who immigrated to Israel in the mid-'90s from Romania. He has dubbed himself "the father and mother of everyone living here."

"Outwardly, I am optimistic. I have to be. If they see me sad, it is not helpful," he says. Every few days he cooks up a Hungarian goulash for everyone. This week, he left Sacher for a low-priced guest house, which will be his home until a promised spot in a hostel in Nazareth becomes available. "I want to come back in the summer. This is an ideological principle. Whether I have an apartment, or don't have an apartment - this is a matter of principle. This is the start of a historic period. Nothing like this ever happened in Israel. Now it looks dead, but it is not the end. There have always been all sorts of improvisations, but it is serious this time. It will resume in the summer. Anyone who wants to build a new state will have to come back."

For the past three months, the evenings spent in the park have been dark, the generator they had used to provide light having burned out. All that remains are the bonfires that they light.

The declarations "We are the embarrassment of Israel" and "We are not a turtle, and do not have a home on our backs" are inscribed on the door of the tent of the Ben-David family, which at one point carried on a hunger strike here. Overall, this is a stark wintertime encampment, not a stylish summer tent camp: a hodgepodge of shacks and tents and huts fashioned from bits of plywood.

Alechko guides us toward the tent of the Mizrahi family, where there is room to sit down. He himself arrived in Israel in 1994, is a divorced father of three, and attests that he was once a major in the secret service of Romania, the Securitate, what he terms in his colorful language "a stoolie with a rank."

Arriving in Israel, Alechko remained in the security field, becoming a security guard. "Life here in this tent camp is a catastrophe; only the strongest still remain. I still have ideology. Every ship that sails the seas has to be hauled up every few years into dry dock, and be wiped clean of the seaweed and the grime; otherwise it can't sail. This is my principle when it comes to Israel. This concept is termed a revolution. I don't drink, I am not a drug addict; all my life I worked like a dog."

His own crisis occurred, he says, after he was diagnosed with cancer and an occupational physician ruled that he could no longer work. "I got lost in the shuffle. It's kind of a tragicomedy, in a strange way. NIS 400 a month from my National Insurance pension. That's all. I immigrated for Zionist reasons, and now I have nothing. Everything crashed down on my head a year ago, along with the debts that I shared with my ex-wife. Should I mooch off my kids? No way. A person needs dignity. A father should look after the children, not vice versa. That is my Yekke principle."

Reich first lived in the tent camp on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.

"At the very start, everything there was clean and full of ideology, but after a few days the vandalism and the drugs began, and I said to myself: This is anarchy, this is not a place for me." He then moved to the protest tent camp in Ashdod.

There, too, he felt that he did not fit in, at which point he moved here - "the only place, thank God, where I found that things were good. The principle here is 'no violence.' I've been here since July. There is something clean here. I learned from my father who went through all of the wars and who sat in a Communist prison for 17 years, how to survive and how to give to others whenever you have what to give."

Last Friday, Alechko met with his grandson for the first time in six months. Not here, but on a Jerusalem street, in order to avoid the humiliation. Once he is settled in the hostel in Nazareth, he intends to write a novel in Hungarian about his life in Sacher Park.

Shlomi Mizrahi, who hosts us in his tent, has also been here since the summer. He works for the Jerusalem Municipality's sanitation department, and his wife is employed as a secretary in a law firm. Mizrahi found his way here in the wake of debts that he had amassed. "It snowballed," he says, until he was ultimately forced to sell his home in the capital's East Talpiot neighborhood. He could not afford to rent an apartment.

Mizrahi is 41 years old and the father of four children who are currently scattered between the tent, the homes of relatives and the army. His soldier son comes to sleep here from his base at Tzrifin (near Rishon Letzion ), but Mizrahi sent his 4-year-old daughter away after she took ill, from the cold. "The family has been dismantled," he says.

Until not long ago, there was a gas heater here, but money for the gas has also run out. At first, the family considered living with Shlomi's mother-in-law, but his sister-in-law was ahead of them in line, and they found themselves here. "The state is indifferent, and we are helpless," sighs Mizrahi, decked in a cheap track suit with a skullcap on his head. "The protest movement arose, and we came here. This is a tent camp of families and of working, normal people."

Mizrahi says that everyone wants to help, and no one succeeds. "That is the greatest frustration of all."

Recently, the cold hasn't even been their biggest enemy. That award goes to the city, which is seeking to get them out of the site. At noon on the day of our visit, the Jerusalem District Court is set to rule on a petition submitted by the residents against their imminent eviction. A few days ago, the municipality and its housing company, Prazot, offered emergency financial assistance of NIS 1,500-2,500 per month for the tent camp residents, to help them pay rent for the next six months, in exchange for them leaving.

But no one is willing to rent an apartment to residents of the tent camp, and certainly not for only six months. Landlords require promissory notes and collateral of them that they do not possess.

A few hours later, we are in the courtroom of Jerusalem District Court Judge Yigal Mersel. On one side is a battery of attorneys wearing ties - representatives of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Prazot public housing company and the Housing and Construction Ministry. On the other side are the tent camp residents, one of whom is leaning on crutches, another of whom has a baby stroller. Shlomi Mizrahi is here in his track suit.

They are represented by attorneys from NGOs Community Advocacy and Halev: The Movement for War on Poverty, who have taken on the case on the residents' behalf.

Mersel, youngest of all of the country's district court judges at the time of his appointment, states that this is a human, rather than a legal, issue. The 11 petitioners against the ministry, the Jerusalem Municipality and Prazot are requesting that they be permitted to continue to freeze in their tents. The municipality had filed its detailed response to the petitions, complete with color photographs of the tent city, which it termed "a sanitary and safety hazard." The Jerusalem Marathon is scheduled to hold its opening and closing events in the park come March, which some think could be behind the city's move to evict.

"The respondents," wrote the municipality about itself and the other two official bodies, "have not spared any effort, and have not spared any opportunity, in a sincere and true attempt to aid the petitioners and the other tent camp residents to find a solution to their distress, first and foremost the housing distress they are experiencing."

Mersel suggests that the municipality consent to an extension. He calls for a recess, and the municipality decides it is opposed to any extension of more than a few days.

Toward evening, Mersel issues his ruling: The tent city can stay up for at least another month and a half. It will remain in place at least until the next court session.

Outside the courtroom there is a great outburst of joy, with the petitioners hugging and kissing one another. The joy is the joy of the homeless who have been permitted to remain in their makeshift homes, in the heart of the capital of Israel, directly across from the Knesset and the center of government power, between the Supreme Court and the Israel Museum.