Evacuation of Israel's Tent Cities Leaves the Poor Stranded

The middle classes have packed up and left their tent cities, but the genuinely homeless have nowhere to go.

Israel-Zelig Greenwald has been living in the protest tent encampment in Jerusalem's Independence Park for two months now. Born in Israel, he was adopted as an infant by an ultra-Orthodox couple in the United States. At 16, he fled his family and returned to Israel. He's now 35. About three years ago, he was diagnosed as HIV positive and his wife and kids left him.

He went to live in a rented apartment, bereft of just about everything. And then his money ran out and he moved into a tent. He is among the last of the denizens of the Independence Park encampment, in the company of a handful of other protesters. The single-parent families left over an argument and moved to another tent city. Israel-Zelig's location is now called the "Tent City of Last Resort."

Rothschild evacuation orders - September 2011

Greenwald frequently uses the Hebrew term "no other choice," albeit with an Ashkenazi accent. Because he has no other choice, he's there. Because they had no other choice, most of those still in the tent cities around the country are still there. The protest is alive and kicking, even if on a smaller scale and even if it has a different character.

Those left are mostly the hard core of the hard core, rather than middle-class people and students. You won't find symposia on social issues or Facebook there any more. It's just the lowest of the low, as Greenwald points out.

About a month and a half ago, we visited the tent protest camps on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and also went to Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem and Holon, but on Thursday we went back to Jerusalem, five days after the largest and - at least at this point - last demonstration on Saturday evening. The revolution is over and incomplete. The great heat wave has passed and autumn has arrived.

In Beit Shemesh on the Ben-Gurion promenade, flags flutter over the tent city, but no one lives there anymore. A remaining, tattered placard proclaims "All of the people are demanding," but the rest is missing. Sitting nearby is Mumbai-born Shimon Sholdakar, a heart patient who says he can't afford the bus fare to the hospital in Jerusalem where he was supposed to get rehabilitation treatment, so instead he exercises with a daily walk in the area around the tent city.

Now he's resting. For seven years he worked the land for the Jewish National Fund. When he was laid off, he got a job sifting flour, but now, since he got sick, he has been forced to stop working. He lives in Amidar public housing, so he didn't join the housing protest. His daughter and five grandchildren live in an apartment, which he describes as "like a matchbox," where they pay NIS 1,500 rent. The daughter didn't join the protest either because, he says, she gets a NIS 500 monthly allowance from the Housing and Construction Ministry.

"But it's not enough," he says, "and as a father and grandfather, I can't help her. I want her to join the protest. They'll take her picture with five kids and maybe something will come of it. In Tel Aviv, they're already folding up the tents. It didn't help. Only a small percentage of people will get anything out of the protest."

Back for a second time to Jerusalem and Independence Park, when we encounter Amnon Tzur, one of the leaders of the tent city there. He looks more worn out than the first time I met him here a month and a half ago. On my first visit, he told me: "What will get me out of here? Four or five policemen. I have nowhere else to go."

On our second encounter, things have changed. "You see," he says, "we've gotten smaller. The single parents left. There was a big fight between us. But we're not going to leave. Looks like someone didn't understand that we live here. The Rothschild [tent city] took control without any connection to the other tent cities. Without any connection to the people at the bottom. All of a sudden, it's hard for the middle class."

Tzur says he believes it really is hard for the middle class, but he's sorry they don't see what's going on with the lower class. "It makes me mad," Tzur says, adding: "The [protest] initiative is welcome, of course, and we're in favor of it, but taking over and setting up committees makes me think of a political party."