'Where Will We Go? Berlin?': Extreme Housing Prices Push Israelis Back to the Streets

A decade after Israel's social protest failed, and housing prices soared to unimaginable numbers, a diverse and small crowd is trying to revive the fight against the impossible cost of living

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People participate in the housing protest which took place at Habima Square, central Tel Aviv, on Saturday.
People participate in the housing protest which took place at Habima Square, central Tel Aviv, on Saturday.Credit: Hadas Parush
Nir Tsadok
Nir Tsadok

At 5:30 P.M., two hours before the time on the invitation for a protest against Israel’s surging housing prices, Tel Aviv’s Habima Square was still deeply immersed in daily routine. Young parents tried in vain to keep up with their toddlers amid the bouncing balls and smatterings of conversation.

The only evidence that another demonstration was in the offing was the contingent of police officers, dozens of them, who had found a rare bit of shade near the Habima Theater.

People take part in the housing protest on Saturday, at Habima Square, central Tel Aviv.Credit: Hadas Parush

Yair Golan (not the legislator for the left-wing Meretz party) and his daughter were sharing a tent bearing the slogan “Tel Aviv is dear to me,” a good pun that expresses the protest, a problem that touches on life everywhere in Israel. The protest is intended to go nationwide, but it focuses on the big city on the assumption, Golan says, that Tel Aviv is a “microcosm of Israel.”

Golan lectured rapidly to passersby on the importance of shifting control to the ordinary citizen. “This is a nonpolitical protest,” he said, careful not to touch on any party affiliation. He seeks to rise above the rifts tearing Israeli society to shreds and find the broadest common denominator – a bank account, and a roof over people’s heads, the former, in many cases unable to provide the latter.

“We don’t know what direction the protest will take in the end. We only know that we can’t go on like this and we see a thirst for protest and a realization that it works,” he said, citing recent changes in Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s policies on parking, informal education and financial perks for residents.

The focus on Tel Aviv as a slogan and an idea is not only because of its importance, he says, but also due to the vacuum on the national level of government. There is simply no stable address at the Knesset for any demand, in contrast to the situation in Tel Aviv, where Huldai has been mayor more or less forever, it seems.

A few days ago, a few tents went up behind Golan’s back, but the protesters themselves removed them recently. Golan didn’t put up his tent on the corner of Rothschild Boulevard and Marmorek Street; he considers those fossilized protest methods that have lost the relevance.

A woman holds a megaphone at the demonstration at Habima Square on Saturday, where people protested against the extreme housing prices and living costs in Tel Aviv.Credit: Hadas Parush

“In our day, our presence, the speeches, the big numbers are what’s important and there’s a limit to how many people you can convince to come live in a tent. Until a few months ago, the feeling was that it doesn’t matter what we do, nothing will change. Today we know that’s not true.” Golan says he hoped 6,000 protesters would show up on Saturday night.

It was hard to estimate the final tally of protesters. Habima Square is situated on one of the city’s main arteries; at any given moment people are going by who hadn’t come to protest the high cost of living or any other issue; they were only passing through the crowd of protesters on their way to a performance or a drink at one of the nearby bars.

If we counted only the number of people who stood there without moving, it came to several hundred – far from Golan’s fantasy.

And yet, if the banner of the protest is apolitical, an idea that was emphasized by all the speakers, the variety of protesters showed that at least this goal had been achieved.

A couple holds a sign that reads 'Tel Aviv is dear to me,' at the protest on Saturday.Credit: Hadas Parush

There were shirts in the colors of the various political parties, even Yaron Zelekha’s failed economic party, representing a mosaic of solutions to the problem that we’ve been told has no solution. Teens from the Communist Hadash raised the banner of the hammer and sickle, and the people at the “socialist struggle” booth handed out leaflets and challenged passersby to dialogue.

On the barriers around the ad-hoc speakers’ platform, signs were hung, among them: “New Hope – Old Disappointment” – a play on the name of politician Gideon Sa’ar’s political party. Sa’ar was represented at the protest, and so was everyone else, even those who are against the idea of parliamentary representation. According to the latter, if no one – absolutely no one – votes, there won’t be even one Knesset member and no one can make decisions that harm the public.

There were banners suspended between concrete pillars spray-painted with slogans, among them: “No faith in the system”; “We’re poor and Pfizer gets rich”; and “Why won’t I vote? Because you become the thing you’re fighting against.” In an effort to strike a chord of shock, signs in the format of death notices read: “We announce with great sorrow the death of the future of the next generation of young people in Israel due to the high cost of living.”

Catchy pop tunes and protest anthems blaring from the sound system helped exhausted parents provide an outlet for what remained of their children’s energy and turned the eclectic masses into a single protesting body. At 8:30 P.M., the speeches began.

'Home is not for millionaires only,' reads the sign.Credit: Hadas Parush

“Who here lives outside Tel Aviv?” asked a woman named Shani, and a few dozen people raised their hands. “And who lives in Tel Aviv?” A larger number raised their hands. “Who’s fed up with the cost of living?” she added, and everyone raised their hands.

“This is an assembly of several groups because everyone is fed up. They didn’t take care of you until now – now you yourselves will take care of things,” continued Shani. “You’re the generation of the solution, Generation Z. There are spokespeople here from Emek Hefer, from Rosh Ha’ayin, from Pardes Hannah, from the Hatikva neighborhood, from Tel Aviv.”

“When someone dares to complain, they shout at him ‘Spoiled brat, move to the periphery and stop complaining,’” said Gal Shor, a medical massage therapist, one of the organizers of the events and the third of the four speakers. “Where will we go? To Berlin? Prices are rising in every country. I want to build my life here in Israel but if the reality for all of us is only difficult times, then is it any wonder that so many young people are leaving the country for a better future?”

“I have a question for you: Why aren’t our MKs dealing with the problem?” asked Hadas Mann, a woman who rents an apartment in Rosh Ha’ayin, and the last to speak. “Our MKs belong to the upper class, they have homes, their friends have homes, and those who finance them behind the scenes have homes, so what interest do any of them have in quarreling with those financing them in a party primary?

“Leave your homes, come out to demonstrate. We’re only at the start of this battle. In Ashdod they’re planning a march, in Holon they’re planning another demonstration. We’re not affiliated with any party. There will be many groups who will try to take this change and grab a ride on it as a step to a job in the Knesset. But we’re neither right nor left – we’re simply demanding that they serve Israel’s citizens.”

Half an hour of more or less impassioned words ended, as the occasion demanded, with the singing of the national anthem accompanied by an a cappella playback. They decided to meet again later in the week in Holon, whose veteran mayor, Moti Sasson, is even more of a dinosaur than Huldai.

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