A Tale of Tent Cities

For some of the protesters around the country who are demanding affordable housing, it is most definitely not the best of times.

Michael Spiegel says that the young people in the tent camp that suddenly sprang up next to his lair in Jerusalem are "the hope," pronounced with the stress on the penultimate syllable - "ha-tik-vah" - like the title of the national anthem. He has been a "street-dweller," as he puts it, for 11 years, and suddenly all these young people have come to Horse Park - the place in which he sleeps on nights when it's not cold in the capital.

I saw him this week, sprawled on the tattered wicker mat that is his permanent home, in a corner of Horse Park - the popular name for the site because of a large sculpture of a horse in it - next to a sign that says "City Cellar."

Tel Aviv protest (Alex Levac)
Alex Levac

The Knesset was once housed in the building opposite; these days, Frumin House is the home of the rabbinical courts, next to which is another sign: "Fortress of Judah, guardian of Judea, Samaria, Gaza, guardian of the land, guardian of the Temple."

There are some 40 igloo tents, each featuring the manufacturer's logo and the slogan "Planned for adventure." This adventure, the tent protest, doesn't yet know where it's going, though the start is very promising.

On Tuesday, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a press conference and promised wonders and marvels, we wandered among the tent camps in our land. The one in Jerusalem's Independence Park is situated across the road from the U.S. Consulate, whose security guards have already moved the new residents away from the fortified government compound. This is the home of a few activists from disadvantaged neighborhoods, who are excluding themselves - or perhaps being excluded - from the large and more "trendy" encampment in Horse Park.

There are about 10 families here, most of whom are now at work. Amnon Tzur is perspiring; he's the father of eight kids, four of whom are with him in the tent, while the other four are with their mother in Rishon Letzion. His landlord has been chasing him for half a year to collect the rent. Now he has to hand over the keys and leave the apartment. He is off drugs now, he says, and is looking for work as a truck driver or a cook.

What will get you out of here?

Tzur: "Four cops, maybe five. We are not in some happening here, we have nowhere to go. I heard that Netanyahu only talked about the students. They're 'sexier.' The media are missing our story. They don't see us properly, even though our story is more authentic."

The day before our chat, disagreements cropped up with the "single moms" in the group, in the wake of which it was decided to formulate a pact which, in poor Hebrew, now hangs on a board nailed to a tree: "With God's help. To achieve a goal. Legitimate to be angry. Some are asleeping, some are not asleeping. Everyone does what he can. Everyone is different from one the other."

Someone suggests that they should demonstrate across from the Prime Minister's Office, but Tzur says he has nowhere to leave the children, who have suffered from heat exhaustion. From out of nowhere, Rabbi Arik Ascherman - from Rabbis for Human Rights - appears. He says there will be an important meeting about public housing at 6 P.M. on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Ascherman says he will come to pick up Tzur in his car, that it's important for him to take part as they have to set up an action committee. Then, from a carton he pulls out an inflatable family pool, a gift from the New Israel Fund.

Beno, Tzur's son, is sweating like his dad and hesitates to open the package. Ascherman, a veteran of the struggle against the occupation in the territories, says that just as Moses was angry at Gad and Reuben for only looking after themselves - in last week's Sabbath Torah portion - so too we should be angry at those who only look after the students.

The Horse Park bulletin board on which the daily schedule is posted tells a different story. Morning plenum at 8 A.M.; staff meeting at 9 A.M.; creative workshop for the children at 3 P.M.; talk by someone from the Social College at 8 P.M.; and a live performance at 9 P.M. Kitchen staff, night watchmen and cleaners are needed. A Palestinian cleaner kneels toward Mecca: the midday prayer. The tent camp here is small and crowded, perched in a small public park, adjacent to a public toilet and a pool with stagnant water in which the tent kids are splashing about - officially known as "Zion Falls," restored by the Hasid Brothers, billed as "builders of Jerusalem."

As a Jerusalem student tells a television reporter about his housing distress - NIS 1,600 a month for a room for two in the dorms - Spiegel, the homeless man, aged 52, dumps a stack of torn documents on the withered grass and tells his life story, in Russian Hebrew.

"I am street-dweller 11 years. In treatment now, without alcohol, without anything. I immigrated to Israel from Tashkent. I am divorced, I am alone, my wife and children - in Australia. I worked as guard and worked as cook. There is picture in paper, June 15, 2001: Spiegel with M16 in Jenin. I am not parasite but when war in territories finished, there is no work and I to drink. When I am to drink, I work a little there, there, there; after that I fall. No work, depressed, you understand. I am full to drink, I to drink, I to drink, now I am invalid. Here is disability. I do not know how many percent but you understand what salary is now."

Spiegel shows me his National Insurance Institute form: NIS 1,836 a month. He looks at his new neighbors and says: "I am near cemetery already but this is students. This is children. This should be shame in Israel. I am parasite, that is all right. But these are children. What is hope in country for students? They are hope of country. Now they are street-dwellers too. When I am 25, like them, I am officer in Russia, I to study in university, archaeology, sociology. That was in communism. Now I am old, that is my problem, but these are children. I am alcoholic, invalid, but these are future. I know what is hole-in-wall, but them? Where country to now? My little son is 25, in Australia. He studies in college in Sydney, another son in technion in Australia. No problems. And look at here, in our country. Prime minister doesn't know, but as soon as finish learning - already vodka ...

"I do not know politics of Likud. But when Labor and Ehud Barak, social worker was social worker. Money right away. I am not communist, but now war is over, crisis finished, thank God, is food in market - and no work. Three years ago, I lived for NIS 300 in room on Ben Yehuda [Street], not terrible, now studio [apartment] is NIS 2,500. Very hard. In past, Spiegel Zionist in Russia, now Spiegel parasite in Israel."

Meanwhile, in Beit Shemesh

A short time later, in Beit Shemesh, a member of the municipal council, Natan Sheetrit - who is also the chairman of the city's audit committee - is directing a group of workers who are toiling to hang colorful lamps from a crane between the palm trees along the well-kept Ben-Gurion Promenade. This evening, another protest tent camp will spring up on this site. And here the cause is very specific: Sheetrit says that 4,000 apartments are under construction in his city - all of them earmarked exclusively for the ultra-Orthodox. A crane worker asks if the angle of the lamps is okay and Sheetrit says yes.

Meanwhile, tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv have already reached Nahmani Street. The arched poles of a few of the tents have sagged, but nothing else here suggests a sagging of spirit.

"Imagination takes power," MK Nitzan Horowitz (New Movement-Meretz ) says, evoking the students' revolt in France in 1968. He too has no idea where this protest will lead. He too is very impressed by it so far.

A Sudanese man employed by a manpower company sweeps the boulevard. Here, too, the bulletin board tells the story of, and the differences between, the tent cities: press conference at 3 P.M.; salsa at 8 P.M.; and, at 9 P.M., a live performance by a rock band. TV crews from all the channels, an army of vans and reporters, are still here. Every evening, the boulevard's revolutionary cinema shows Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" on a giant screen. And a bride and groom - he in black suit, she with white veil - not the first such couple here, have come to be photographed against the backdrop of the dawn - the dawn of protest in Israel.