The Big Tent Approach

Yes, there are problems, and there is bickering and even some violence, but by and large, the coming together of so many diverse groups and individuals at the Rothschild encampment has elicited an outpouring of altruism, creativity and goodwill.

Almost every evening, two smiling cupids can be found welcoming passersby on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, asking them to subscribe to the revolution matchmaking service they have begun. A few dozen prime bachelors of the summer's protest movement have already filled out the questionnaire. Everyone is looking for love, or at least consolation for one revolutionary night. One woman walking by, an attractive brunette of 32, succumbed to the cupidean pleas and agreed to sign up. The next day she recounts how she had received only one phone call - from one of the cupids, actually: "Unfortunately, he's a few years younger than me," she says with a disappointed sigh.

The hundreds of people now living temporarily along the boulevard have found the recipe for living together, mostly in peace and harmony. Apart from the demonstrations, the placards and massive gatherings, Rothschild Boulevard is a venue for many tiny human scenes of love, bickering, showers and meals. Even those who don't have to get up for work, and spend their entire days at the encampment, have no choice but to get up early, since the sun hits hard and begins heating up the tents soon after sunrise. At 6 A.M., some of the residents get up and go home, where they take a shower and get ready for work. Others manage to continue sleeping for a bit in the tents or on mattresses outside them, ignoring the tumult around them.

Tents on Rothschild.
Daniel Bar-On

The solution for morning ablutions sometimes comes from neighboring businesses. Swing Coffee, for example, allows tent-city residents to use its toilets all day except for 2 to 8 A.M. When it's not open, some of the protesters use the toilets of Tony Vespa pizzeria, and when that closes, they use Cafe Landver, on the other side of the boulevard, which is open 24 hours a day. Most of the restaurants and cafes in the area allow the residents to use their services, as long as they don't use the backyards of the buildings as toilets. For their part, the residents are happy not to have to use the chemical toilets on the corner of Bar-Ilan Street.

Most of the protesters go home every once in a while for a good shower. Others pop over to friends or family in the neighborhood. The tent camp's organizers also have the names and numbers of people who live in the area who are willing to let protesters use their bathrooms for showers at certain hours.

On the southern part of the boulevard, near Herzl Street, a less populated region of the encampment, some protesters came up with an original solution to the hygiene dilemma: a hose in one building's backyard serves as a improvised shower. On Saturday morning, when the boulevard is full of families and strollers, a young man in underwear can be seen taking a shower on the pedestrian path, with a bucket of water and soap.

Tray of cheesecakes

The tent protesters can be sure that they won't go hungry. On the contrary. A central kitchen was founded on the first weekend of the protest. For Kabbalat Shabbat that first Friday evening, the tent-city denizens were treated to an array of different dinners donated by several Tel Aviv restaurants, and ever since, the food has been pouring in. A large food chain contributes the basic raw materials, mostly fruit and vegetables, plus four refrigerators for storing all the food (power is supplied by the municipality or by neighbors). Quite a few restaurant owners and chefs have come by to show their support and cook meals for the encampment, so usually there's no shortage of cooked food. In the beginning, anyone could come and partake any all time, but now food is served only at fixed hours.

For those who prefer simple, unpretentious food, there are quite a few options, since two more kitchen areas were established on the corners of both Shenkin Street and Bezalel Yaffe, where people can be seen cooking even after midnight.

Every so often, a delivery of cakes arrives from local bakeries. Thus, for example, a tray of cheesecakes is delivered to the headquarters of the protesters at 1 A.M. Everyone present is invited to have a taste. Among groups of kids singing, an improvised performance, or discussion groups that last until all hours of the night, it's not that easy to find a quiet place to get some sleep. Exhaustion is the lot of most of the veteran protesters: "In the first two weeks, I didn't drive home because I was afraid of falling asleep at the wheel," recalls one of the student leaders. "I really wanted a night's sleep in a decent bed, but I just couldn't manage it."

When problems come up, everyone tries to solve them with a peaceful hug. Nonetheless, disputes, both large and small, do arise, and this can temporarily wreck the feeling of solidarity.

Encampment leaders and residents try to be considerate and put an end to noise after 11 P.M. each night, out of consideration for the people living in the nearby buildings. All megaphones and speaker systems, for example, are turned off at that hour. For their part, the permanent denizens of the neighborhood have established a committee that is in constant touch with representatives of the encampment, and together they deal with any problems that arise - and that happens quite often. Every night, for example, when all the other loudspeakers are turned off, a group of graduates of the Rimon School of Music start playing between Nachmani Street and Mazeh. Undoubtedly some are talented musicians, but there are residents who pay high rent for the right to live quietly on the boulevard, and some of them have had to flee their apartments because they just couldn't get to sleep.

Some residents of buildings in the area have hung supportive signs from their balconies, such as "a whole generation demands housing," and on the top floor of 114 Rothschild Boulevard, the residents put up a placard that says it all: "We support the protest - but only until 23:00! (The people demand relative quiet )."

Most of the internal quibbling is also caused by late-night music and other noise, but usually these disputes are settled quickly. One woman, whose tent was trampled together with all her placards, accused her encampment neighbor of vandalism. "I swear it wasn't me," he pleads, shouting, but she doesn't believe him. He then simply helps her re-erect the tent, and peace is restored.

Some protesters use the dead of night to squat on a piece of territory without having to battle for it. Three Orthodox youngsters arrive with their bags one night after midnight, and begin the search for a place between Shenkin and Balfour. "There's no one in this tent," declares one of them, so they simply move it aside. A few other empty tents are also swept aside, and thus they occupy a piece of precious real estate.

Violent 'revolution coalition'

Apart from petty personal disputes, there are also battles between different groups participating in the protest. An official protest headquarters was established two weeks ago near the central kitchen, in order to provide information and instructions about the protest, after a group named the "revolution coalition" set up what they called a headquarters earlier, at the edge of the boulevard and claimed that they are in charge. The "coalition" tried to impose rules and regulations that weren't accepted by many of the protesters and activist visitors, and they have had have no compunctions about using violence.

A reporter from Army Radio who tried to broadcast from the area reports that "these people are violent, you have to be careful." When a team from Marker TV shows up, someone from the "coalition" arrives and says we may not photograph. When we respond that he's not the boss of the boulevard, he declares his intention to stand in front of the camera lens and block us. We move on.

Some of the veteran protesters recall how some of the same people have already struck a reporter from Army Radio and how a female reporter was left with black and blue marks after a violent confrontation. They also picked fights with members of Physicians for Human Rights, who erected a tent and offered first aid to the protesters. The doctors then threatened to leave, claiming that they had come to help, not to fight with anyone. One of them seemed shaken by what she had seen the previous night. Other veterans also note that one of those who screamed at MK Miri Regev when she came to the encampment last month was from the "coalition." He had in fact been served with an injunction prohibiting his return to Rothschild. Nonetheless, return he did.

The National Union of Israeli Students moved its initial headquarters from the edge of the boulevard to the area between Bar-Ilan and Balfour, after activists of the "coalition" forced them to leave. In spite of the hassle, the students opted to leave quietly in order to refrain from violence.

At night, other sinister sides of the encampment are revealed. Thefts are commonplace: Two laptops were stolen from the students' tent after the guard fell asleep. Many cases of sexual harassment were reported as well as three cases of attempted rape. A group of friendly masseurs, who showed up with their beds and offered free massages in the early days of the protests, were duly expelled after a few women complained. Several serial harassers were also expelled, and a protest tent of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers was put up. And still, despite the anarchic atmosphere and an accompanying feeling that this is a state within a state, a police officer is in constant touch with the representatives of the encampment. A dozen or so undercover cops are also present at all times.

'Take your clothes off'

The protest festival attracts many visitors. Local "parliaments," for example, neighborhood denizens, often pensioners, who congregate each day to discuss whatever needs discussing, are located at a number of different spots along the boulevard. The regulars of the "parliament" that convenes at the cafe on the corner of Rothschild and Mazeh mingle with the protesters. One of them, a man with long white hair, tries to reenact and revive the atmosphere of free love of the 1960s, and has a loud conversation with David, a young man who has been walking around the tents in boxer shorts since July 14. In the beginning he situated himself in the "veterans area" (between the Habima Theater and Hashmonaim Street ), but when the protest spread and shantipi activists built their "love tent" near Shenkin, he moved.

The white-haired man is trying to persuade David to stage a nude protest. "Take your clothes off and hold a demonstration in the encampment," he suggests, "that will definitely attract attention." David doesn't agree: "We'll all be arrested for indecent behavior," he claims. "No one will dare arrest you," the white-haired man insists.

At the headquarters, various people with ideas, or complaints, assemble. Many of them are members of a lonely hearts club: Israel broke their hearts, and they seek relief through commiseration. Sagi, who lived in Brazil, listens to the stories and tells his own: Three years ago, when the state celebrated 60 years of independence, a campaign was launched to bring Israelis abroad back home. Sagi succumbed to the temptation to return, and ever since he's been struggling to make ends meet, while continuing to send off child support for the son he left back in Brazil.

Two weeks ago, Holocaust survivors came to offer sympathy and support. One of them spoke about how much it pains her that her grandchildren can't buy an apartment in Israel. "It strengthened my resolve and made me understand why I'm here," says a young woman who listened to her story. "Beyond all the claims about a festival, and Woodstock and the hookahs and sushi, I understood how important it is for me to stay here for her sake," she says. Later a symbolic tent for Holocaust survivors is also erected.

Come Friday night, when a general meeting is called and is almost halted because of people claiming loudly and violently that their voices aren't being heard, an elderly man with an accordion shows up. He's looking for Tamar's tent. The residents try to help him but they haven't got the faintest idea who or what he's talking about. All he knows is that he was invited to play on Rothschild, between Shenkin and Balfour, at Tamar's kindergarten. After a while he finds his place, playing for dozens of happy children who have been invited for Kabbalat Shabbat at a tent belonging to one of the pre-army mechinot.

One evening, some jolly people in a red tourist bus drive by shouting, "The people demand social justice!" They seem pleased with themselves. The encampment's residents smile politely but otherwise ignore them. Later in the evening, a group of runners comes by amidst shouts and whistles. They are part of a Facebook group called "Running for Change." They run down the boulevard shouting revolutionary slogans in the humid evening.

Late in the afternoons, a pleasant breeze comes through the tents, many visitors flood the boulevard, and it's also time for the guest artists. Hip-hop band Hadag Nachash gives a spontaneous show for the lucky ones present in the area between Nachmani and Bezalel Yaffe. When evening falls, it's time for the scheduled shows.

Singer Si Himan performs in an area called "Arvut," which turns out to be run by the Kabbalah Center, whose people showed up two weeks ago and took over a piece of real estate between the students union and the "Sababylon" area. Unlike other groups, they don't seem to be lacking in funds and they invite passersbys for coffee and cake throughout the day. In the students' area, one can enjoy a performance by Habiluyim, and in the dome near Nachmani, Ivri Lider takes to the stage.

Apart from these scheduled performances, every few meters one can find an improvised drum circle. Usually, the instruments in residence are darbuka drums and guitars, with Tracy Chapman's "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution" being the most popular song.

Later, when the revolution tourists go home, the real shows begin. Berry Sakharof shows up one night to offer an acoustic show with selections from his entire repertoire, including requests from the audience. Ehud Banai and Knesiat Hasechel also give an acoustic show together, unannounced and without a sound system. Again, the songs are all requests from the audience.

There's also a place for children. In the art therapists' zone, they receive the kind of attention that is seriously lacking in the public health-care system. They join the singing, playing and drawing together with therapists and students, who are fighting for their rights together with the social workers, while psychology interns quietly discuss their agenda nearby. At headquarters, two industrious girls are producing colorful placards bearing the slogan, "The people create social justice."

At the tent for mothers of children with special needs - who share an area with the "protest filmmakers" - the children play on the grass. The heat and humidity don't seem to bother them as they enjoy the small playgrounds in the area. The section belonging to the Kibbutzim College is hosting a Revolution School, where "students" can learn about the basics of citizenship.

Small moments of grace abound. People happily help each other, and donate money, time and attention to each other. Often at midday, kindhearted people go by with boxes of Popsicles, distributing them to all. In order to contend with the lack of air conditioning, someone creative erected the ice tent, which is supposed to be filled with coolers loaded with ice. Unfortunately, when we check inside we find only the containers, but no ice.

Next to the students' area, someone erected a Skype tent, where each day at fixed hours, residents can come and communicate with people around the globe. It seems that every day, a new idea is introduced at the encampment to make life a little easier for protesters.

Every Friday evening, the Sabbath is welcomed with various ceremonies. In the headquarters, Chabad conducts a huge gathering. The Kabbalah Center's Arvut, and the tent belonging to the pre-army mechina, also draw huge numbers.

On the eve of Tisha B'Av, the festive atmosphere winds down, and the organizers post signs indicating that dinner has been moved up to 6 P.M., and that no music performances are planned. "We expect you to cooperate," say the signs. "Please respect this day." Most of the "permanent" residents agree, except for the Tippi tent, where the drumming continues. It seems that cynicism has left Rothschild Boulevard and made place for unity, and a belief in a revolution of love.

This protest may end without tangible success or clear-cut results, but it already can boast one great victory: for a month, Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, hipsters and people from the poor neighborhoods, have proved that they can live together in harmony.