Homeless Truths in Tel Aviv

Israelis have been bombarded with images of a homeless tent camp this week, but their interest will vanish quicker than the winter storms.

Daniel Bar-On

The tent encampment for homeless people on a small plot of land opposite Tel Aviv’s central train station is suddenly in vogue. During the past week’s storm, television crews sought out those helpless folk that the news broadcasters always need to galvanize viewers sitting in the safety of their warm living rooms.

There’s a limit to the extent to which viewers can get excited over snowmen. Furthermore, it’s not always possible to find a woman giving birth in a car stuck in a traffic jam. No, it’s not a real winter storm without moving scenes of some poor paupers. Nothing warms the heart like a little pity for someone who is really freezing in the cold. Authentic victims are required.

We have to acknowledge that people are a little tired of seeing an old woman with an empty refrigerator. Or the elderly man lying on a bed, dressed in a winter army coat, stocking cap and covered with wool blankets, who lifts his head toward the camera, as if caught unaware by the arrival of a reporter to his bedroom. And the scene is simply too similar to the man who featured in that recent report on the plight of childless, lonely Holocaust survivors – and in Israel, of all places!

So it’s fortunate that at least there is this tent city. In general, homeless people are perfect fodder to feed the fake phenomenon of national solidarity, which only intensifies as poverty spreads and income disparities grow. Unfortunately, however, most of them emit unpleasant body odors that make it hard for the film crews to stick around. And they look so neglected with their unkempt beards – not visually appealing enough to appear on high-def TV. And they’re either drunk or high, and they mumble in a language that isn’t Hebrew. And, truth be told, it’s also really not appropriate to show children some gaunt, toothless women with needle marks on their arms.

Therefore, it’s fortunate – really fortunate – that there’s this homeless camp opposite the train station. These are articulate people, sober and clean. They aren’t just downtrodden and submissive.

They put up a fight, have full stomachs, but they’re angry and even spout ideology. This is the golden fleece – the entire civil agenda rolled into one.

Does it include the protests over the cost of living and housing prices? Check. Homeless people who get soaked overnight in the rain? Check. The infuriating response of apathetic municipal officials? Check. And will they also be there tomorrow, so it will be easy to produce a follow-up? Check. Are they Jewish? Check. And as a bonus, they’re all gathered in one spot.

Furthermore, it happens to be a convenient film location with excellent access by car and train, too.

Tel Aviv residents have been passing these people for the past two and a half years without blinking an eye. Still, at least they gave them a curious glance from their passing cars. The encampment is like some kind of building scaffolding that gets put up over the course of years, something you get used to seeing by the side of the road. It’s part of the landscape. Sometimes you might be able to notice it getting bigger or smaller.

But the hordes of people from the cost-of-living protests in 2011, which centered around precisely the same issue, shirk responsibility for the denizens of this gray and weary tent camp.

Things are different here from the tent protesters of 2011. Families from the cities of Rishon Letzion or Holon, or further south in Ashdod, don’t take evening strolls among the tents this time around. High-school students from Netanya don’t come to spend a night of adventure here and try to pick up Tel Aviv girls.

Hipsters are currently too busy working on behalf of African refugees at the Holot detention camp in the south. The tent camp in Tel Aviv doesn’t have a political lobby advocating on its behalf. There are no branding efforts for it, no PR woman.

And when the current storm is over, the residents of the tent camp will again become invisible. And I won’t write a word about them, either.