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House Proud

Protests against increasing housing prices in Israel shake the Netanyahu government. But in the tent cities erected as part of the campaign, the conversation is about civil society.

Daniella Cheslow
August 02, 2011
The activists wake up sprawled on mattresses on Rothschild Boulevard on Wednesday, July 27.(Daniella Cheslow)
The activists wake up sprawled on mattresses on Rothschild Boulevard on Wednesday, July 27.(Daniella Cheslow)

Moria Ben Barak shares a Tel Aviv apartment with her boyfriend. She studies philosophy at Tel Aviv University and tutors at-risk youth after school. But when Ben Barak’s landlord raised her monthly rent of 4,000 shekels, or about $1,150 a month, by 700 shekels, or about $200, three weeks ago, the 32-year-old pitched a silver tent on a grassy strip on Rothschild Boulevard, the stately main street of downtown Tel Aviv.

“I came here to sleep even though my boyfriend tried to tempt me with air-conditioning and ice cream,” Ben Barak said. “My lease ends on August 18, and from my point of view I’ll stay here after it ends and sleep here every night.”

Ben Barak is one of more than 400 Israelis who pitched tents on Rothschild in the last three weeks to protest the high cost of housing in Israel. The usually tidy center of Tel Aviv’s banking district has been transformed into a pop-up urban festival, drawing thousands of people each night to strum guitars, drink beer, and listen to lectures. It has spawned a nationwide uprising that saw 150,000 protesters on the streets Saturday, saying that under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s economic system, they cannot pay their bills.

Netanyahu convened a task force to find solutions to the housing crisis and to lower the tax burden of the middle class in Israel. It is another sign of the government’s concern over the protests, which grow each week to include the secular and religious, left and right, Jews and Arabs. Last week Netanyahu canceled a one-day trip to Poland and unveiled a list of housing reforms aimed at students. But the protesters rejected those overtures, saying they will not get at the root of Israel’s growing social inequality. Now Israelis wonder whether, like the Arab Spring, the tents will get them real gains, or if the protests are one long summer party.

“We work hard, we pay taxes, we go to the army and we contribute to society,” said Noemi Seroussi, 24, sitting on a couch on Rothschild Boulevard one night last week. “We need the government to ensure we have the basics, like housing and food at reasonable prices, public transportation, and everything a person can expect in a democratic state.”


The heart of the tent city is on the nearly mile-long boulevard that stretches from the Habima National Theater to Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The boulevard is named for Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, scion of the wealthy French Jewish banking family and a philanthropist who underwrote significant portions of the Zionist settlement project. Today Israel’s major banks are headquartered on and around the street.

Traffic moves in two lanes around a wide center divider where pedestrians and cyclists make their way over grass or sand. On the last Tuesday in July, every empty patch was occupied by a tent. One tent bore a sign, “Rothschild the corner of Tahrir Square,” a nod to the protests that fueled the Egyptian revolution. Another announced yoga at 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. Volunteers ate at a shaded kitchen, complete with four generator-powered refrigerators and piles of donated fruits, vegetables, sugar, and coffee. A string quartet played Haydn on a street corner. At 11 p.m., dozens of bikers and rollerbladers whizzed past the camp, cheering on the activists.

“We only sleep in the tents,” said Kochavit Kdoshin, 34, a painter in Tel Aviv who joined the protest. “We live in the public space. It’s amazing.”

The following morning, the camp looked like a 12-block hangover. Activists without tents sprawled on mattresses and old sofas. Others groggily read newspapers and books in the glaring July sun. Itay Auerbach, 26, lounged on a sofa and perused the headlines of Yedioth Ahronoth, the Israeli daily, the front pages plastered with photographs of the tent camp.

“The really interesting stuff is what’s happening right here,” Auerbach said.

Protests and demonstrations are common in Israel, but they are nearly always focused on issues of war and peace. Yair Sheleg, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the recent deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has created a space for activists to confront domestic issues.

“The public discourse is changing,” Sheleg said. “All the time we dealt mainly with the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we didn’t pay attention to the economic issues.”

While Tel Aviv’s strong left-wing stance on the Palestinian cause can alienate more moderate or right-wing supporters, the tent city protesters’ demands for affordable housing have been a hit among mainstream Israelis, enjoying the support of 87 percent of the public, according to a poll by Haaretz.

“People ask about the Israeli miracle, about how it can be that when all over the Western world there so many problems with debt and budget balancing, Israel seems to be the miracle,” Sheleg said, referring to Israel’s prosperity. “So, Israelis think that there is a lot of money in the national economy, and they also want their share in this fortune.”

Indeed, Israel is fast becoming one of the world’s most unequal economies. This year, Israel became the 34th member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of economically advanced countries. Yet it ranks fifth in income inequality, driven in part by the low employment of ultra-Orthodox men and Arab women. Moreover, housing prices have risen faster than incomes, according to a study by Dan Ben Shahar of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. Ben Shahar found that between 1989 and 2008, the number of standard monthly incomes needed to purchase the average home rose from 47 to 60.

Economist Ayal Kimhi said housing is expensive because construction has lagged behind population growth. But the demand for public housing may be misguided. “In the bad old days, when the government set all prices, the government would build apartments itself,” Kimhi said. “But price-controlled housing means you get the lowest quality.”

The activists calling for cheaper housing do not mind. On Wednesday, 200 demonstrators from the Jerusalem tent camp marched to Netanyahu’s private apartment in the Rehavia neighborhood, carrying two tents aloft and banging pots and pans. “Ben-Gurion lived in a barracks,” they shouted. “Begin lived in three rooms! Bibi needs three apartments!”

Tal Dwek, 25, did not march with the protesters because he was strapping a double mattress to his car. He studies medicine at Hebrew University and is moving in with his parents because he cannot afford his rent and tuition.

“There are very few scholarships, and no discounts,” he said. “I hope this story will blow up. It’s about time people said, ‘Enough.’ ”

The nationwide protest Saturday was the latest in a line of demonstrations. On Thursday, 4,000 parents walked their children down Rothschild Boulevard in a “stroller march” against the high cost of raising Israeli children. On the last Saturday of July, as many as 10,000 people marched through Tel Aviv demanding affordable housing. The next day, 1,000 activists picketed the Knesset in Jerusalem. The momentum of the protest is striking. Inspired by the tent camps, Tzvika Besor created a Facebook page calling for a strike yesterday. “I’m 36, married with a year-and-a-quarter-old son. I bought an apartment in Givatayim. With a crazy 30-year mortgage,” Besor wrote. “I plan to strike because I have had enough.” His call drew 18,000 online supporters within four days, along with a pledge from Israeli mayors to stop municipal services Monday in solidarity with the protesters.

The protesters say they feel empowered by the Arab Spring. At the rally in Tel Aviv a week ago, activists held placards that read “Assad, Mubarak, Netanyahu.” They called out, “The people want social justice!” in the same cadence as the Arab Spring battle cry of “The people want to topple the regime!”

“People paid with their lives in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria for the right to live in freedom,” said Eyal Tarchitzky, an activist on Rothschild Boulevard. “I see these people as an example. They got to the point where they couldn’t live anymore, and they made some major achievements.”

The problem is that no easy solutions are in sight. Kimhi said the tent protesters are riding a wave of confidence a month after a successful consumer boycott of cottage cheese led the three Israeli dairy corporations to cancel a price hike.

“It was very simple,” Kimhi said. “The government didn’t interfere, and the manufacturers decided to lower the prices. There are only three or four manufacturers. But housing is a huge market with lots of players. There won’t be a decision by three or four landlords to lower rents.”

The vagueness of the protesters’ goals may also limit their ability to promote change. With many groups—students, parents, and more recently, settlers and Arabs—involved there is no clear vision, researcher Sheleg said. “Only if [the protesters] articulate their demands and plans can the government negotiate with them,” Sheleg said. “But if this is a general emotional protest against the system, the danger is that after some days or weeks, the government will give them nothing because they will be satisfied with nothing.”

But a focused protest could potentially kick the legs out from Netanyahu’s coalition, said Mario Sznajder, chairman of Hebrew University’s political science department. He said that though the protests haven’t yet gained enough momentum, they have the potential to create enough problems in the ruling coalition to bring about early elections.

Whatever its results, the tent uprising has inspired a national discussion of values that for some is already satisfying. Nevo Ben-Knaan is a 31-year-old sound engineer who lives near Rothschild Boulevard. The tent protesters asked him to join them on the first day, but he declined. “I said no, I’m not political,” he said. “But slowly I saw this is not political at all. It’s much more than a hang out. People hang out in malls, bars, and concerts and it all costs money. Here there’s a real connection, where you can talk to each other.”

Last week, Ben-Knaan sat on a bench along Rothschild Boulevard with tents lining the grass in front of him. Behind, a man lounged in an orange hammock. Down the boulevard, in a makeshift living room, 80 activists hashed out a vision for their revolution, working off a document called “Vision for the Revolution: Draft Four,” where eight numbered clauses called for equality, freedom of religion, a right to housing, and sustainable growth.

Ben-Knaan said, “Discussions like this about social issues haven’t happened since Rabin’s assassination.”

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.