Eti Chen, 34, single mother to a five-year-old boy, and the six other families living in her two-and-a-half-room apartment in the Katamonim will be homeless in less than two weeks. Her salary as a part-time caregiver for senior citizens, together with a disability allowance from the National Insurance Institute, isn’t enough to make ends meet. She can no longer afford the rent, and would need to have at least three children to qualify for public housing.
Three months ago, with no answer in sight, Chen, one of the 37 activists and homeless people evicted last Thursday from an abandoned building on Pinsker Street in Talbiyeh, initially joined the group at the tent protest in Gan Ha’ir (City Park). She felt she had “to do something to improve my situation,” she says.
Chen and the other homeless single mothers involved in the recent wave of social protests would be the first to admit they are not known for their liberal social and political views, but something has changed recently.
There has been an unusual but growing connection between the homeless mothers, mostly of Mizrahi origin (of Middle Eastern descent) – traditionally a right-wing sector – and radical young left-wing activists.
On their agenda are issues like feminism, citizens’ rights (including Arab citizens) and peace issues as seen from a Mizrahi point of view.
In early September, the municipality decided to dismantle the “tent cities” set up in the city’s parks and around the country as part of the summer’s social justice protests. In response, protesters held a demonstration in front of Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias’s home in Har Nof.
According to Chen, a policeman approached her, telling her discreetly that she should be aware that she was marching side by side with left-wingers anarchists.
“Yes, I know, and what’s wrong with that? Palestinians have rights too!” she told the astonished policeman.
Michael Salisbury, 32, who works for the Israel Council Against House Demolitions as a field coordinator for east Jerusalem, has been involved in the protest since its first days.
“One of the most important aspects of this struggle is its Mizrahi-female voice, and we are very careful not to hide it or distort it, despite what we perceive as the tendency of the media to ignore it,” he says.
What matters most, he adds, is to get the wider public used to the idea that “a Mizrahi single mother can be a social leader, and that the days when white Ashkenazi men would speak on their behalf are over, at least here.”
Salisbury was born in Jerusalem and was brought up Orthodox by a single mother in Gilo and Pisgat Ze’ev. At 21 he left for the US, where he went to the University of California, Berkeley, where, he says with a broad smile, he learned everything one needs to know to promote political and social changes in society.
Since his return three years ago, Salisbury has been part of a few highly publicized struggles – the Anarchists Against the Wall and Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity.
“I joined the tent protest from its first day to be a part of this struggle taking place inside the Jewish society…and also because for me, it was a way to do a tikkun [correction or repair] to what my mother went through, as a single mother who lived in public housing.”
Following the municipality’s decision to dismantle the tents in the city’s parks and allow only one central tent in Sacher Park, several homeless families, accompanied by social activists, decided to continue their own, separate protest.
Idan Pink, a tour guide and social activist who was part of the single mothers’ protest at City Park from the beginning, says they realized that with colder weather approaching, “something had to be done, and quickly.”
“We decided to squat and continue the struggle, no matter what was decided in Tel Aviv. We called our protest the ‘No choice tent protest,’ and moved on,” she says.
Before the tents in City Park came down, Pink and the other members of the group had already moved into a building in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood owned by the Hebrew University.
Under Israeli law, squatters who have resided in a building for over 30 days cannot be evicted without a court order. Accordingly, the protesters kept quiet at first, in the hope that if they managed to remain unnoticed for a month, the courts would rule in their favor. The media caught wind of the move, however, and they were evicted.
After the eviction, the protesters decided to avoid privately owned buildings, and moved into an unoccupied building at 11 Pinsker Street in the upscale Talbiyeh neighborhood. According to the squatters, the property is owned by the Israel Lands Authority.
This time, they were able to keep their location quiet for the required period, following which they held a press conference to clarify their aims, in which the slogan “End of story: no more empty buildings while people are in the streets” was released to the press. The protesters also established the Hamaabara.wordpress.com website, where developments are posted regularly, including the videos of the press conference.
The four leading protesters – three single mothers and a father – were adamant that they weren’t looking for charity.
“We are not ‘unfortunates,’ but citizens with rights,” says Dror Mizrahi, 42, a father of six (with a seventh child on the way). “We are facing cruel bureaucracy, which sends us to live on the streets, while we all know that millions of shekels are waiting in the government’s coffers to implement its decision to buy us public housing. Most of us are recognized as entitled to its support, yet the Finance Ministry is preventing the public housing companies from buying houses for us.”
According to the Public Housing Law, with the money the state gets from selling public houses to their present tenants (at very low prices) the housing companies (Amidar, Prazot, etc.) must purchase new houses for those qualifying for public housing.
However, this law was frozen in 2001 following the Treasury’s decision to include it in the Economic Arrangements Law. The result of this is that the funds, some NIS 3.5 billion, remain in the hands of the Treasury as no new housing is purchased. Those entitled to public housing have to be satisfied with a certificate to that effect, and are afraid they will have to wait indefinitely.
Seven homeless families and eight social activists shared the accommodations at 11 Pinsker Street (there are in fact more activists, but these eight were present on a daily basis). While some of the activists moved in with the homeless families, most split their time between the protest and their usual activities – studying and working – and spent at least some nights in their own homes. In the mornings, hardly anyone was in the building.
Activities began in the early afternoon and reached their peak in the evenings, with long, intense, passionate debates at the daily meetings, where every step – from speaking to a journalist to what kind of food should be cooked – was freely discussed and agreed upon.
At the daily meetings, as was the case back in the tents on King George Avenue, issues for debate had to be registered in advance, and people listened to each other with patience, waiting their turn to speak.
While the core of the group remains the homeless single mothers, the official voice and the style of actions taken by the protesters increasingly came to resemble that more typical of radical social activists. This included everything from the language used (“liberated buildings”) to the internal organization (daily discussion meetings, with strict rules of participation, the extensive use of websites and Internet communications and contacts with the press), together with a focus on collective, as opposed to individual, rights.
There has also been a slow but steady leftward shift in the political orientation of these families, with many displaying increasing sympathy for the rights of Palestinians.
There can be no doubt that the changes are more than just skin deep; it’s not only the lexicon of the homeless Jerusalemites that is changed, but also their mind-set.
But the social activists say they’re not trying to convince anyone.
“The most important thing we have all understood is that we, the social activists and students, have not joined the protesters to teach them anything or to help them from a position of superiority,” says Pink.
“Rather, [we’re joining] forces in a common struggle that concerns us all – whether we are homeless single mothers or social activists who have a decent job and a roof above their head.”
Pink and her friends strongly believe that only by combining the radical social activism of university students or graduates with people whose lives have always been on the margins will the “Jerusalem Struggle” as they call it, have a chance of success.
They say that the activists and the families disagree on many things, but emphasize that “we are not here to teach them, we are here to conduct a profound and crucial struggle for a better society here and thus we are very careful not to look down on them.”
Both Salisbury and Pink are working people whose participation in the homeless people’s struggle came out of profound identification with the problems of single mothers, mostly Mizrahi, who have been, according to them, unable to reach a level of education that would allow them to live a decent life.
“It is not a decision to lead a Mizrahi struggle, but the fact is that all these women are the product of an oppressive Westernized capitalist society that has deprived them of their most basic rights,” explains Salisbury.
Pink adds that though she and her friends are aware of some cultural gaps and problems, this is not a reason not to support the women.
“We acknowledge the problems – feminism, awareness of the rights of the others, like the Palestinians, and all these aspects are not exactly the attitudes that characterize these women – but we are all working together slowly on changing at least the mindset, and we never forget that these are the results of years of oppression by the establishment.”