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As Israel’s Protest Tents Grow, Chabad Counsels Calm

Israelis march in the center of Tel Aviv to protest rising housing prices.

Tel Hai College student union organizer Aviad Rosenfeld pitched his tent alongside dozens of others in this Kiryat Shmona protest against soaring housing prices. Slogans plastered on placards around him decried the rising rent and the injustice of failing to provide citizens who put their lives on the line in the army with the means to obtain a mortgage. On average housing prices throughout Israel have risen 60% since 2007.

Rosenfeld sweltered alongside his tent in Kiryat Shmona’s 104-degree (40 C) heat. Some students spaced out, their iPod earbuds firmly implanted. Ahead of them lay nothing but a little chanting, and a lot of time.

When Chabad Rabbi Moshe Sasonkin showed up on Friday, Rosenfeld and his friends passed the time asking their best stump-the-rabbi questions.

Rabbi Sasonkin did not come to protest even though he and his family have felt the pinch of a hot real estate market. Rent on his modest apartment jumped from 2000 NIS (US$590) to 3000 NIS (US$885) in the past two years.

“I came just to be their friend,” said Rabbi Sasonkin. “I care about their issues and feel their struggle.”

Since the first visit, Rabbi Sasonkin has been back twice a day. He’s shared lessons from the current Torah reading about the wisdom achieving aims through persistent, calm means. Today, the students requested books from his Chabad house library.

The first protest tents were assembled on Rothschild Street in Tel Aviv. At 4:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, the tent dwellers received eviction notices in the name of the mayor. Protestors wearing red t-shirts banged a tattoo on rolling plastic garbage cans in response, but no one took down the tents. Not yet.

Chabad at Tel Aviv University’s representative Rabbi Yeshayahu “Shai” Gerlitzsky knows many of the students living in the tent city. He’s not sure that protesting central Tel Aviv prices is a battle worth fighting. For him, living in Tel Aviv is a requirement that comes with the job. He’s been searching for a three-bedroom apartment in the area where an old, needs lots of TLC apartment goes for 6000 NIS (US$1,770) per month. “It would be better to live in Bat Yam,” a suburb near-by where rents are “at least fifty percent less.”

Tel Aviv University student Jeremy Dery is finishing up his master’s degree in conflict resolution, but he is not taking part in the protest. He hasn’t formally become an Israel citizen yet, so he does not think it is his battle to fight. He splits the cost of a 6000 NIS per month, three-bedroom apartment with two other students, but the high cost of living is not changing his mind about making Israel his permanent home. What gives him pause is word from the tent city denizens that their ultimate goal is not cheap rent but toppling the government.

A Haaretz newspaper poll found the 87% of Israelis support the tent protests. Israel’s labor federation announced this morning that it may call a general strike on August 1 in support of protestors. In Bet Shemesh, a mini-tent city is planned for this afternoon to protest the new housing units currently under construction for a specific population sector. Tomorrow, tots will be pushed in strollers adorned with yellow balloons in a Mothers’ March in Rishon Letzion, Netanya, Kfar Saba, and Hod Hasharon protesting the high cost of baby items and day care in Israel.

The protests come in midst of an ongoing doctors’ strike and after a social workers strike and a boycott organized against the price of cottage cheese. In a country with socialist roots, the strikes and protests have a storied past. The Israeli public is waiting to see where this latest wave will end.