Homeless in the Homeland

Milk and Honey Runs Dry for Israel's Jewish Poor

In one of the stores lining Tel Aviv's Downtown Square, a pair of Miu Miu pumps adorned with raspberry and pink paillettes are half off at 900 New Israeli Shekels (about $215). Kikar Hamedina, as the "square" is called in Hebrew, is actually a circle, the largest, most elegant roundabout in the city. It's ringed with designer boutiques both foreign and Israeli—Gucci, Gaultier, Helmut Lang—and coffee bars peddling $5 iced cappuccinos; the center is adorned with flowering shrubs and a large fountain. And a shantytown.

About 50 men, women, and children with nowhere else to go live in the Kikar Hamedina, which they have renamed with a large banner "Kikar Halechem," or Bread Square. They have been here almost a year. In July, a municipal court temporarily blocked the city from evicting them, but a Supreme Court ruling expected as early as this week could give police the power to clear them out.

For now, their settlement consists of some camper buses; an outdoor kitchen, under a tarp and powered by a gasoline generator; several tents in various stages of repair; and some tables and chairs set in the shade. Life-size effigies hang from the trees, bearing the legends in Hebrew "Died of Hunger," "Died of Humiliation," and "Avtelei" (a play on words meaning both "unemployment" and "father-hanging"). Tel Aviv residents walk their dogs and shop for camisoles not 50 feet away, scarcely glancing at the Kikar Halechem or its inhabitants.

Camp leader Yisrael Tuitu, his oldest daughter Shani, and resident Mark
photo: Anya Kamenetz
Camp leader Yisrael Tuitu, his oldest daughter Shani, and resident Mark

Yisrael Tuitu, 38, a dignified-looking man with close-cropped hair and a sweet expression, greets a visitor with a simple "I am the leader here." A cold liter of Coke is fetched from a nearby kiosk and Tuitu unpacks his long story of grievance and activism.

"I go to the army when I am 18, in 1983. When I am 19 and a half, in the Golani, I have an accident. September 1984. I am in the hospital for 14 months. Leg, back, head." He pulls his eyelid down to show a scar, a short row of healed stitches. Meanwhile, flies swarm around the table, Tuitu's cell phone rings regularly, and a snaggletoothed old woman named Valentina laments her fate on a bench two or three feet away. A man named Mark occasionally supplies Tuitu with an English word.

"The army give me nothing. I have a wife and three daughters. We live in the bus." He gestures to his camper, which is decorated with anti-poverty slogans. He says the army eventually supplied him with a pension of about $350 a month, but he needed so many operations on his back that he couldn't keep a steady job. His wife was also sick and often in the hospital. In time they divorced, and he feared he would lose custody of the children. "I go to the TV, radio, paper and tell them, why me in the street with three children?"

Tuitu's misfortunes coincided with a startling shift in Israel's economic situation over the past two decades. Although the image lingers, both at home and abroad, of a country with a strong socialist legacy and a dedication to embracing and absorbing destitute Jewish immigrants, the state welfare apparatus has begun to strain and buckle. In June, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked Jewish charities in the U.S. not to focus on images of Israeli poverty when making their appeals, for fear it would hurt tourism and immigration. "One must not present the state as a hunger-stricken state," Sharon said, according to UPI. "There is poverty but there is no hunger."

State facts say otherwise. The split between rich and poor, once one of the smallest among industrialized nations, widened rapidly in the 1980s; a special report by the Knesset committee on social gaps in December 2002 found that the gross income per family in the top 10 percent is more than 12 times higher than in the bottom 10 percent. Among developed countries, that disparity is second only to the one in the United States. The number of poor children in Israel rose by 50 percent over the past 14 years, and the number of poor families went up by almost 30 percent; today, one in six families lives in poverty, including 25 percent of all children. In the first quarter of 2003, unemployment hit a 10-year high of 10.8 percent.

The situation for Israel's poor has worsened even though social welfare spending almost doubled over the past 20 years, to a staggering 54 percent of the budget. Several factors account for this. Thousands of guest workers from Thailand and the Philippines were brought over in the mid '90s to lessen the reliance on Palestinian agricultural, construction, and home-health-care workers. The foreigners, employed by temp agencies like the giant Manpower, work 40 percent cheaper than Israelis. Nearly 80 percent of ultra-Orthodox men do not work, up from 50 percent in 1980; the "black-hat" communities are marked by high birthrates and a reliance on state subsidies. And, of course, Israel's perpetual state of war, which has intensified since the second intifada in September 2000, has had a variety of detrimental effects on the economy, the disappearance of tourism and the high cost of security and infrastructure in the territories being just two.

Tuitu, unlike most Israelis, has many of these statistics at his fingertips. "The danger to Israel is not from Palestine, not from Hezbollah, not from Iran," he says. "It is from the people that don't have a way to live, don't have a house. And every day many people come to this situation." Beginning in the late '90s, Tuitu won the support of some far-left members of the Knesset for actions like pitching a tent in front of then prime minister Ehud Barak's offices for three months. Barak seemed moveable. Then came his defeat in a landslide by hard-line right-winger Ariel Sharon in the 2001 elections. "Sharon is the second Stalin," spits Valentina from her post on the bench.

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