A Roof, A Bed, and A Table

Didn’t it feel good to see the rain come down this winter, healing our drought, filling our reservoirs and river, bringing the tangy scent of petrichor? Wasn’t it sweet to curl up under a blanket, falling asleep to the soothing rumble of rain on the roof?

But what if there was no roof? What if you had no home, not even a car, and the shelters were full or too far away? What if there were children with you looking for your protection? If all you owned was what you could carry or push in a shopping cart and the bit of tarp you were able to get wouldn’t keep everything dry?

We Jews are obliged to think about things like that. Not only when the homeless person on the corner turns out to be someone we know (so many people are one paycheck away from homelessness) but also when that person is someone we’ve never seen before. Too often, people without homes move unacknowledged and untouched through the world of the housed like emissaries from some other reality, a ghost world interlaced through ours. We Jews are told, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus/Shmot 23:9) and “Love/befriend the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Deuteronomy/Devarim 10:19)

Yes, as autonomous Americans we might bristle, but the Torah is not just telling us what to do, it’s telling us how to feel. Our tradition requires that we not only act to assist the stranger, the widow and the orphan—the most powerless among us—but also to accept the pain of empathy. We are to open our hearts to the world’s suffering. As the Kotsker Rebbe teaches, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”

The only way to live with a heart filled to bursting is through action, through doing what we can. Our tradition is not something we observe only every week in synagogue on Shabbos, it is how we live each day.

We learn, in Deuteronomy/Devarim 15: 7-8, “If there is among you someone needy, one of your kin, within the gates of the land that HaShem your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy companion. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for what he lacks and is wanting.” The rabbis interpreted this instruction in a very concrete way to do with housing. Talmud Bavli Ketubot 67b tell us, “Our Rabbis taught: If an orphan applied for assistance to marry, a house must be rented for him, a bed must be prepared for him along with utensils he needs and then he is married, for it is said in Scriptures, ‘Sufficient for what he lacks and is wanting.’ ‘Sufficient for what he lacks’ refers to the house; ‘is wanting’, refers to a bed and a table.”

Our Talmudic rabbis, the founders of our way of life, understood community as a web of relationship and mutual obligation. They understand that, even in our unredeemed world of rich and poor and unpredictable fortune, there is a level below which we should not allow anyone to descend.

Rabbi Doctor Aryeh Cohen, Rabbi-in-Residence for Southern California’s Bend the Arc chapter, explores this in his essential book of Talmudic analysis Justice in the City. He shows how the rabbinic community of mutual obligation and acknowledged interdependence became the normative Jewish model for city life. As members of a polity, we are obliged to act in ways that reflect our Jewish values.

To act, we need to be informed. So, through the lens of hard cold numbers, what is the housing situation in our city?

At least 26,000 people in the city of Los Angeles are homeless, and 300,000 families are one emergency away from losing their homes.

60% of people in our city who do have homes are renters, which would be fine except that the rent is too high. As of March 2017, one bedroom apartments in Los Angeles rent for $2243 a month on average and two bedroom apartment rents average $2978.

What can be done? As a city, we’ve made steps toward addressing the problem. Last year, voters approved Proposition HHH to provide $1.2 billion for safe, clean housing and supportive services to lift people out of desperation and put them on the road to a better life and Proposition JJJ to ensure that developers who want zoning changes for new housing will hire local workers, including veterans, and include affordable and workforce-priced housing in their developments.

We can do more. The Mayor has proposed a Linkage Fee on new developments to create a dedicated fund for affordable housing in our city. Neighboring cities, such as Pasadena and Santa Monica, already charge such fees as do major cities throughout the country, and they are not driving developers away. It is time for us to reach out to our councilmembers and tell them to support this fee. We taxpayers have already pledged to contribute more. Why should not developers, who benefit from our city, contribute to making it better for everyone?

Richard Bloom, a California legislator, has introduced a two-year bill to repeal Costa-Hawkins, the state law that blocks cities from creating effective rent control. He and other legislators have also brought AB 1505, a bill to allow cities to require affordable housing units in new developments. If you support AB  1505 and 1506, please let your state representatives know.

When our ancestors first came to this country, city life, with all its dangers and difficulties, offered a way to survive and then thrive, to preserve our tradition while learning to be part of this country. Rising rents threaten to take that opportunity away from this generation’s immigrants. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.

How to get L.A. to update its community plans—finally

Update the community plans now!

That is the good government proposal of choice in Los Angeles, the recommendation that candidates, elected officials, and blue-ribbon commissions make over and over. The theory behind the recommendation is that, without thoughtful and up-to-date community plans, the city lacks clear direction to guide decision-making about land use in our communities. And such guidance is vital at a time when many Angelenos want to create more livable neighborhoods.

The city of Los Angeles has 35 community plans—also called the “land use element” of the city’s legally required General Plan. (Cities have general plans to provide a comprehensive and long-range statement of priorities to guide public decision-making across various policy areas.) The city council adopted the current community plans in the 1980s and 1990s—meaning that they are decades out of date. L.A. was a younger and faster-growing city 30 years ago than it is today, and many of our neighborhoods have been changed by development and demography.

Our current obsession with updating the plans dates to a decade ago, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Director of Planning Gail Goldberg made updating the community plans a cornerstone of their broader approach to city planning. As conceived then, 35 separate updates, called “new community plans,” would be prepared and adopted over an eight-year period until all 35 community plans were in the hopper.

But, as of this writing, the City Council has adopted only three updated community plans—for Hollywood, Sylmar, and Granada Hills. The Hollywood plan envisioned taller buildings along major east-west boulevards and a denser core around Hollywood and Highland. But its methodology and content were so slipshod that in 2013 Superior Court Judge Alan Goodman rejected the update, as well as its voluminous “up-zoning” ordinances (which increased building densities and heights in Hollywood), its general plan amendments, and its companion environmental impact report.

To comply with Judge Goodman’s court order, the City Council reinstated the previous Hollywood community plan (1988), restored the zoning laws it had rescinded, and agreed to pay nearly $2 million in legal bills to the community groups and law firms that successfully challenged the updated plan.

Since that experience, the City Council has been reluctant to adopt additional updates, and understandably so. Why approve another round of flawed plans that could just meet the same judicial fate?

Of course, the delays haven’t stopped people from calling for updated plans. Last year, the City Council’s little noticed LA 2020 Commission’s Time For Action report criticized the delays and recommended that the Department of City Planning update all 35 community plans. Like most of the commission’s recommendations, this proposal received little traction at city hall. Instead, Planning has focused on revamping L.A.’s zoning code citywide through re:code LA in order to achieve the same goal as the community plan updates: up-zoning much of Los Angeles to permit greater density, uses, and heights.

This approach is shortsighted because community plans have great potential to change the city. They are the only parts of the General Plan that can readily amend local zoning and planning ordinances—and they are best way to enact detailed zoning and planning amendments that change local uses, densities, and heights in community plan areas.

While up-zoning is only one feature of the community plans, it happens to be the focus of most calls for updates. So city planners should not take calls for updates lightly.

But they are not a panacea. Community plans do have limits—they are not the way to make changes to emergency services, infrastructure, parks, streets, bike lanes, libraries, or schools. To update the plans that govern Los Angeles, we need to do much more. Why are there so few people demanding updates to the air quality, public safety, and conservation elements of the General Plan? Why not also update the other outdated discretionary general plan elements, such as the well-regarded framework element (a strategy for the city’s long-term growth that was last updated in 2001) or the totally forgotten 47-year-old infrastructure element (last updated in 1968)? Why not link the recently adopted mobility (transportation) element to the community plan updates, since mobility is now a high priority at city hall?

Here’s my answer to all these questions: Since the focus on updating the community plans right away hasn’t produced new community plans, why not try another approach—and update the other citywide plans first?

After all, the community plans are supposed to apply the citywide General Plan (and its various required and optional elements) to local communities. So, before you put in place community plans and apply them locally, it’d be best if the city would update that General Plan and its elements (housing, transportation, mobility, and the framework) first. It’s the logical approach.

But, big surprise, the general plan elements are also wildly out-of-date too. Why?

The official reason is lack of staff. But there also does not appear to be much interest in timely, comprehensive city planning among L.A.’s elected and appointed officials. Since real estate speculators need to move in and out of projects quickly, they prefer a deregulated environment that accommodates their abrupt investment decisions—without environmental reviews. The institutional culture of local government in Los Angeles has fully absorbed their outlook; the city planning units dealing with general plan updates are perpetually under-resourced. 

The entire city General Plan is also barely monitored. Since municipal plans are only as good as their monitoring programs, any general plan element that is not regularly and comprehensively monitored can quickly become irrelevant. In contrast, well-prepared, closely tracked general plans are invaluable tools that can smooth out the bumps of business and budget cycles through zoning and environmental regulations that meet long-term goals, rather than immediate political pressures.

Perhaps the City Council’s recent adoption of the new mobility element is an opportunity to start updating the other elements—most of which are out-of-date—before tackling the community plans. These updates should be based on current census data, not fanciful extrapolations that give the false impression that Los Angeles is on the verge of another population boom.

In addition, the city should also prepare two other optional citywide general plan elements—climate change and economic development—instead of leaving these to strictly short-term, ad hoc actions by the mayor or the City Council.  

With these in place, the City Planning Department could then prepare those spectacular local plans we keep hearing about but have not yet prepared or enacted.

This post orginally appeared on Zocalo Public Square.

Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who is now a contributor to City Watch L.A. and is on the Board of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association. He welcomes questions and comments at rhplatkin@gmail.com.

Sacha Baron Cohen, Isla Fisher donate $1 million to help Syrians

British actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and his wife, actress Isla Fisher, have donated some $1 million to help Syrian children.

The couple is giving about half the sum to the Save the Children charity to pay for measles vaccinations for children in northern Syria and the rest will go to the International Rescue Committee to help refugees in Syria and in neighboring countries. The latter donation will help pay for health care, housing and sanitation, the French news agency AFP reported Sunday.

Cohen, who is Jewish, starred as Borat in the movie of the same name and in other films. Fisher converted to Judaism when she married Cohen.

The New York-based IRC is run by former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who is Jewish.

Israel to announce 5,000 new settler homes

Israel will announce construction plans for about 5,000 new housing units in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The plans include the 1,500 housing units announced Tuesday night to be constructed in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, Haaretz reported Thursday, as well as 2,500 new units throughout the West Bank in major settlement blocs and isolated settlements.

Lots for some 860 housing units will be sold to contractors for immediate construction in Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, Givat Zeev, Betar Ilit, Karnei Shomron and Elkana, which are part of the major settlement blocs.

Plans for the construction of 1,400 new units throughout the West Bank will be submitted to the Civil Administration’s planning committee. Construction would take several years.

Another 1,100 units, which had already been submitted to the Civil Administration’s planning committee, will be advanced, though it will take at least a year before construction begins, according to Haaretz.

Plans also were announced Tuesday to build a national park in areas east of the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus between the Palestinian neighborhoods of Isawiyah and A-Tur; and the Kedem Center, a tourism and archaeological center in the Palestinian village of Silwan opposite the entrance to the City of David.

Ophir Akunis, the Likud deputy minister for liaison with the Knesset, provided details of the settlement plans in a government meeting Wednesday that was picked up by the Israeli media.

The construction projects are meant to appease those who were against the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The freed prisoners had participated in terror attacks that killed Jews.

The plans were condemned by the Palestinian Authority and the U.S. State Department, as well as by United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon and the European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

Building plan for eastern Jerusalem’s Gilo advances

A plan to build nearly 900 apartments in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo was approved on the eve of scheduled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The final approval by the Interior Ministry came late Monday. The plan now goes to the Housing Ministry and the Israel Lands Administration for approval.

The plan was approved by the ministry’s regional planning and building committee in December, according to Haaretz, but ministry approval was delayed by changes to the plan.

Monday’s announcement came a day after the announcement that Israel would issue tenders for construction companies to build 1,200 apartments in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.

Palestinian negotiators have threatened to boycott the opening of the first new peace negotiations in three years, scheduled for Wednesday in Jerusalem, over the issue of the new settlement construction announcements.

“Settlement expansion goes against the U.S. administration’s pledges and threatens to cause the negotiations’ collapse,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, told the French news agency AFP following the announcement. “This settlement expansion is unprecedented. It threatens to make talks fail even before they’ve started.”

Editorial cartoon: Housing Bubble


Germany commits to additional $800 million for home care for Holocaust survivors

The German government agreed to significantly expand its funding of home care for infirm Holocaust survivors and relax eligibility criteria for restitution programs to include Jews who spent time in so-called open ghettos.

The agreement, reached after negotiations in Israel with the Claims Conference, will result in approximately $800 million in new funding for home care for Holocaust survivors from 2014 to 2017. This is in addition to $182 million for 2014 that already has been committed.

In 2015, the amount will rise by 45 percent, to approximately $266 million, and then to $273 million in 2016 and $280 million in 2017. Because the sums are set in euro, the actual amounts may change depending on currency fluctuations.

The $84 million increase in funding between 2014 and 2015 will represent the largest year-over-year increase since the program began with 30 million euro (approximately $36.6 million) in 2004, though a bigger percentage increase took place in 2010, when funding doubled from 55 million euro ($68 million) to 110 million euro ($136 million).

“With this new agreement, the Claims Conference will be able to both increase the number of beneficiaries, thus eliminating waiting lists of survivors for home care, as well as increase the number of hours per person to a minimum level of dignity,” Claims Conference board chairman Julius Berman wrote in a letter to the board.

Some 56,000 survivors are now receiving home care through the Claims Conference.

The announcement of new funding comes amid controversy for the Claims Conference over revelations related to bungled investigations in 2001 that failed to detect a broad fraud at the Holocaust restitution organization. A document obtained last week by JTA showed that top Claims Conference officials were involved in the botched probes, including then-executive vice president Gideon Taylor and Berman, who in 2001 served as outside counsel to the Claims Conference.

Claims Conference employee Semen Domnitser, a director of two restitution funds who was at the center of the 2001 inquiries, was found guilty earlier this month in federal court of masterminding the scheme, which ran up more than $57 million in fraudulent claims from 1993 until 2009. The cost of the fraud was borne entirely by Germany.

In his letter to the Claims Conference’s board announcing the result of the latest negotiations, former U.S. ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who leads negotiations with Germany for the Claims Conference, hailed the work of executive vice president Greg Schneider, who along with a senior Claims Conference staffer discovered and stopped the fraud scheme in 2009.

“The lives of tens of thousands of Holocaust victims will be made easier in their old age due to Greg’s skill and vision,” Eizenstat wrote in his message to the board.

“This unprecedented amount of funding means that we can give Nazi victims around the world the aid that they desperately need as they grow more frail,” he said. “That the agreement encompasses funding through 2017 underscores the German government’s ongoing commitment to Holocaust survivors. It is all the more impressive because it comes at a time of budget austerity in Germany.”

In last week’s negotiations, which took place in Israel, Germany also agreed to relax eligibility criteria for the Central and Eastern European Fund and Article 2 Fund, through which the German government gives pension payments of approximately $411 per month to needy Nazi victims who spent significant time in a concentration camp, in a Jewish ghetto in hiding or living under a false identity to avoid the Nazis.

Until now, only those who were interned in closed-off ghettos were eligible for pensions. As of Jan. 1, 2014, pensions will be available also to those forced to live in any of 300 specific open ghettos, such as those in Czernowitz, Romania, where Jews lived under curfew, lost their jobs and were subject to persecution.

Germany in negotiations to take place this fall also agreed to discuss possible special aid for child survivors.

The session that just concluded was the first time since restitution negotiations with Germany began in Luxembourg in 1951 that talks were held in Israel. For decades, the negotiations were held only in the German capital. In recent years, sessions also were held in New York and Washington.

Before they began negotiating last week, German representatives met with survivors in Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, visiting private homes where survivors are receiving home care, a senior day center and a soup kitchen. They also took a guided tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. The negotiations were held in a classroom at Yad Vashem.

Israel approves 1,500 more settler homes in East Jerusalem

Israel approved plans to build 1,500 more Jewish settler homes in East Jerusalem on Monday, an official said, days after provoking international protests against a project for another 3,000 such homes.

Washington had condemned the latest plans, for Orthodox neighborhood Ramat Shlomo, when they were published during a 2010 visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

Palestinians see the settlements as obstacles to achieving independent statehood. The settlements have been condemned by many countries, and the latest project is slated to be built on a portion of West Bank land Israel annexed as part of Jerusalem, in a move never recognized internationally.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms these Israeli actions and the determination of Israel to continue expanding settlements and in the process undermining the two-state solution,” said senior Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat.

“These are very dangerous and alarming steps. The Israeli government is showing its determination to contravene the will of the international community,” the top peace negotiator said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged last week to build at least 3,000 more settler homes on West Bank land as an expression of Israel's objections to a United Nations vote last month recognizing Palestinian statehood.

Those plans led to a string of Israeli diplomats summoned for reprimands across Europe.

Israeli Interior Ministry spokeswoman, Efrat Orbach, said on Monday a district planning commission “gave preliminary approval for” the Ramat Shlomo project which must pass a series of bureaucratic decisions before construction may actually begin.

Israeli, Palestinian Authority peace talks have been frozen since late 2010, largely due to a dispute over the settlements, which the International Court of Justice in The Hague has ruled as illegal, a decision Israel disputes.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Ramallah; Editing by Louise Ireland

Eco-friendly home reveals ‘greener’ pastures ahead [SLIDESHOW]

As scientists continue to warn us that our over-consumption of natural resources is putting too great a strain on our planet, the idea of sustainability — of reducing one’s carbon footprint, recycling and finding a cleaner, greener future — has never been more popular. And while the green trend has been picking up steam in the home-building world, there aren’t many places where it’s been more evident than at the new Vision House in Pacific Palisades, and in the work of its interior designer, Jill Wolff.

The Vision House is a concept of Green Builder Media, a leading national North American media company focused on green building and sustainable development, who previously constructed Vision Houses — state-of-the-art, environmentally conscious dwellings — in cities such as Orlando, Fla., and Aspen, Colo. Two years ago, Robert Kleiman, one of the co-founders of Los Angeles-based Structure Home, was looking to become more green in his own home designs. He noticed Green Builder’s leadership in the area and contacted the firm for help.

“It’s easy to learn individually how to build green,” said Kleiman, speaking by phone from his offices, “but it’s hard to teach a whole culture.” Kleiman knew that with Green Builder’s help, Structure Home could learn from the best, and so the Vision House Los Angeles was born. 

Wolff, the owner and founder of Jill Wolff Interior Design, has worked on more than 300 homes in the Los Angeles area over the past 25 years. The Vision House, however, presented a new challenge for her, and a learning experience. “I learned so much about green design and sustainability on this project,” Wolff said. 

Touring the home, which sits on a gently sloping residential street in Pacific Palisades, offers a master class in the use of space. The house sits on a long, narrow lot that “was actually the swimming pool for the house next door,” according to Wolff, who tailored much of her design, in concert with the architects, to make “it feel like it’s not just a skinny, narrow, bowling alley kind of house.”

The main entrance is at the center of the home, leading on one side into a spacious living and dining area with tall, movable glass walls that open onto a carefully landscaped back yard. On the other side, a downstairs office sports huge glass doors that let in ample natural light. Nothing about the home feels cramped or narrow. 

“From the exterior you have an anticipation of what it’s going to be,” Wolff said. “But when you walk through the door and you see the comfort level and the coziness and the warmth of the materials that are used, it takes you on a different trip.” Much of the home’s colorful and often-whimsical art was made by graduates of Otis College of Art and Design.

Wolff said she got her start in design at an early age. “I decided that I wanted to be an interior designer when I was 8 years old,” she said, laughing. “I decided that because my mom’s best friend was an interior decorator, and she had decorated our house, and I had loved the whole process of it. I thought it was so fun and so creative.”

After high school, she studied at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. “I was lucky enough to intern with a big-time Hollywood designer named Barbara Lockhart, and that just clinched the whole deal,” Wolff said. “I had all these great women that influenced me in my career, and I’ve been working ever since.”

The Vision House was an unusual project for Wolff, she said. “Since it’s a spec house, and I didn’t really have clients, I created a faux family … a kind of fantasy of who the family is going to be.” The house abounds with recycled materials, including a wagon wheel that has been turned into a mirror and corrugated cardboard shaped into surprisingly beautiful light fixtures.

The home also showcases technology such as hydronic radiant heating, solar panels and a gray-water system with ultraviolet disinfection. “The Vision House has the latest in technology, but I want people to see that if they’re clever and if they think about it, they can bring a level of sustainability into their own homes,” said Wolff. “Anything is a start.”

Most of all, Wolff shows that green living can be fun and fashionable: “I really want people to see that it can be comfortable, it can be cozy … and it can be unexpected,” Wolff said. “It’s not just green to be green. It’s green to create a better life for someone.”

State slams new West Bank housing approval

The Obama administration “does not accept the legitimacy” of announced plans for up to 851 new housing units for West Bank settlements.

“We’re very clear that continued Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank undermines peace efforts and contradicts Israeli commitments and obligations, including the 2003 Roadmap,” Mark Toner, the State Department spokesman, said Wednesday. “Our position on settlements remains unchanged. We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. And we want to see these parties – both parties, rather—refrain from these kinds of actions and to get back into negotiations.”

The announcement Wednesday by Israel’s housing and construction ministry came in the wake of the defeat of a bill in Knesset that would have retroactively legalized illegal West Bank outposts.

Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias said Wednesday evening that in addition to the 300 housing units promised to Beit El in exchange for relocating five apartment buildings housing 30 families, he would approve 551 more in Ariel, Maale Adumim, Adam, Efrat and Kiryat Arba.

Earlier during a news conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, addressing West Bank settlers directly, “There is no government that supports, or will support, settlement more than my government. I also say that there is no government that has withstood such heavy pressures, which could have hurt settlement, and it must be understood that ours is a very complex diplomatic, national and legal environment. And in this complex reality, one must navigate wisely, sagaciously and responsibly. Thus the members of the Government and myself have acted up until now and thus we will continue to act. We will continue to strengthen settlement and we will continue to strengthen democracy in the State of Israel.”

Palestinians evicted from eastern Jerusalem homes, Jews move in

Jewish families moved into two homes in an eastern Jerusalem neighborhood following the eviction of its Palestinian residents.

The families who moved into the homes on Thursday in Beit Hanina, a well-off Arab neighborhood in the northern quadrant of eastern Jerusalem, are the first Jewish residential presence in the neighborhood.

An Israeli court ruled recently that Jews had legally purchased the properties.

Fourteen members of the Natshe family had lived in the two homes. Some were evicted from one of the homes on Wednesday. The home next door had been evacuated several weeks ago; police were required to remove the residents and their property on Wednesday, according to reports.

The settler-run Israel Land Fund took over the fight for the properties from a man who said he purchased the homes more than three decades ago. The properties also were owned by Jews before 1948, according to the fund. The organization plans to establish a Jewish enclave of 50 apartments in the Arab neighborhood.

United Nations humanitarian coordinator Maxwell Gaylard said Thursday in a statement that the “Evictions of Palestinians from their homes and properties in occupied territory contravene international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, and should cease.”

Some see Beit Hanina becoming like the Shimon Hatzadik enclave in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah, which must be protected by private security and has touched off several controversies. In that case as well, a court ruled in favor of Jewish ownership and three Palestinian families were evicted.

Israeli delegation dedicates housing in eastern Turkey

A delegation from Israel’s Defense Ministry visited eastern Turkey to dedicate a student village built with Israeli assistance.

The student village in Turkey’s Van district was built from 130 prefabricated buildings sent by Israel as a humanitarian gesture following an earthquake three months ago that left some six hundred dead and thousands homeless.

More than 800 students will live in the structures.

“After the harsh quake that occurred here, you came, you the Israelis, with a lot of material and a lot of willingness to help. And for this I thank you very much, from the bottom of my heart,” said district Vice-Governor Ahmet Kazankyeh, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry. “You are our true friends, and the proof is what we see here. Only true friends can help so quickly and with such concern for their partners.”

In the immediate aftermath of the 7.2 earthquake, Turkey refused Israel’s assistance and turned down aid from other countries. But Ankara later changed its mind and accepted international help in housing the thousands of Turks who were without shelter. In addition to the housing units, Israel sent inflatable mattresses and blankets

Relations between the former allies have been nearly nonexistent now following an Israeli naval commando raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla ship Mavi Marmara in May 2010 that left nine Turkish nationals dead, including one dual Turkish-American citizen.

Turkey has demanded an Israeli apology for the deaths and compensation to the victims’ families. Israel has offered its “regret” for the deaths, and has said that its naval commandos fired in self-defense. Relations had been deteriorating since the 2008-09 Gaza war.

Agreement will prevent outpost razing

The Israeli government and residents of the Ramat Gilad outpost in the West Bank reportedly have reached an agreement that will prevent the destruction of the illegal outpost.

Under the agreement, the outpost in the northern West Bank would become part of the Karnei Shomron municipality, and five of its 10 caravans and several warehouses will be relocated to areas on the hill that are not considered private Palestinian property, the settlers’ Yesha Council announced Wednesday.

“I’m definitely satisfied with the agreement, which has prevented unnecessary clashes and will strengthen Ramat Gilad and the settlement enterprise in general,” Yesha Council chairman Danny Dayan told Ynet.

The parts of the outpost on private land were scheduled to be razed by the end of the year by order of the Supreme Court.

Rioting broke out earlier this month after area settlers believed that an army and security convoy was on its way to raze the outpost. The riot included an attack on a nearby army base. At least five youths, including two from Karnei Shomron and three from Jerusalem, are currently being held in connection with the attack.

Ten families live on Ramat Gilad, which was established in 2001 in memory of Gilad Zar, who was killed by Palestinians in a drive-by shooting. Zar’s father, Moshe, claims to own the property on which the outpost is constructed.

Jerusalem committee approves new Gilo housing

A Jerusalem building committee has approved the construction of 130 new apartments in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

The construction must still be approved by the government’s Interior Ministry. It will be about three years before ground will be broken on the project, if approved at all levels.

The project received its first round of approvals in November 2010.

Building approvals in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem were sped up by the Israeli government in response to the Palestinians being accepted for membership in UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, in November of this year.

U.N. Security Council states condemn Israel over housing

Members of the U.N. Security Council criticized Israel’s decision to construct additional housing in the settlements and the United States for blocking a vote to condemn the action.

The four European Union nations on the council—Britain, France, Germany and Portugal—issued a joint statement slamming Israel for settlement building. They cited a briefing by the U.N. assistant secretary-general for political affairs, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, who said such construction is preventing the restarting of peace talks with the Palestinians.

“One of the themes that emerged was the severely damaging effect that increased settlement construction and settler violence is having on the ground and on the prospects of a return to negotiations,” the EU council members said in their joint statement, Reuters reported.

The president of the Security Council, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, indirectly blamed the United States for its role in the stalled negotiations.

“There is one delegation which would not want to hear anything about it, any kind of a statement, which believes that somehow things will sort of settle themselves somehow miraculously out of their own,” Churkin said.

Statements from the Nonaligned Movement, the Arab group and the group of emerging powers that includes India, Brazil and South Africa also condemned Israel and the United States, according to reports.

Meanwhile, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, issued a statement expressing her “strong disapproval” of Israel’s announcement earlier this week issuing a tender to build more than 1,000 housing units in the West Bank, including in eastern Jerusalem.

“I urge them not to proceed with this publication,” Ashton said in the statement. “The EU’s position is clear: Settlement construction is illegal under international law and further complicates efforts to find a solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By ensuring the suspension of the publication of these tenders, the Israeli government can contribute positively to these efforts.”

Israel publishes tenders for West Bank housing

Israel’s Construction and Housing Ministry published tenders for more than 1,000 housing units in communities located in the West Bank near Jerusalem.

The communities, which include Beitar Illit, Har Homa and Givat Ze’ev, are part of 6,000 tenders for across the country.

Construction Minister Ariel Atias of the Shas party said his ministry decided to offer the tenders in light of the Palestinians being accepted into UNESCO, the United Nations scientific and cultural organization.

Construction reportedly will start at most of the sites within a year, Haaretz reported.

Also Sunday, a ministerial committee rejected a bill that would retroactively legalize West Bank outposts built on Palestinian land. The bill would have legalized the outposts if they were not challenged by the alleged Palestinian landowner within four years.

In September, more than 1,000 new housing units were approved in eastern Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. The proposal brought condemnation from around the world.

Israel provides housing aid to Turkey

Israel sent housing assistance for up to 1,000 people in Turkey afected by two earthquakes that hit the country in October.

The mobile homes, which were requested by the government in Ankara, were delivered by the Defense Ministry on Friday morning, the Jerusalem Post reported.

In October, a 7.2 magnitude quake killed 600 people in Turkey’s eastern region, leaving thousands homeless. Less than three weeks later, another 5.7 earthquake hit the same region, killing five and burying scores under rubble.

After the first quake, Israel sent a civilian aircraft to Turkey carrying prefabricated homes, warm blankets and mattresses.

Gilo building plan gets go-ahead

Jerusalem’s district planning committee has approved a construction plan to build 1,100 housing units in Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood of 40,000 in eastern Jerusalem.

The plan also includes public buildings, a school and an industrial zone, Ynet reported. The public has 60 days to express opposition to the plan.

The committee had previously approved a motion to expand the neighborhood with additional housing. The plan allots 20 percent of the new housing for young couples..

The approval comes as the international community, including the United States and the Mideast Quartet, are attempting to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. The Palestinians have said they will not resume talks until Israel halts settlement construction, including in Jerusalem.

Gilo was annexed by Israel after being captured in 1967.

Israel social protesters arrested in first violence

Israeli police arrested some 40 demonstrators in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, police said, after the first violence seen during weeks of social protests that have called for lower living and housing costs.

Protesters held up traffic on a main street and broke into city hall after municipal workers dismantled some makeshift huts and tents and removed furniture from two locations where tent protests had been set up.

The grassroots movement has swollen since July from a cluster of student tent-squatters into a countrywide mobilisation of Israel’s middle class. Until Wednesday’s clash, none of the protests had been violent.

On Saturday, hundreds of thousands marched for lower living costs in the largest such rally in Israel’s history, bolstering a social change movement and mounting pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take on economic reform.

Social media also played a role in the Israeli protests, inspired partly by the impact of Arab Spring demonstrations and it has posed the greatest challenge yet to Netanyahu halfway into his term.

Netanyahu’s governing coalition faces no immediate threat, but the protests have underscored the potential electoral impact of a middle class rallying under a banner of social justice.

Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Rosalind Russell

Mideast Quartet ‘greatly concerned’ by Israel’s recent settlement plans

The Middle East Quartet said Tuesday that they were alarmed by Israel’s latest announcements about new settlement plans in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The so-called quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, released a statement expressing deep concern regarding Israel’s recent announcement to build 277 homes in the Ariel settlement in the West Bank, as well as more than 900 housing units in Har Homa in East Jerusalem.

“The Quartet is greatly concerned by Israel’s recent announcements to advance planning for new housing units in Ariel and East Jerusalem,” the mediating group said in a joint statement.

On Monday, the U.S. said it found reports of fresh Israeli settlement building plans deeply troubling and counterproductive to the U.S. effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Barak approves 277 apartments in Ariel settlement

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved a plan to build 277 apartments in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, including 100 for families evacuated from the Gaza Strip.

Barak approved the marketing of the apartments last week, the Defense Ministry announced Monday. Building permits for the apartments had been awarded previously, but marketing of the apartments had been delayed due to diplomatic concerns, Haaretz reported.

Construction of the units in Ariel, which is home to about 20,000 Jewish settlers, is expected to take three years.

More than one-third of the apartments will go to Jewish families removed from their homes in the Netzarim settlement in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The announcement comes a week after Israel’s interior minister gave final approval to a project to build 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem, and two weeks after 930 housing units in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa were given final approval by the Interior Ministry’s Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee.

President Obama is among the world leaders who has denounced the building in eastern Jerusalem.

Israeli protesters for a month have been calling for more available and affordable housing.

Israel approves more eastern Jerusalem housing

Israel’s interior minister gave final approval to a project to build 1,600 housing units in a Jewish neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem.

Eli Yishai late Wednesday night approved the housing plan for Ramat Shlomo. In March 2010, the Jerusalem municipality’s approval of the project came during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, causing a diplomatic uproar.

The Ramat Shlomo announcement comes a week after 930 housing units in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa were given final approval by the Interior Ministry’s Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee. President Obama is among the world leaders who have criticized the approval of the Ramat Shlomo building and new Jewish housing in eastern Jerusalem in general.

The announcement also comes during the fourth week of protests in Israel calling for more available and affordable housing.

Two other plans for more than 2,000 more housing units in eastern Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods are also slated for approval in the near future, according to reports.

Israeli plan set to provide more affordable housing

The Israel Lands Administration Council has approved a plan to offer more affordable housing to some Israelis.

The plan, which comes after four weeks of protests throughout Israel calling for affordable housing, would provide discounts to developers building more affordable housing units. It also would give precedence to those who served in the army or national service, which would hurt the haredi Orthodox and Arab sectors, according to reports.

In the past, preference for less expensive housing was given to families with more than three children, which disproportionately helped the haredim.

The plan also calls for building student housing.

Knesset to meet during recess over protests

Israel’s Knesset will meet in a special session on the rash of protests sweeping the nation despite being on summer recess.

The debate scheduled for next week was announced Monday, after 50 opposition lawmakers signed a petition calling for the session titled “Netanyahu’s tax government is disconnected from the people and ignoring the public protest.” Only 25 signatures were necessary to call the meeting during a recess.

The signatures were collected by the Kadima and National Union parties.

On Monday, hundreds of senior citizens protested in Tel Aviv against the high cost of living, calling for lower medicine costs, a cancellation of the value-added tax on basic necessities and safeguards on the value of their pensions.

Reform movement backing Israeli protests

The Reform movement’s international arm is supporting social justice protesters in Israel.

The World Union for Progressive Judaism in a statement Monday said it “stands with all in the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and every tent city established to say that the Israel for which we have all fought and sacrificed must be an Israel that treats its citizens with dignity and respect, and offers the most basic of needs: housing, food, child-care and education, to all in an affordable way.”

Reform becomes the largest Diaspora movement to back the protesters. Its statement marked the eve of the 9th of Av, the fast day commemorating numerous Jewish tragedies.

The protest movement, dubbed J14 for demonstrations that started July 14, brought some 300,000 people into the streets of Israel on Saturday night, the biggest turnout so far.

“Jews are supportive of social justice everywhere in the world including israel, and this is one of the great social justice events in israel’s history,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set up a commission to consider protesters’ demands.

Other U.S. groups to express support for the movement include the New Israel Fund, Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu.

Meanwhile, Israelis in the United States are pitching tents in public spaces, taking up the protests crisscrossing Israel. Small tent cities have sprung up in New York’s Times Square, across the street from the White House and at a park in Los Angeles, Ynet reported.

About 200 ex-Israelis and supporters of Israel’s housing protesters demonstrated Sunday in Los Angeles’ Woodley Park in a protest organized on Facebook, according to Ynet. The Israeli protesters said they would return to the country of their birth if the cost of living was less and the financial pressures were not as great.

Committee to review protesters’ demands set up after mass demonstration

Israel’s prime minister established a committee to examine the demands of leaders of the social justice protest movement following one of the largest demonstrations in Israel’s history.

An estimated 300,000 demonstrators protesting the rising costs of living gathered in Tel Aviv Saturday night, with another 20,000 protesting in Jerusalem, and several thousand others in cities throughout the country. It was the third such demonstration – and the largest –  since the protests began more than three weeks ago. Protesters chanted, among other slogans,  “The people demand social justice” and “An entire generation demands a future.”

Israeli musicians Shlomo Artzi, Rita and Yehudit Ravitz entertained the demonstrators, who also heard speeches from Daphne Leef, founder of the movement, and Rabbi Benny Lau, founder of the Beit Morasha social justice institute.

“If I could I would show you how people have demanded social justice since the origin of Judaism,” Lau told the crowd Saturday night.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday morning announced the formation of a 15-member professional committee to review the demands of the social justice movement and to submit proposals for social and economic reform in the next month. The committee is headed by Professor Manuel Trachtenberg, chairman of the National Economic Council, and made up of Cabinet ministers, observers and economic experts.

Protest leaders have already decried the committee, saying that they are looking for direct dialogue with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu announced the formation of the committee on Sunday, at the start of the regular weekly Cabinet meeting.

“We are aware of the fact that working couples with children are finding it difficult to finish the month. We recognize the plight of students who cannot pay their rent. We are aware of the distress of the residents of neighborhoods, of discharged soldiers and others. We want to provide genuine solutions,” Netanyahu said.

He acknowledged that the committee’s proposals will not please everybody but pledged: “We will listen to everyone. We will speak with everyone. We will hold a genuine dialogue, not pressured and perfunctory, but we will really listen both to the distress and to the proposals for solutions. In the end, we will consider practical solutions. Practical solutions require choices. They also require balance.”

With protests, Israelis are seeking the revival of welfare state

The wave of protests sweeping Israel is about much more than the lack of affordable housing: It’s a grass-roots demand for the major redistribution of the nation’s wealth.

In social terms, protesters are calling for a more caring government attuned to the needs of young, middle-class citizens who serve in the army, pay heavy taxes and provide the engine driving the country’s burgeoning economy.

In economic terms, it is a call for the reversal of nearly three decades of fiscal conservativism at the expense of social services such as education, health and welfare, as well as an appeal against eroding salaries and rising prices.

In other words, the protesters are demanding that today’s thriving free-market Israel use its wealth to create conditions for a restoration of at least some elements of the long-defunct Israeli welfare state.

As an estimated 150,000 people demonstrated Saturday night in 12 locations across the country, the central theme was a demand for “social justice.” To some, it was reminiscent of the students’ revolt in Paris in the late 1960s: an alliance of students, workers and, in the Israeli case, a large, financially strapped middle class of people mostly in their 20s and 30s demanding a new economic order.

But there were key differences: In the Israeli case, there was no violence. Instead, there was a veiled, largely unspoken threat: that if the government fails to act and middle-class people continue to struggle to make ends meet, many more of the best and brightest would leave for countries where there is no defense burden and it’s easier to make a living.

As the protests entered their third week, the great Israeli paradox loomed large: Never has the country been economically stronger, yet never have so many of its young people felt so frustrated at their own personal financial status.

The current situation is partly a result of a constitutional lacuna.

In the mid-1990s, a number of basic laws were passed—together they are eventually meant to form the basis of a constitution for Israel. One of the laws, on the dignity and freedom of man, enshrined property rights, but a balancing companion act on social rights continues to be held up. It would deal with issues like the right to housing, education, health and welfare, and set parameters of state responsibility for their provision.

The bill again is on the agenda, promoted by Meretz Knesset member Zahava Gal-On.

But the country’s current socioeconomic predicament goes much deeper than any law. It is the result of more than two decades of a virtually consistent small government economic policy.

The turning point came in 1985, with inflation running at over 450 percent per annum. It became clear that Israel could no longer afford to maintain the old-style, government-subsidized welfare state.

The economic stability plan introduced by then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres and then Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai entailed stringent cuts in government spending. With its dramatic success in saving the economy, the small government approach quickly became economic orthodoxy.

The economic buzzword in the 1990s was privatization, started by the Likud, taken on board by Labor and then accelerated by Benjamin Netanyahu. When he first became prime minister in 1996, Netanyahu spoke of a thin man, the private sector, tottering under the weight of a fat man, the public sector, and vowed to turn things around. Netanyahu had a strong ideological commitment to free market forces, privatizing government companies and outsourcing social services.

This meant the accelerated handover of services to the private sector that once were the sole preserve of government. It was accompanied by a weakening of trade unions and an overall erosion of working conditions and salaries.

The result? Owners and a select few mega-salaried executives became richer and the middle class relatively poorer. It also led to the rise of the Israeli tycoons, who controlled a great deal of the country’s wealth and power. Banks, energy companies, supermarket chains and media properties all were concentrated in the hands of a dozen or so billionaire families.

Netanyahu’s economic philosophy also entailed a reduction of corporate taxes. Big companies paid 5 percent to 20 percent income tax, while the middle class saw the prices of everything from food to cars to apartments rise considerably. The system produced impressive economic growth but left wealth in the hands of the few. The trickle-down effect, middle-class Israelis said, had failed to materialize.

The upshot was that by May 2010, Israel’s economy was robust enough for Israel to be admitted to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—the exclusive club of the world’s strongest economies known as the OECD. But Israel also was the OECD member with the biggest gaps between rich and poor.

Some blame preferential spending on settlements in the West Bank for the lack of funds for social services in Israel. Others focus on welfare for the growing haredi Orthodox population in Israel. Still others point to the limited taxation of the tycoons—tax concessions nationwide are estimated at approximately $11 billion per year, about 11 percent of the national budget.

For years, middle-class discontent simmered under the surface, always eclipsed by security concerns or peacemaking moves. For embattled Israel, peace and security inevitably took top priority.

Until now. With terrorism virtually nonexistent and the peace process deadlocked, young Israelis have turned their attention toward generating a mass movement against the socioeconomic system.

Their anti-establishment energy took the form of street protests because there is a strong sense that none of the traditional parties represents their interests, and Israel has a long history of street protests, encompassing everything from Ethiopian immigration to the campaign to release captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

For the most part, the protests have not been focused. But now the leaders of the protest movement are formulating a list of concrete demands and general principles for change. These are expected to include demands for public housing on a large scale; major tax reforms that would increase taxation of the super-rich and lower indirect taxes on the general public; a shift in budgetary priorities, transferring part of the defense budget and the increased tax money from the rich to fund social services; and demands for Israel to comply with OECD averages when it comes to the numbers of doctors, policemen and firemen per thousand citizens, and the number of children in classrooms.

Netanyahu has set up committees to examine all the relevant economic issues and to negotiate with the protesters, who are likely to be backed by trade union boss Ofer Eini. The prime minister almost certainly will produce a new economic plan, but it may not be enough. What the people are demanding is a new social contract.

The political question is whether this could have an impact on the next election, scheduled for 2013, and the agenda over which it will be fought. That depends on how pressing security issues are around that time and whether these protesters can sustain enough momentum to translate their street movement into real political power.

Housing protests roil Israel as tent cities pop up

On Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv’s version of Park Avenue, a burgeoning tent city has sprung up amid crowded cafes and its canopy of ficus trees.

The squatters are protesting soaring housing prices in the country, and they have galvanized a sudden full-scale national protest, from Kiryat Shemona in the North to Beersheva in the South, that has plunged the government into crisis mode.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned trip to Poland this week and the interior minister has called for the Knesset to cancel its summer recess. Tent cities are swelling in cities across Israel, protesters are blocking roads and activists have practically besieged the Knesset. On Saturday evening, an estimated 20,000 marchers filled the streets of Tel Aviv calling for affordable housing.

“For years, Israelis have been like zombies because of the security situation and did not speak out when other areas were ignored, like education and the economy,” said Amir Ben-Cohen, a 30-year-old graduate student camping out on Rothschild Boulevard. “Enough. We are a new generation.”

Some are hailing the protests as Israel’s version of the Arab Spring. This Israeli Summer movement is being led by university students and young professionals in their 20s and 30s who until now have shown little interest in demonstrations or activism. One sign strung between tents in Tel Aviv read, “Rothschild, corner of Tahrir,” a reference to the Egyptian uprising that centered in Tahrir Square.

With a recent Haaretz poll showing 87 percent of Israelis supporting the housing protesters, their grievances appear to be striking a chord nationwide.

Like much of the world, Israelis recently have seen cost-of-living metrics rise across the board, especially for food and gas. But unlike in the United States, where real estate prices are in retreat, housing prices in Israel have skyrocketed, on average doubling since 2002.

With the average Israeli salary at $2,500 a month and modest-sized apartments in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv area selling for $600,000, many Israelis feel priced out of their own neighborhoods, particularly young people who live in places where there is a dearth of rental properties.

“What is very troubling for Netanyahu is that this is not a left wing versus right wing protest. It’s one of the few issues that cuts across all political spectrums,” said Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a Bar-Ilan University political scientist.

He noted that in Israel it’s unusual for socioeconomic issues to take priority over political-security issues.

Netanyahu “is definitely nervous,” Lehman-Wilzig said, “and he should be nervous.”

Netanyahu, who had identified the shortage of affordable housing as a potential crisis when he came to power in 2009, has been busy scolding his own ministers for not doing enough.

“Give me ideas for a solution,” Netanyahu was quoted by the Israeli media telling his Cabinet ministers.

The prime minister announced Tuesday that his government was preparing a battery of solutions, among them plans to reduce bureaucratic hurdles to building new housing projects and measures that would help young people make their first real estate purchases.

He also promised construction of new student dormitories and the construction of 10,000 two- and three-bedroom units, mostly in central Israel, to be earmarked for young couples, large families and students. Half would be available as rentals.

Hours after Netanyahu’s news conference unveiling his plan, the protest’s leaders held their own news conference dismissing the plan as a piece-meal attempt to divide students from other protesters.

“When he talks about students and discharged soldiers, what about our grandparents? What about the disabled?” said Yigal Rambam. “Every section in Israeli society suffers from the housing problem and there isn’t a general solution here. Any real solution must deal with rental prices, the prices of buying land, public housing and housing assistance.”

Itzik Shmueli, head of the National Union of Israeli Students, said at the news conference that although Netanyahu’s plan was “unprecedented” and “historic,” it remained insufficient and that the union would continue participating in the protest.

Experts attribute the vertiginous rise in real estate prices in recent years to a combination of Israel’s small size, relatively high population growth, a strong shekel and an influx of foreign buyers, especially American and French Jews. Demand is strongest in the central part of the country, where most Israelis work and live, though prices in the periphery have risen, too.

In a country that managed to weather the international financial downturn exceptionally well and where 2011 growth is projected to reach an impressive 5.2 percent and unemployment is at a historic low, many Israelis still feel financially strapped. A significant portion of the nation’s private wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few families, the gaps between rich and poor is wider than ever and poverty rates remain among the highest in the Western world.

Israeli hospitals and health clinics are in the midst of a doctors’ strike, which followed a large social workers’ strike. Both groups cited low wages as their reasons.

A boycott last month of cottage cheese to protest rising prices for an Israeli staple appears to have been a symptom of widespread economic discontent that the housing protests also are tapping into.

“Whereas the street has been relatively quiet in the last 20 years, it’s beginning to wake up and demand part of national wealth that does not seem to be trickling down as much as it should,” Lehman-Wilzig said. “It’s not a call to return to Israel’s socialist past but to a more collective feeling of society as a whole.”

While young people in particular are finding their voice when it comes to issues that affect their wallet, this segment of society appears less interested in taking to the streets when it comes to ideological issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The demonstrators have said theirs is a nonpartisan struggle. In interviews, they say they don’t want to interject hot-button political topics like the cost of subsidizing home building in West Bank settlements or for haredi Orthodox families at the risk of alienating would-be supporters of their cause.

At a protest outside the Knesset on Sunday, Itay Gottler, who heads the student union at the Hebrew University, spoke of a popular movement.

“This is a struggle that involves secular people, the ultra-Orthodox, religious, Arabs, young people and students,” he said. “This is the struggle of the people.”

Netanyahu responds to housing protests

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to further free up the housing market after thousands of Israelis demonstrated against high living costs.

Netanyahu opened his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday by defending government economic policies in the face of mounting criticism from Israel’s beleaguered middle class.

“This crisis is real,” he said. “We not only identify with it, we recognized it years ago.”

Building on a cascade of strikes in Israel’s civil service, students have been camping out in city centers this month to protest the dearth of affordable housing. Some 20,000 demonstrators from the various movements joined forces for an anti-government rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. Some protesters scuffled with police while trying to block roads, leading to 43 arrests.

Netanyahu, a former finance minister who has long championed privatization, blamed the state “monopoly” on land ownership and building regulations for the lag in satisfying spiraling demands for housing.

His two years in office have seen a 50 percent increase in the number of housing starts, he said, as well as progress in developing the transportation infrastructure to the more sparsely populated Israeli periphery.

Speaking separately to Israel Radio, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz predicted that property prices would begin to fall by the beginning of next year.

Over half of Israelis unsatisfied with Netanyahu’s response to housing protest

More than half the population is unhappy with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the tent protest, according to a Haaretz poll conducted yesterday. The poll also shows that an overwhelming majority of the public supports the protest and believes it stems from real distress.

Figures from the poll indicate that if elections were held today, both Kadima and Likud would lose four Knesset seats, while Labor would double its parliamentary strength.

Shas, the poll shows, would gain three Knesset seats, Yisrael Beiteinu would lose one and Ehud Barak’s Atzmaut faction would not make it into the Knesset. Meretz would gain one Knesset seat, while Hadash and Ra’am-Taal would remain with the same number they have at present.

Asked whether the tent protest stemmed from real distress or was a political protest against the government, 81 percent of the respondent replied that it stems from real distress, while 87 percent said they supported the protest.

Read more at Haaretz.com.