Sunday, August 19, 2007

"The feeling today is that our whole society is being privatized"

My son Yehuda sent me the following article - no doubt to impress upon me the good work being done by the anarchists in Israel. I see this article, as more interesting in that it highlights both the human tragedy of poverty, debt, mortgage defaults and evictions in Israel, and the scope of the problem.

We hear often how the Israeli economy is booming. And it is, for the top 25% of the society - mostly those involved in high-tech or finance, the middle 42% struggles to get by while maintaining a middle class facade, and the bottom 33% (Israel has about 10% unemployment and a huge sector of under-employed and very low wage workers) has been cut loose to fend for itself.

As the article points out there are 90,000 cases of residential "mortgage problems" in Israel today - families on the verge of losing their homes. This in a country of approximately 1,200,000 households. That's 7.5% of all Israeli households, that are under threat of eviction.

The article is long, but worth it, IMO.



The popular front, Radicals resisting homelessness


"Today we have come to make war," Haim Bar-Yaakov, who heads Hatnua
Lekiyum Bekavod (the Movement for Dignified Living), tells a private
contractor who arrived to evict Yehudit Mazgauker from her apartment in
Kiryat Gat.

--- "You're talking as if you scare me," says the contractor, who gets
paid by the job. Earlier, he pushed a photographer from Indymedia who had
come to document the eviction, on July 17, and told him he would be
"playing with fire" if he kept on filming.

---- "Of course, I scare you, but it's not criminal fear - it's something
else," Bar-Yaakov replies and turns to brief the 15 movement activists who
have come to join the resistance. Nearly all are residents of the South,
who have themselves received eviction notices during the last year and
went through a similar experience, or will do so in the near future. A
policeman who has been sent to the scene casts a bemused eye on the group
as it gets organized.

"We will sit down in the entrance and not move," Bar-Yaakov instructs the
group. "If they want us to move, they will have to do it by force. We hold
on to the rails and to each other, got it? There's nothing to be afraid
of; we are not doing anything illegal, only resisting. Women first. If
cops come, they are not allowed to touch women - that is an obscene act."

The resisters sit themselves down on the steps according to Bar-Yaakov's
instructions: three older women in the first row, men in the next rows and
in the last row two young activists from the Anarchists Against the Fence
group, who have come to help and express solidarity. "The youngsters in
the back have a lot of experience," Bar-Yaakov explains to the others.
"They conduct the same war as us at the [separation] fence every day. They
know how to resist without using force."

Mazgauker, who works as a seamstress in a local textile plant, had fallen
into arrears in her mortgage payments to Bank Leumi. The bank rescheduled
the debt, but she could not meet the new payments either, and a year ago
the bank obtained an eviction order against her. "Two contractors came and
took me and all my things while I was in the house with my daughter and my
grandson," she relates. "I had no way to stop it, there was no one to help
me and I had no one to borrow money from to settle the debt." Following
the intervention of Bar-Yaakov and his group, she returned to the
apartment and obtained a loan that enabled her to meet all the mortgage
payments.

After reaching the agreement she moved in with her mother. She rented out
her own home, which she had gotten back, in order to raise the money to
meet the mortgage payments although, according to attorney Yoram Avi-Guy,
the receiver appointed by the bank to collect the debt, she did so without
authorization. In the meantime, a debt of NIS 18,000 was added to the
mortgage - for Avi-Guy's fee. Mazgauker, unable to raise the entire
amount, asked the Bailiff's Office to allow her to pay NIS 13,000. Her
request was rejected. When she failed to pay the fee to the lawyer, the
bank refused to allow her to reschedule the mortgage payments.

"Arranging the lawyer's fee is a prior condition for debt rescheduling,
which in practical terms means granting borrowers a new loan in order to
pay off the previous loan," Bank Leumi stated. The bank also maintains
that Mazgauker did not abide by previous debt- rescheduling agreements.
The lawyer went to court and obtained an eviction order. A lawyer in
Avi-Guy's firm, Eliyahu Levin, stated that warning letters about this were
sent to her.

It's July 17. The contractor who has been hired to evict Mazgauker and the
policemen who have come to keep order are nonplussed by the first row of
women protesters. They try to persuade them to leave, consult with an
officer at the station and bring in backup. Following a long wait and
protracted negotiations, the police back off and the eviction is
postponed.

"I never believed I would get through it," Mazgauker says in retrospect.
She has now come to assist in the struggle against someone else's
eviction. "The people I am renting to agreed to buy the apartment from the
receiver, but I did not let them. I am not about to give up. I will keep
on fighting for the house."

This was the 56th eviction Bar-Yaakov and his group have succeeded in
preventing. Clearly, they have brought about a shift in the balance of
forces between the banks and their debtors in the southern part of the
country. People who do not turn to them have a hard time mustering the
forces needed to resist the evictors, and leave without protesting and
without another housing solution.

When people are evicted, everyone concerned profits - apart from the
evictees, of course. The contractor gets paid for removing the family from
its home; the police, who back up the contractor if necessary, are not
called upon to carry out the eviction themselves and thus are spared
possible violent confrontations - which do not play well in the media -
with disadvantaged citizens; the receiver, who will sell the home, earns a
commission of up to 10 percent of the price paid for it, in addition to a
fee that he will collect from the bank; the bank will recoup all its
money, including the interest on the late payments; and the court, which
authorizes the eviction with record speed, is spared lengthy and
complicated hearings.

"In cases of tardy repayments," says a spokesman for Bank Leumi, "the bank
is to reach a debt-rescheduling agreement, in order to avert the
evacuation of the mortgaged property and its sale. As long as a procedure
of negotiation with the borrowers is under way, the legal proceedings
against them are delayed."

Stay calm or be tied up

Exactly two weeks after the success in Kiryat Gat, at 8 A.M., the
movement's activists show up in Be'er Sheva to attempt to block the
eviction of Hananya Levy and his family from their home. Many of them were
at the previous protest, too. Bar-Yaakov briefs them again: "The most
important thing is to stay calm. We will resist, but not with force. The
door is open, the occupants are inside, the [gas] canister is inside.
Passive resistance. With the 30-40 people here, it will take 300-400
policemen to remove you, and that will never happen. What's most important
is to stay calm."

Bar-Yaakov makes an effort to keep his people cool because, he says, many
of the contractors try to break up the resistance by means of provocation
- physical and verbal violence - against the members of the movement, to
spur them to react and thus prompt police intervention. That is what
happened a day earlier, in Dimona. Bar-Yaakov was there with his wife and
another activist. The team brought by the contractor started to push the
resisters, and both sides filed mutual complaints of assault with the
police. (The eviction, by the way, did not take place.) "This is the best
field test there can be for self-control," Bar-Yaakov says. "There is no
doubt that you sometimes reach the feeling that you want to grab the
contractor and let him have it. But violence does not help against
violence."

Bar-Yaakov's anger is always personal. Three years ago he was in the same
situation: He and his family - his wife and their three children - were
evicted from their home due to a bank debt. After the eviction he set up a
tent camp for the homeless in Be'er Sheva, and since reaching an agreement
that made it possible to leave, he has been fighting week in and week out
against attempts by the banks to take away the homes of people who have
fallen behind with their mortgage payments.

"I told the receiver myself that he had better bring the police, because
there will be resistance," says Hananya Levy, the father of three
children, who is now fighting for his home. "An eviction notice cannot
help when you have nothing more to give." Levy first fell into arrears in
his mortgage payments nine years ago, after losing his job when the
company he worked for shut down. Around the same time, his wife was fired
from her job as an assistant teacher in a kindergarten.

Levy then contracted a serious illness, which prevented him from going
back to work, and the couple ran into serious difficulties in repaying
their debt. That sum soared to NIS 400,000, twice the original amount,
when Bank Leumi slapped him with 20-percent interest for being behind in
his payments. Levy says he arrived at an arrangement with the bank under
which his debt would be reduced to NIS 150,000, but that the bank then
reneged. Two months ago, without any prior notice, and while the
negotiations were still under way, the bank obtained an eviction order.

Bank Leumi stated in response: "The impression is that the prolonged
situation, under which the mortgage is not repaid, is convenient for the
borrowers, while the bank sustains damage because the proceedings against
them are stayed. Accordingly, the bank is obliged to resume legal
proceedings against them and to set a date for the evacuation of the
property. Conducting negotiations with the borrowers, which is not
accompanied by the deposit of money in practice, does not delay the
implementation proceedings."

Even before being served with an eviction notice, Levy had become an
ardent activist in the Movement for Dignified Living and has taken part in
many resistance operations. "We transform victims into activists,"
Bar-Yaakov says. He takes pride in the fact that 80 percent of the
movement's activists are themselves victims of mortgage problems. "[The
authorities] evict people who get no empathy, who confront a system that
turns them into criminals, liars, parasites. So we come and believe them.
That makes all the difference."

Every two weeks the movement organizes a support group, during whose
meetings activists try to allay the fears of people who are facing
eviction and describe for them the likely sequence of events. In these
meetings Bar-Yaakov outlines his methods: "Our goal is direct, nonviolent
action," he says. "Passive resistance to prevent eviction. We bring in
instruments such as chains and pipes that we use to tie ourselves to the
entrance." If necessary, the occupants of the apartment will threaten to
blow up a gas canister if the evictors dare to enter.

Bar-Yaakov adds that he tries to talk to the contractor and the police in
order to infuse them with solidarity. "The policemen and the contractors
know the situation themselves," he notes. "One of the evictors who works
in the area evacuated his home voluntarily in the wake of a debt. We try
to get at the weak points of the other side, so that government employees
will not cooperate with a particular policy, but will refuse to serve it."

Have you seen that happening before?

Bar-Yaakov: "There is a feeling that you bring them over to your side,
that they will not do their job with any great enthusiasm. There are some
contractors who, when they see that we are involved, put pressure on the
receiver and the eviction is prevented without friction. There was one
time when we didn't have time to organize activists, and only my wife and
I went. The contractor saw us and called the receiver. 'Haim is here with
another 30 people,' he told him. 'There is no way we can do the eviction
today.' We even have a source in the Be'er Sheva police, but a coward. He
always says he is on vacation."

How do you prepare the occupants?

"It is a very tricky situation for those in the house. They all have to
stay calm. Anyone who is not calm is tied up," Bar-Yaakov says, pointing
to the chains with which the resisters tie themselves. (The chains are
prepared by the movement's logistics man, who is also a debtor.)

And is everyone calm?

"The occupants of the apartment are never calm. On the day itself they are
almost completely lacking in judgment. I prepare them mentally long
before. I explain to them what is going to happen and I take them to other
evictions, so that by the time of their eviction they know exactly what it
looks like and what will happen. Even so, we know that the family is not
in a stable condition. The advice I give them is that on the day itself
they have to be almost like robots and have to stay calm. They are kept
busy with psychotherapeutic activities - making coffee, preparing food.
But not everyone is always calm. There was one case when the family
barricaded itself inside before we got there. They nailed a plank to the
door and piled up heavy furniture against it. We asked them to let us in,
to let us make coffee, but they wouldn't open the door. So we sat outside.
That showed a pretty high level of panic. But I tell them that if we are
here, they will not be thrown out of their home."

'Extortion and slaughter'

By midday, about 29 people have shown up at Levy's house. One of them is
Esther Wolff, a divorcee who has had two heart attacks and cannot find a
job because of her medical condition. Since receiving an eviction order,
she says, she has not been able to sleep more than two or three hours a
night. Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank is out to evict her, she explains, after she
reached a debt-rescheduling arrangement with them - only to have the bank
declare shortly afterward that it had made a mistake and issue an
almost-immediate eviction order. Wolff has no relatives to move in with if
she is evicted.

Sitting next to Wolff are R., who worked for the Israel Police until her
retirement and has run up a mortgage-repayment debt, and Yoav Avraham, a
bus driver who offered the bank his home in return for canceling his debt,
but was turned down. The bank wants to recoup the entire debt that has
accumulated as a result of the interest imposed on Avraham for late
payments - NIS 1.2 million, which is about twice the original amount and
far more than the apartment is worth.

Also on hand are activists from Anarchists Against the Fence, who came
down from Tel Aviv. "Our activity is intended to topple the walls,"
Bar-Yaakov says in reference to their participation. "We bring the
anarchists, who are described as only helping the Arabs and less with
activities like this. It is in just such activities that there is a broad
common base - help and solidarity and a willingness to put disputes aside.
That makes the sides more open. We cooperate with everyone - Bedouin and
new immigrants. We were in Kfar Shalem, we took part in setting up the
tent camp of homeless people in Jerusalem, and we continue to support and
strengthen them. You cannot come out against injustice done to just one
population group. That is exactly what the government is trying to do:
divide and rule. And to say that the Arabs are like this, that the
mortgage victims are parasites and the homeless are idlers - to prevent
cooperation."

After lunch, the activists wait another couple of hours before starting to
wonder whether the eviction crew actually intends to show up. Usually they
arrive in the morning, though the eviction order remains in force until
midnight. In the late afternoon some of the would-be resisters leave, and
a few remain in order to alert the others if needed.

A lack of clarity concerning the timing of the eviction is one of the
means used by the receivers. The firm of attorney Yoram Avi-Guy, which was
appointed the receiver in this case, too, turned down every request by the
evictees and by Haaretz for information about when the operation would be
carried out. According to Bar-Yaakov, the receiver thus intensifies the
fears of those who have been served with the notices and brings greater
pressure to bear on them to agree to debt rescheduling.

In many cases, the threat of eviction forces the debtor to take additional
loans from other banks and from the "black market," thus aggravating his
situation. "The debtor gets uptight, borrows from everywhere, runs up more
debts and signs a rescheduling agreement, which he has no chance of
fulfilling," Bar-Yaakov says. "And then he is really in trouble. The bank
portrays him as unethical. 'We met him halfway,' they say, 'but he did not
abide by the agreement.'"

In Bar-Yaakov's words, the bank "slaughters" the client when it discovers
that he has gone through all his financial resources: "When that happens,
they evict the person without any feelings, just to sell the home and pay
the lawyer interest. That is our movement's slogan: 'Kodem sohatim v'az
shohatim'" - first they extort, then they slaughter."

Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank gave mortgages to several of the debtors who are
receiving assistance from Bar-Yaakov, among them Esther Wolff. The bank's
spokesman says that "the process of taking legal measures toward realizing
the property is definitely a 'no-choice' move. It is adopted only after no
other way out can be found to ensure the return of the money to the bank.
In that case, the bank works to realize its rights as stipulated in the
law."

The spokesman rejects the allegation that the bank obtains eviction
notices as a means to threaten the debtors. Citing "banking secrecy," he
declined to talk about specific cases, stating only that "in every case
the bank made repeated efforts over a period of years to collect the debt
within the framework of a rescheduling agreement with the client and to
avoid taking legal action." In a telephone conversation, the source said
that the complaints against the bank result from misunderstandings: "The
bank is like people - if you loan someone money, won't you want to make
sure he returns the loan?"

Panthers' influence

Bar-Yaakov, 49, married to his second wife and the father of three
children, attended a religious boarding school in the Negev town of
Netivot, but forsook religion in high school, from which he dropped out in
10th grade. Eight years ago, he returned to religion. In the first
evictions he stood out because of his sunglasses and a beard - which he
has since cut off - that reached to his stomach. "I shaved because I
suffered from a split personality with the beard," he explains. "I came to
evictions and everyone thought I was a rabbi. Some asked for a blessing,
others for a curse. I told them that at most I 'quarrel' with people," he
says, making a pun on the Hebrew word for "rabbi."

After his army service Bar-Yaakov completed his matriculation and went on
to study economics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva.

"When I entered university I was still captive to a capitalist worldview
and I was a Likud person," he explains. "But gradually I understood
things. My awareness developed, in part because of what was happening all
around me when I got out of the army - protest activities in the
university and the demonstrations by the Black Panthers," an Israeli
social action group in the 1970s. "There is a lot we can learn from the
Panthers: how to get people into the street, how to wage a struggle. They
were the first to make a connection between being left-wing and social
struggle."

During his studies, a tour for foreign donors was conducted in one of
Be'er Sheva's rundown neighborhoods "in order to show how much the
university is helping and is in touch with the common folk." Bar-Yaakov
says he wanted to protest the university's refusal to support his plan -
to set up a center for meetings with, and for giving advice to,
neighborhood residents - and so he and some other activists blocked entry
to the neighborhood during the visit. "We said that we are not a zoo where
people throw us peanuts. The tour was canceled and it was a big story:
Elizabeth Taylor was one of the donors, and the residents of the
neighborhood were refusing to accept her."

At the end of his first year of studies, Bar-Yaakov took a "vacation,"
which is continuing to this day. He worked in the Immigrant Absorption
Ministry and afterward was a "medical secretary." In 1990, when he was
newly married and the father of an infant, he was fired from his job and
began to work as an independent real-estate agent. He encountered economic
difficulties, could not pay the rent and was forced to leave his home
without having somewhere else to go. "After I failed in the business it
took me two years to come to terms with the fall I took," he relates. "I
didn't believe that I was so helpless that I would turn to the National
Insurance Institute for a guaranteed income allowance. But since then I
have been living on that allowance."

After being forced to leave his home, he and his family moved into an
Amidar public housing apartment that had been vacated and was empty. "We
had no other place to live," he says. "We hoped that in time we would be
recognized as eligible for public housing." One day in January 2004,
Bar-Yaakov returned to the apartment with his two children after
kindergarten and discovered that he had been evicted. "All the contents of
the house were downstairs. At the height of winter - three children
without a roof over their heads. Our things were placed in a filthy
warehouse. They were covered with mouse droppings when we got them back,
so we had to throw out almost everything."

"If we had been given alternative housing it would have been a different
story," says his wife Irit, "but we were thrown into the street. I had a
pot of soup on the stove and I begged them to give me the pot before they
threw us out." After the eviction, she adds, they stayed with friends and
relatives for three months, "but it is hard for people to put up with a
family of five. They can take it for a day, two days, a week, but there is
a limit. That's how you lose friends and family."

It was around this time that Bar-Yaakov and other social activists began
to consider the possibility of setting up a tent camp of homeless people
in Be'er Sheva. Dozens of families lived in the camp for nine months. It
was dismantled in early 2005 in the wake of an agreement with the then new
housing and construction minister, Isaac Herzog, from the Labor Party.
Bar-Yaakov describes the agreement as his greatest success to date: "We
took down the tent camp honorably, following an egalitarian agreement that
was signed with mutual respect. We were not thrown out and we were not
evicted, and that is a feeling I can hardly describe."

'I am the wacko'

At first, Bar-Yaakov relates, his wife would not come to the tent camp.
"Like every citizen who has been weakened, we lived with a feeling of
shame that we were to blame for our situation. Irit would come to within
20 meters of the tent camp and give someone sandwiches for me; the
children did not come either. It was only two weeks later that she started
to come to the site and become involved."

During the first evictions, he notes, only the two of them showed up to
help, yet they still succeeded in averting the evictions by speaking with
the contractors and guiding the occupants in how to behave.

Now, though, Irit Bar-Yaakov is more radical than her husband. "I only
wish Haim would let me use force against the evictors," she says. "I know
he is right, that there are advantages to nonviolent activity. But if they
use violence, we will certainly defend ourselves." Twelve years ago, she
worked as an assistant to an eviction contractor, and already then, she
remembers, she helped the evictees by giving them advance information.

She and her husband have a division of labor during evictions, she says:
"Either he is the calm one and I am on edge, or the opposite, but usually
I am the wacko." Two weeks ago, she protested to someone who was being
evicted and was trying to reach an agreement with the contractor: "You're
wasting your time," she railed at him. "Can't you see that they are
playing with you? Go upstairs, barricade yourself inside, let them bring
the police."

Would you have helped the settlers who were evacuated from the Gaza Strip
if they had asked you?

Irit Bar-Yaakov: "I do not identify with them, I think they are brazen.
They were evacuated and compensated; here people are evicted and rejected.
They were evacuated from one home to another, here people are thrown into
the street and not given any solution. I have a lot to say against the
policy, against the banks. I am an anarchist, I do not feel like a citizen
of the country. If it were up to me, I would not send my children to the
army. On Independence Day the newspapers came with flags and the children
wanted to put up a flag at home. 'Over my dead body,' I told them. 'If I
see an Israeli flag, I burn it.' In the end, we hung up an anarchist
flag."

Her husband does not style himself an anarchist and will not oppose his
children's military service. "In every evacuation there is a personal
motivation," he says. "I can't stand to see a family being thrown out of
its home. I always remember my own eviction and the situation in which all
your things are outside and the children see their things being thrown
out."

Bar-Yaakov has a hard time making ends meet. "I work full time plus
half-time as head of the movement, and I subsist from the guaranteed
income allowance and help from the family." In his little remaining spare
time he enjoys studying a page of Gemara and listening to music "of all
kinds - country, black music, Hasidic."

The goals of the movement, he says, go beyond specific cases of eviction:
It is lobbying for a long-term, rental law that would end the troubles
caused by mortgage payments. Another aim is to create a front of
organizations in the South to help the region advance, and to establish a
center to develop and apply methods of direct, nonviolent action.

The movement also aspires to expand its activity in order to prevent the
economic deterioration of those who are persecuted by the Bailiff's
Office. "There are half a million cases," Bar-Yaakov explains. "It is a
collapsing system, marked by violence, which has become a rubber-stamp
operation. Dozens of victims live in the underground. The system causes
many families to break up and others to adopt illegitimate criminal
patterns of behavior."

What is stopping the movement from heading a broader political struggle,
in the style of the Black Panthers?

Bar-Yaakov: "Every eviction we have prevented is a small victory. It
strengthens and steels us and readies us for the next struggle. I believe
in the right timing. If there are teams to prevent evictions in every
city, the ground will be ready for a mass movement."

Maybe the problem is your commitment to nonviolence? Maybe you need a more
aggressive movement?

"There is nothing easier than to demonize the enemy - that gives you the
feeling that you are right. But that is not our goal. We are uniting
people who have been hurt, we are turning victims into activists, into
people who help one another. The feeling today is that our whole society
is being privatized. Groups have lost their faith in their ability to
organize and exercise influence. There are 90,000 people today who are
having difficulty repaying their mortgage, and each of them does not know
that the others exist. The sheer exposure and involvement make others feel
that they are not alone, that they can receive help."

By Yotam Feldman

The original can be found here.

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