The inscription on the side of the sofa reads: Give a smile, it’s all for the best! Right: Children of the Revolution apparently sleep here
Early one morning, camped out in the center of Tel Aviv and after a hot hard day’s night, a few tent dwellers begin to stir. Yawning and stretching they emerge from a line of flap-to-flap tents that have been part of the Rothschild Boulevard scene for the last month.
On either side of the canvas city in the middle of the road, a collection of impressive eclectic buildings, from historical stylish Levantine, European and Ottoman styles to stone and glass edifice modern era monstrosities housing banks and offices – the beginnings of a powerful Zionist tale turning sand dunes into a city a century ago in present times has become home to a city of canvas as Israeli people take to the streets – literally – in a student led citizen’s revolt demanding social justice.
Rothschild Boulevard is one of the areas boasting magnificent early Bauhaus style buildings, part of the White City declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts tourists from around the world and also a most favored place for Israelis visiting the city that supposedly never sleeps - but from what I saw early that morning in Rothschild, also has great difficulty in waking up.
Standing taking photographs alongside me, French tourists squint behind their cameras, absorbing the scene through their lenses. A black-bearded young man, fast asleep on his back, boot clad feet resting on the side where an inscription reads ‘Give a smile, it’s all for the best!’ becomes a tourist attraction of another kind.
Traffic moves slowly along either side of the wide swath of Rothschild Boulevard that has been taken over by the demonstrators. They are moving slowly as drivers inch forward whilst at the same time are reading the signs, some of which extremely creative, hanging from the trees, utility poles and plastered on to the tents themselves – one of which from the National Union of Israeli Students – the name of the organization in Hebrew, Arabic and English - stating ‘I’M ATENTING’ and another handwritten sign: ‘aTENTion, BIBI.’
Ron Cohen, is from the north of the country and recently finished 3 years in the IDF. Sitting on a wooden bench with a steaming cup of coffee in his hand, the man from Galilee explains what brought him to town.
“I have only been here for a week as I was abroad for a wedding in London. I was in an area where young people were rioting and some buildings very close to where I was staying were burned to the ground. I decided as soon as I return I would join the protesters here because otherwise maybe if things do not change in Israel, we will see scenes like those in London right here in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities and towns as well. It’s a frightening thought and even more so because it really could happen.
“I am not going to study yet as my parents cannot afford to help and so I decided to take up a job offer in security abroad. Hopefully I will be able to save some money and return to study in Israel. I would like to stay here truthfully but really do not have much choice – the better paid jobs are here in Tel Aviv but everything I earn will go on rent and other basics and nothing will be saved for studies.”
British born translator Diana Rubanenko lives on Shenkin just a block or two down the road from Rothschild Boulevard. Diana and Tel Aviv born husband Ze’ev were founder members of Moshav Neviot (Nuweiba) in Sinai. Following the Egypt-Israel peace agreement they moved to a Sharon Plains moshav but in recent years moved to Tel Aviv where their son Guy has been living for the last ten years and daughter Morag, thirteen.
“Rothschild is on my morning daily walk from Sheinkin to Ibn Gvirol Street and so I have watched the developments right from the start. The street noise level quickly became quite high and I felt for the residents of Rothschild themselves but once I stopped to listen to the debates – all of which very polite and considerate of others and rather un-Israeli one might say – it became fascinating. The whole tent city, and the demonstrations that we took part in, filled me with elation because the young people seemed to have their priorities right,” said Diana who made aliya from Portsmouth after volunteering in a kibbutz during the 1967 war.
“For years I’ve been complaining about our kids’ generation, that they never read the papers and don’t know or care about what’s happening, but I was wrong. They may not read the papers as much as the 60 year-olds, but they knew what is wrong with the country’s circumstances. We never actually calculated what our kids have paid in rent in Tel Aviv but I know the sum is appalling. I read somewhere that one of the crucial aspects of these youngsters is that many of them have participated in different leadership courses, which has helped enormously in getting the protest off the ground and onto Rothschild Boulevard.”
Across the road from where Ron has bagged a bench, a portly gentleman in a somewhat crumpled white suit and Panama hat sits surveying the beginnings of a new day on the Boulevard walk.
In actual fact Mr. Conti has been doing exactly that for the last 11 years, sitting outside the Conti menswear shop at No. 45. The shop is about to close down and Mr. Conti will move on – or rather be removed by a fork-lift as he is a rather heavy very life-like plaster figure that always brings a smile to my face when walking his Boulevard. He always seems so benevolent sitting there, cigar in hand and rather reminiscent of Winston Churchill in appearance.
“Mr. Conti has been sitting outside my shop in all weathers for over a decade and he has seen so much during that time, you really don’t want to know,” says shop owner Ayal Naftali
“There were the extensive renovations of the Bauhaus heritage buildings as part of the deal with the big companies who built the multi-storey office blocks and banks; all sorts of art exhibitions, White Nights and darker times. Exhibitions of decorated bulls, dolphins and the like – so much, but he never expresses his opinion although I am sure of one thing, Mr. Conti is a deep thinker,” says Ayal with a broad grin!
Mr. Conti was originally outside a restaurant in one of the streets off the Boulevard and Ayal bought him to keep an eye on things outside hisup-market shop which is closing down, sign of the times as the huge banner behind Mr. Conti declares that everything is being sold at a 70% discount and that all items must go.
What about Mr. Conti? Is he for sale and at what discount?
“Mr. Conti is not for sale – he is coming home to Hod HaSharon with me. He’ll find it tough but the cost of living is slightly lower than here in Rothschild Boulevard and a lot quieter for an old man,” says Ayal with a heavy note of sadness in his humor.
Photos and article by Lydia Aisenberg.