If you spent your last vacation in one of Tel Aviv’s luxury hotels, it is possible that your cleaning lady is one of the hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens making something like 3,000 NIS a month in exchange for her backbreaking work. It’s likely that she lives in the periphery- making her way from Ramle or some other place to Tel Aviv every day to clean rooms. And if her husband gets a 2,100 NIS pension, then according to the Israeli authorities, this disqualifies them from being eligible for public housing, and they are expected to be evicted from their homes. After the holidays of course.

The great victory of the neoliberal ideology is in spreading an image of those who require a social safety net as irresponsible slackers who prefer to live on the taxpayer’s expense. In the present public atmosphere, this woman and those like her are immediate suspects, who are forced to appear as humble and obedient before the authorities who proceed to investigate them, just to make sure that they are “sufficiently miserable” and therefore eligible for that temporary bit of help, that full refrigerator every once in a while.

The judicial authorities won’t help this woman. As long as the Housing Ministry has not deviating from the procedures that the system set for itself, everything is kosher: there are criteria, so-and-so does not meet them, and from that moment on she is considered an “invader” in her own home, where she spent most of her life and where she raised her children. The title “invader,” by the way, is a favorite among the housing bureaucrats. From the first moment it is thrown at someone, that person becomes a menace trying to cheat the unsuspecting public out of some real estate. In practice, those same “invaders” are people who have stayed in the same apartment where they have always lived, and/or that it’s the only thing standing between them and the sidewalk. The courts will only look into whether the eviction notice was served according to proper procedure, but they will never ask a set of very simple questions: where is so-and-so going to go? Who set the criteria for eligibility that make it so this person cannot continue to live in her own home? Who benefits from this policy of turning poor people out on the street? This is how the judicial system becomes complicit in the Israeli government’s crime against its own people, and why it cannot be the forum for correcting that injustice on its own.

To ask these questions, we need an independent court system.

Last Wednesday, a landmark event took place in the struggle for social justice in Israel. A “Popular Court” was conducted, in which the criminals behind Israel’s public housing policy were put on trial. Those whose rights were violated by the public housing policy appeared for the first time not as humble petitioners pleading for mercy, and not as the irresponsible or the already-guilty, but as witnesses and plaintiffs who charge the system with violating their dignity, robbing them of their humanity, and abdicating its responsibility to serve as a social safety net for the most impoverished strata of society.

בית הדיו העממי לדיור הציבורי

Popular Court Judges Gaby Lasky, Yifat Biton, Viki Vaanunu, Reuven Abergel, Haviva Pdaya, Ruti Sinai, and Itzik Saporta. Photo: Yotam Ronen-- Active Stills

The Israeli government, we should remind our readers, has signed the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” and Article 25 of that Declaration states as follows:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

The “right to housing” of the disabled, the elderly, and families subsisting on minimum wage is the responsibility of the public housing system to uphold: a pool of apartments where the rent is calibrated to its tenants ability to pay. For three decades, the State of Israel has been abandoning its commitment toward its own citizens and toward international law and has been dismantling this system. Existing apartments are crumbling for want of repair, no new apartments are being built, and the waiting list just gets longer and longer. In this situation, the Housing Ministry bureaucrat becomes a despot who has it in their power to decide the fates of those who manage to reach the haven of their office.

Testimony after testimony in the Popular Court illustrates the result of this unlimited power over people’s lives: humiliating and degrading treatment, withholding of essential information, and total disregard for human life by people who are supposed to be public servants. The system turns citizens into victims and expects them to be invisible, mute, and obedient. Each petitioner gets a number that stands for a virtual place in a waiting list that never gets shorter. They get debt notices that have are incomprehensible and that explain nothing of any possible appeal process. Requests to make repairs are summarily ignored-- even life-saving repairs in the electricity system in the apartment, or to insulate the apartment, or to take care of mold in the walls, or inaccessibility for elderly and disabled people. No one bothers to explain to these people their most basic legal rights or to address their concerns. At the same time, their place in line is a constant reminder that they shouldn’t mess with the authorities.

In this situation, social solidarity disintegrates: the immediate rival is not the Housing Ministry, the housing corporation or the government but rather the person directly in front of you in the never-ending line. That’s how the system likes its needy: each person to his own fate, totally at the mercy of the arbitrary decisions of bureaucrats. In this terrorized, lonely environment people are prevented from applying for benefits to which they are eligible by law.

A cruel example of this is the case of single, houseless mothers who live in fear of having their children taken away from them. Any woman who dares to ask a friend or a family member to house a child becomes a “neglectful mother” and the authorities, which are supposed to be providing essential support services, become enemies that one should keep their distance from, if they want to keep their kids. On Wednesday, you could have met D., a woman who lives in Rehovot, a grandmother raising her grandchild alone. For years, D. worked as a caretaker for elderly people, raising her child in a small public housing apartment. Everything went fine, until she divorced her husband but was forced to continue living with him because Rehovot has no available public housing apartments. The atmosphere in the house became impossible and injurious to the child, but instead of providing help, the authorities did the exact opposite. As soon as D. requested public housing, she was declared “without sufficient parenting skills.” D., a woman who had raised many children to adulthood, was informed that the authorities demand that the child be taken out of the house because he is “internalizing inappropriate models of behavior.” D. is not alone. Similar stories about subtle and not-so-subtle threats on the part of welfare bureaucrats are routine occurrences for every homeless single mother, most of which see this as their own private disaster, disconnecting completely from the authorities.

To contend with this devious tactic, mutual support and organization are needed. Only raising the public’s awareness might change the policy, only letting people know about the fact that hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are only an accident, a lost job or an illness away from turning into “inappropriate examples” for their own children. On Wednesday, D. and her friends were given the opportunity to unite, to learn from each other and to say in a clear voice that the only one setting the “inappropriate example” is the State of Israel and its authorities. That the persecution, the heartlessness and the harassment are not personal problems but an intentional policy. It’s not the houseless that need to prove that they need shelter—rather, it’s the Housing and Treasury Ministries that need to answer for the billions that they got from selling public housing real estate, and for the disgraceful treatment of people that they are supposed to serve. When the system can no longer provide justice to the tenants, there is room for an alternative justice system, a system that gives people their human dignity and self-respect back. On Wednesday, we saw this alternative system in action, a system that did not put tenants who resisted evictions on trial, but rather focused instead on the real criminals, the honorable ministers that sent them to live in public parks.

The author is a member of the Public Housing Committee