Moshe Silman dies after self-immolation at Israeli protest
This post contains yesterday’s (1) Haaretz report on Moshe Silman’s death (20th July 2012). Analyses by Ami Kaufman (2), a co-founder of +972 Magazine, and veteran reporter and activist Uri Avnery (3), put what Netanyahu dismissed as a “personal tragedy” into social and political context.
The Israeli social protester was suffering from second and third-degree burns on 94 percent of his body after he set himself on fire at a protest in Tel Aviv last week.
By Revital Hovel and Dan Even | Jul.20, 2012 | 3:30 PM
Moshe Silman, the Israeli activist who set himself on fire during a social justice protest in Tel Aviv one week ago, succumbed to his wounds on Friday at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer.
SIlman was suffering from second and third-degree burns on 94 percent of his body.
From Friday morning, activists and close friends of Silman were informed by his family that he was in his last hours. His family wanted to be surrounded by close friends, and announced that they would sit Shiva, the seven-day mourning period of an immediate family member required by Judaism, in the house of his sister in Rishon Letzion, where a mourner’s tent would be set up.
The 57-year-old son of Holocaust survivors, did not have an easy start. He lived alone, and according to friends, tried to get ahead in life and live in dignity. But a small debt to the National Insurance Institute grew and sent him into an economic and bureaucratic tailspin that ended in self-immolation Saturday night on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street in front of the cameras.
“Moshe was simply not willing for the State of Israel to run him over anymore,” a friend said.
Silman’s friends were not surprised to hear what he did. The decision to set himself on fire because the state would not help him overcome his economic difficulties was in character for him, they said, especially considering his despair. “There was protest in his soul,” said a friend who went to rallies with Silman in Haifa. “He waited for it to break out and was glad when it did,” the friend added.
Two years ago Silman moved from Bat Yam to Haifa. As his economic situation deteriorated he became more and more involved in the protests in Haifa. The activists he met at the protest tent on the Carmel last summer became his best friends. “He was a man of action. He said you have to be political and get elected anywhere possible,” said Yossi Baruch, a Haifa activist.
According to friends, Silman lives in a neglected two-room apartment on the edge of the poor Wadi Salib area of the city. The refrigerator is empty. The neighbors do not know him at all.
Friends say he believes in action and took his belief to the extreme. He was born in Israel, and has two sisters, Bat Zion Elul from Rishon Letzion and Naomi Angel, a member of Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael. Angel would visit him in Haifa from time to time, always bringing food. Elul said yesterday of her brother: “He was in despair. He was mired in debt. Until the last moment we helped him. But he didn’t want it. Since the day he lost everything, the day they took everything, the house, his trucks, the money, my parents’ house, he has been going downhill.”
Silman never married and had no children and so his request for public housing was repeatedly denied. He worked at odd jobs and spent a few years in the United States. On his return, he established a messenger service and things finally began to look up. But then, toward the end of 2000, his business was hurt by the outbreak of the second intifada. He moved the business to a smaller warehouse and his office to his home in Jaffa. It later turned out that the National Insurance Institute’s debt notices never reached him, because they were sent to his former address. In 2002, the institute seized one of the four trucks he used for his company. The reason: a debt of NIS 15,000. Silman paid a third of the debt to reclaim his truck, but then he was asked to pay a further NIS 1,200 to cover towing expenses. Silman could not reclaim the truck due to a strike at the institute, and says that it led to the business’ collapse. Later, in 2005, he was forced to evacuate his apartment.
A history of court battles
Together with his mother, Sarah, Silman decided in 2008 to sue the National Insurance Institute. He and his mother claimed damages of NIS 8 million because of the seizure of his trucks that he said led to the loss of his business. But to file the suit he needed to pay a court fee, which he said he could not afford.
The court turned down his request to waive the fee and the case was never heard. The court registrar called Silman’s claim “baseless.” Silman appealed the decision to the Tel Aviv District Court, but it was turned down in 2010.
In a Facebook post last March, Silman urged his friends to organize protests against the institute: “I think that considering the upcoming appointment of a new director general of the NII, which is actually the Anti-Social National Insurance Institute, which has throughout the years caused the most cases of injustice by any governmental service to the weakest segments of society − and continues to do so daily − we should organize protests in front of NII offices,” he wrote.
Silman began working as a taxi driver, but made very little money, according to an affidavit and documents, submitted with his damages claim against the institute. Meanwhile, as his financial situation worsened, his bank account was seized, and all his savings and insurance benefits were either seized or used to pay his debts, estimated at hundreds of thousands of shekels. Silman’s mother, a guarantor of his debts, was also left without savings. In order to save her apartment, she legally transferred it to her daughters, free of charge. The court registrar who rejected Silman’s plea to be exempt from the court fee to file his damages suite wrote: “Someone who used this route of property smuggling cannot be heard afterward saying that he cannot pay the court fee.”
After losing his driver’s license because of his debts, his health began to deteriorate. The NII assessed his loss of ability to work at 50 percent and gave him only a limited allowance. Avri Raviv, who went with Silman several times to the institute said: “Like the cliche says, the handwriting was on the wall. Silman threatened suicide more than once to them. The representative of the psychiatric committee told me that people who threaten, don’t do it.”
But then, last summer’s social protest put wind in Silman’s sails. He began to participate regularly in rallies and became well known in Haifa’s small activist community. Idit Lev, who was one of the people closest to him, said: “He was always trying to turn over one stone and then another, to see if he could move ahead somehow.”
He spent his days looking for work, in endless lines at the health maintenance organization and in attempts to fight the Housing Ministry for help with rent. He filed four such applications with attorney Becky Cohen-Keshet, all of which were rejected on the grounds that he once owned an apartment and had no children. A fellow activist said after Silman set fire to himself Saturday night: “Moshe chose to harm himself in protest. It’s terrible when a person has to commit an act like that to explain their situation to people.”
The social justice protests we saw exactly a year ago in Israel could not be more different than the renewed wave of rallies that have once again brought people out to the sweltering streets.
Last year, tens of thousands participated in the J14 weekly marches against the high cost of living in Israel and the deterioration of social services. The rallies grew week on week, culminating in nationwide demonstrations on September 3 that brought over 400,000 people to the streets. This was the largest – and most peaceful – protest against capitalism that summer across the globe, not only percentage-wise (6% of the population) but in absolute numbers as well.
There’s a different atmosphere on the streets this summer. Polls show there is still widespread support for J14 (named after the day the protest began, July 14), but fewer are participating. Saturday’s demonstration, the largest so far, managed to muster just 10,000 people. The ad hoc leadership of the movement has splintered into numerous factions, some calling for more co-operation with the political system, while others want a confrontational approach.
Both the citizens and the state are losing patience. Police are showing less restraint this time round and videos of protesters being beaten have quickly spread across the social networks. Police even brought in a high-tech military surveillance vehicle used in the occupied territories to monitor protesters. And even before the protests started up again, key activists were summoned for interrogation at police stations. On the protesters’ side, the confrontational approach took centre stage a few weeks ago when a bank was “occupied” and its windows smashed.
Yet all this changed on Saturday night. Moshe Silman, 57, a son of Holocaust survivors, took a bus from the northern city of Haifa to the protest in Tel Aviv, a bottle of petrol in his hand. Just as the demo was about to end, he doused himself and lit a match. At the time of writing he is in critical condition with third-degree burns covering 94% of his body.
Just before setting himself alight, Silman handed out a letter telling his story of how a small debt of around US$1,000 to the National Insurance Institute spiralled out of control. From a man who owned a small truck delivery business, Silman’s battle against Israeli authorities took him through bankruptcy, mental despair, and eventually severe deterioration in health. He suffered a stroke, could not work, and when he asked for minimum assistance in rent, he was turned down. It got so hard for him that friends recall him saying the only time he was at peace was in hospital, where he got three meals a day.
Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, used an interesting choice of words, calling Silman’s self-immolation a “personal tragedy”, as if it had nothing to do with the social structure of the state and did not reflect a much larger disease in Israeli society.
A “personal tragedy”? The truth is, Silman is just one victim in a country that long ago lost any of its social-democratic values, and now some of its humanity. As Israel’s occupation of Palestine looks increasingly like apartheid, as basic democratic norms are being discarded one by one, Israeli governments over the past three decades have drastically cut back on social rights and services for its citizens inside the green line, as well. Housing, education, employment, welfare – all have been drained of their resources.
Recent data shows that Israel spends only 16% of its GDP on public services, compared to an average of 22% in the OECD, of which it is now a member. The health system is one of the hardest hit, as even Silman himself learned that Saturday, when he could not be admitted to the hospital burn unit because there were only eight beds, all taken.
Silman’s case clearly shows that the economic and social problems that brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets last year remain unresolved. The gaps between rich and poor are some of the highest in the west, with 60% of the wealth being held by only 10% of the public. Indeed, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the gap between the regime and its citizens is only widening.
Despite their support for J14, many Israelis consider the movement a failure. Some say that such huge numbers of protesters should have brought about more substantial change, and quicker. Others take issue with J14 demanding “social justice” – yet avoid the social justice that the Palestinian people long for and deserve. Yet, its greatest success is actually in the slow process that it has set in motion: since Israel’s independence, its political discourse has been completely dominated by military and security issues. Thanks to J14, this is changing. Politicians now spend huge amounts of time discussing it, conglomerates know they are being watched much closer by the public – and some have even been punished by consumers. For the first time in its history, Israelis may be able to say in the next elections: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Silman is not the Mohamed Bouazizi of Israel, however. The Netanyahu regime will not be brought down by crowds of people storming the Knesset. Yet, his act may make people who have lost faith in J14 come out to the streets again. Essentially, what Silman has shown most middle-class Israelis is that they didn’t know how bad it really is here. How rotten to the core the system has become. He has opened our eyes to the fact that his tragedy is not personal, as Netanyahu would want us to believe. It’s national.
Uri Avnery, 21 July 2012
WHATEVER IS happening to the Israeli social protest movement?
Good question. It is not only being asked abroad, but in Israel, too.
Last year the movement reached its peak in a giant demonstration. Hundreds of thousands marched in Tel Aviv.
The government did what governments do in such situations: it appointed a commission, headed by a respected professor named Manuel Trajtenberg. The commission made some good but limited recommendations, a tiny fraction of which were actually implemented.
In the meantime, the protest movement hibernated. For no good reason, it was somehow accepted that a protest movement should act only in summertime. (Personally, I much prefer winter demonstrations. Summers are really too damn hot.)
WHEN SUMMER 2012 came around – and a specially hot summer it is – the protest movement moved again.
Daphni Leef, who had started it all, called for a demonstration. She gathered around her some 10,000 people, a respectable number but far less than last year’s multitudes. And for a good (or bad) reason: on the very same day and at the very same hour, less than a kilometer away, another demonstration was taking place. It was about army service (more about that later).
Last Saturday night, Daphni called for another protest, and again some 10,000 gathered. Why not more? Because on the very same day and at the very same hour another demonstration took place on Tel Aviv’s seashore.
What was the difference between the two? None whatsoever. Both claimed to be the legitimate successor of last year’s protest. They used the same slogans.
I don’t generally subscribe to conspiracy theories. But this time it was hard not to suspect that some hidden hand was applying the old Roman maxim “divide et impera”, divide and rule. (Seems that it was not really coined by the Romans, but by the French king Louis XIV , who said “diviser pour régner”.)
THE SUCCESS of Daphni’s demonstration last Saturday was assured by an event nobody could have foreseen.
When the march reached the government quarter of Tel Aviv (the former village of Sarona, founded by German religious settlers in the mid 19th century) something shocking happened. One of the protesters, a middle-aged man from Haifa, set himself on fire and suffered terrible burns.
Jews are not Buddhist monks and nothing like this has ever happened here before. Desperate people commit suicide, but not publicly and not by fire. I think that since the days when converted Jews were burned by the Spanish inquisition, Jews have abhorred this kind of death.
The man, Moshe Silman, was a hard-luck story. Last year he was active in the protest movement. He was a small entrepreneur who twice failed in business, suffered a series of strokes and was left with nothing but large debts. He was about to be evicted from his small apartment. Rather than become homeless, he decided to take his life, after distributing a suicide note to people around him.
Most believers in the American way would probably say that his failure was his own fault, and that nobody had to help him. Jewish ethics are different and demand that a person in desperation, even if caused by his own failures, should be assured of a minimum existence compatible with human dignity.
Binyamin Netanyahu, an ardent admirer of the free market, published a statement dismissing the event as a “personal tragedy”. The demonstrators answered with posters:” Bibi, you are our personal tragedy!”
Silman has become a national symbol. He has given a huge push to the protest movement, which has now resumed its place in public consciousness.
HOWEVER, THE news at the moment is dominated by the competing protest – the one concerning military service.
It is not about refusing service in the army because of the occupation. Such refusers are few, and their courageous acts find, alas, no echo.
No, it is about an entirely different subject: the fact that 6000 able-bodied orthodox youngsters are excused every year from military service, as well as from the alternative civilian service. Those youngsters who serve three full years in the army and then almost a month every year in the reserves are fed up. They demand “equal division of duty”. Among the secular majority, and even among the Zionist religious youth, this is a hugely popular slogan.
Its popularity can be measured by the fact that Itzik Shmuli is there. Shmuli, it will be remembered, is the ambitious student leader who joined Daphni last year and then left her in the lurch. Recently it was disclosed that one of Israel’s foremost tycoons has given him 200,000 dollars for a project.
The orthodox don’t dream of serving. They have very good reasons. For example: the study of the Torah is obviously more important for the security of the state than military service, since, as everybody knows, God protects us only as long as this study goes on. (I once talked about this with Ariel Sharon, and to my surprise and consternation he agreed with this theory.)
The real reason for the orthodox is, of course, their determination to avoid at all costs any contact between their boys and girls and ordinary Israelis, who are steeped in alcohol, crime, sex and drugs.
Netanyahu could easily rule without the orthodox by relying on his secular partners. But he knows that in times of trouble, the orthodox will stick with him, while the others may well melt away.
This week. his fertile mind was feverishly dreaming up compromise solutions that would change everything, while leaving the status quo completely unchanged. For example, it was proposed to draft all religious males, but not at the age of 18, like everybody else, but at the age of 26, when virtually all orthodox men are already married with four children, making their conscription impossible or vastly expensive.
ONLY 70 days ago, the Kadima party hurriedly joined the government. Its justification was that a coalition comprising 80% of the Knesset would provide Netanyahu with the necessary safety net for a total overhaul of the military draft exemption system.
The real reason was that Kadima had been left without any issue it could call its own. Still the largest faction in the Knesset, with one seat more than the Likud, it was threatened with total annihilation in the next election. A squabble with the hated orthodox could change all that.
So this week, on the 70th day of its membership in the glorious coalition, Kadima left again. It can now march towards the coming elections under the proud banner of Equal Service For All.
THERE IS another angle to this story.
The orthodox are not the only ones exempted from military (and civilian) service. So are the Arab citizens, though for quite different reasons.
The Israeli army never wanted to draft the Arabs and give them – God forbid! – military training and arms. Only the Druze, an old religious-ethnic community with a vague connection to Shiite Islam, do serve, as do a few Bedouin.
Now, with Equal Service slogans rampant, this exemption is coming up, too. Why don’t the Arabs serve? Why are they not called up, at least, for civilian service?
The Arab citizens refuse, of course. Military service against their own people – fellow Palestinians and fellow Arabs – is out of the question. They refuse civilian service, too, claiming that the state that discriminates against them in so many ways has no right to call them up at all. Even when offered social service within their own community they refuse, causing much resentment among Jewish youths who have to go to the army while Arabs of the same age can go to university or earn good money working.
Thus the movement for Equal Service is in the happy position of attacking the two communities most hated by the majority: the orthodox and the Arabs. Bigotry, racism and secularism, all in the name of equality. Who could wish for more?
NETANYAHU IS now left with his former small majority. He has to find a quick solution to the service of the orthodox, since the Supreme Court is breathing down his neck. The present draft law, which was rejected by the court, expires at the end of this month. By then, a new law must be in place.
For Netanyahu, the preferred solution is calling early elections, perhaps next February. He would like that, since currently there is no one around who could compete with his popularity. New parties would have no time to establish themselves.
But Netanyahu is no gambler. He has no appetite for risk-taking. With elections, like wars, one can never be quite sure of the outcome. Stuff happens.
An excellent alternative would be to split Kadima. Having just started to enjoy the sweet taste of government, some of its members may feel disinclined to let go. The Likud would be only too happy to receive them into its ranks.
Divide et impera may have life in it yet.