Moshe Silman
Moshe Silman, driven to despair Photo by Reproduction
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Ofer Vaknin
A protester holds up the letter written by Moshe Silman blaming Israel for his fate. Photo by Ofer Vaknin

Moshe Silman, 57, the son of Holocaust survivors, did not have an easy start. He lives 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.”