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The National Insurance Institute describes itself on its website as “one of the pillars of social policy in Israel.” It goes on to state, “The NII aims to provide those facing short and long-term difficulties with the financial support for subsistence.” Professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef, NII’s new director, writes that the institute “guarantees the obligation of the State towards its citizens regarding welfare, sustenance with dignity, and economic protection in a time of need.”

The fate of Moshe Silman, who reached such depths of despair that he set himself on fire during last Saturday night’s demonstration in Tel Aviv, proves that these statements are nothing but empty words.

Even as the Israeli government moves further away from democracy, with acts of racism and apartheid inside Israel and across the Green Line, the basic social rights of Israeli citizens are continually trampled. Moshe Silman is the victim of a system whose basic principles have become twisted. The system’s primary role as a social safety net – the reason for its existence – has been forgotten.

The National Insurance Institute was established with a single purpose – to support citizens in need. This is why the country’s citizens allocate billions of shekels to its coffers every month. The NII is in charge of the management and distribution of those funds. The problem is that the NII, in its current organizational makeup, has utterly lost its original purpose and is now disconnected and clumsily run. It operates for its own good rather than for the good of the citizens.

The same holds true for nearly every government organization. The clerks at the Interior Ministry continue to abuse citizens who wish to live with their non-Jewish spouses. Officers of the Israel Police are caught beating activists who protest on behalf of the weak. Municipal inspectors violate their legally-defined authority by attacking demonstrators.

This governmental chaos is no accident. It comes from a clear message trickling down from above: people deprived of their social rights are more easily ruled, deceived and exploited.

On the surface, the case of Moshe Silman seems to be the result of a callous bureaucracy. A deeper look reveals a dangerous change in government culture in which the value of a human being is no longer a supreme value, but a tool in the hands of the political players. When public servants become public masters, the communal treasury – social benefits and pensions alike – loses its original intention and becomes instead a weapon in the dark alliance between government and big business.

Today, the Israeli government finds it appropriate to attack human-rights activists, deport foreigners, silence critics and ignore the desperation of society’s weakest members. Simultaneously, it elevates political bullies, enriches the wealthy, rewards the managers of state funds, and puts land into the hands of private developers.

Throughout history, we have learned that social oppression and stratification are tools that totalitarian regimes use to hoodwink and exploit the people. If we look at the state of affairs in Israel in 2012, we find ourselves disturbingly close to this reality.