I was about to call it a night on Saturday and dub the one-year anniversary of Israel's social justice demonstration something of a dud. The crowd was thin in Tel Aviv, in contrast to the hundreds of thousands who had gathered last summer, people grumbled about the movement’s lack of direction and leadership, and one of its more interesting corners was not the speeches, but a makeshift dance party: a cluster of demonstrators rocking to the lyrics of a new Israeli rap song.
“It’s not a struggle of Left against Right but between those at the top and those at the bottom,” boomed the lyrics from a set of speakers.
Then, twenty-foot flames shot like a bolt into the night sky.
Shouts followed: “A man has set himself on fire!”
The news moved like a terrible wave down the street.
And that wave has continued to gather and give the social justice movement new life as Israelis digest, debate and search for meaning in the act of a 57-year-old Haifa man named Moshe Silman, who paid his taxes, did his army reserve duty and ran a business before sliding in an economic abyss with seemingly no social safety net to catch him.
He lay in Tel Aviv's Sheba Medical Center in a medical coma, some 95 percent of his body covered in burns. He died on Friday afternoon.
And for many Israelis, who count that safety net as part of the basic social contract of the collective they feel the country is still supposed to be, Silman’s free-fall feels like a betrayal.
Unlike the all-American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps or bust” ethos, Israelis feel they have a 'right' to state assistance because of the collective promise they have been raised on: give to the country and the country will give back to you.
Hence the chants of “We’re all Moshe Silman,” pounding the air outside the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The same prime minister who, commenting on the self-immolation of one of his citizens, made certain to keep his words distinctly un-collective, describing it as a “a great personal tragedy.”
When the Occupy movement in the United States launched last autumn on Wall Street - two months after Israelis went out on to the streets en masse protesting the high cost of housing, demonstrations that swelled into what is now known as the social justice protests – Americans felt galvanized by the same sense of mutual responsibility that has helped forge the Jewish Israeli experience.
When young European Jews, emboldened by a Zionist ideology that spoke of creating a new, utopian life in an ancient homeland, started arriving to Ottoman and then British Mandate Palestine in the early part of last century, they had little option for survival but to band together.
Many of them were still teenagers, others in their early twenties, far from parents, financial and emotional support or familiar social structures. Building roads and farming land, they often lived together in collectives (some of which became kibbutzim), and the notion of the group became sacrosanct.
Following the trauma of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the collective idea began to fray, and a growing sense of individualism began to take root, as Israelis began to question the more aggressive and hermetic sides of being such a fiercely collective society.
But something powerful happened last summer, as hundreds of thousands of Israelis from across the country took the streets to protest not only high apartment prices, a soaring cost of living and one of the greatest gaps between rich and poor in the Western world. People felt united in purpose and reunited with a feeling that they were connected and responsible for each other again.
That momentum had begun to wane until the tragic symbolism of Silman’s act Saturday night.
In Israel, where the public attention span tends to last only as long as the next missile barrage from Gaza or another report of imminent nuclear danger from Iran, will it be enough to keep the social justice movement at the top of the public agenda?
Much will hinge on how the already splintered leadership of Israel's social justice movement responds and how it can keep that sense of the bond with the collective alive and relevant.
Meanwhile, across the sea, the incredibly shrinking Occupy movement looks to recover its energy and focus. Let’s hope that the activists there, and in any other social protest movement, don't reach the depths of desperation that would lead to their own Moshe Silmans to revive their cause.
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