Desperate Times, Desperate Acts

Between Tunisia and Israel: A Personal Tragedy Becomes the Symbol of Israel's Social Struggle

The tragic act of Moshe Silman setting himself on fire during a social protest reflects the depth of the gaping chasm between the people and the government.

The desperation that led Haifa resident Moshe Silman to set himself on fire on Saturday night in Tel Aviv, exactly one year after the first tents were erected on Rothschild Boulevard, is a tragic example of the depth of the gaping chasm between the people and the government, a break in the making for years, and has been on full display since last July.

Government spokesmen will most definitely claim that Saturday nights tragedy does not reflect the general situation in the country, which theyll say is constantly improving. Theyll say that over the past year, they have been more attentive than ever to the plight of the people.

The letter left behind by Moshe Silman depicts a piercing reality that unfortunately is not unique to him: A monthly allowance of NIS 2,300, no money to pay for medication or rent, and I cant even live month to month. I wont be homeless, and so I am protesting.

Those are the words of a man with no choice left but to set himself on fire, in a last-ditch attempt to show the world how desperate his situation is.

In Tunisia it was Mohamed Bouazizi, the vendor that set himself on fire and brought the protests there into worldwide focus in December 2010. Will Bouazizis Israeli equivalent inspire the government to do some soul searching? Will he inspire some kind of rehabilitation for the system that pushed him to this terrible act? Most likely, an investigational committee will be opened. It is already possible to guess the outcome of the investigation - the system worked the way it was supposed to.

Perhaps the idea of independent investigation is nave, though we must not give in to this notion.  We must demand change, through more protests and rallies, and expand upon the basic questions. For example, the waiting list for public housing.

Bouazizi, we must remember, did not set himself on fire to bring Democracy to Tunisia. It was an act of protest directed at Sidi Bouzid municipality officials, who confiscated his mobile produce stand. The subsequent protests proved to be unstoppable, not in Tunisia, nor anywhere else. Facing protests of this nature, the government best keep quiet.

The tragedy of Silmans act stresses the principle questions facing the socioeconomic policy in practice in Israel over the last 30 years. For years Israel has not been a welfare state, in which every citizen has a safety net to catch them in the event of hardship.

 The disdain of Israeli government, specifically the current government, for the ideas of social justice raised by the protests, has been revealed over the last year. That is one of the protests more impressive achievements.

The thousands who took the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Beer Sheva on Saturday night attest to the depth of the change created by the social protest: last year, calls for social justice were made by a small minority, and met with raised eyebrows. A year later, the public discourse has fundamentally changed. Despite intricate government attacks – promises made and forgotten, public relations spin, and police brutality – the protest has not disappeared, and nor is there a reason for it to do so. The protest is here to stay.

Moshe Silman at a social protest in Haifa.
Hagai Fried