David's Harp / In the Heat of the Moment

Moshe Silman and his act of self-immolation may give the social justice movement the symbol it badly needs - or not.

The tragedy of Moshe Silman could turn out to be the best thing ever for the social-justice movement. Probably not, but it's the nature of revolutions that the causes are more often than a not mystery, the ways they capture the public's mind a puzzle and their consequences an enigma.

Who could have imagined that an unknown produce dealer living in a small town in a minor Arab country (Mohamed Bouazizi, Sidi Bouzid and Tunisia, respectively) would send the country's dictator fleeing into ignominious exile weeks later, followed by his counterparts in Egypt and Libya? Or from that, a civil war would explode in Syria, that Yemen would collapse into anarchy and that Islamists would be elected to power?

There are certainly enough issues to bring the masses out into the streets and into their tents this summer. Economic growth is slowing, the unemployment rate has recently started to creep higher and housing prices are rising. To be fair, one year is not enough time to solve the fundamental problems facing the economy - widening income inequality, the unequal burden of taxes, discrimination in conscription to the army and the poor state of education, infrastructure and government services.

But the fact is that a year after the social protests broke out almost nothing has been done even to begin addressing them.

No critical mass yet

Yet the protesters and tent cities haven't reappeared in critical mass. Last weekend's demonstrations drew just 10,000 people in Tel Aviv and protests elsewhere attracted far fewer. They would have captured no more attention than a brief item on page two or three in the dailies had Silman not set himself afire.

If it wasn't obvious a year ago, it is certainly obvious now: The social justice protests were more about social than justice. Last year's rallies in Tel Aviv were the place to be on a Saturday night and, if you were young and without too many family responsibilities, it was fun and different to camp out on Rothschild Boulevard. It was inspiring - for a few weeks.

The cottage-cheese boycott, which arguably began it all, was the right product at the right time - a symbol no less potent than Moshe Silman that could easily be shunned for a couple of weeks while the politically correct ate yogurt for lunch and waited for dairy companies Tnuva and Strauss to buckle under.

But no other boycotts - including for items like gasoline and housing that were rising faster and more painfully than cottage cheese - ever succeeded, or in some cases, were even tried. The public didn't have enough invested in it to make any real and sustained sacrifices.

In any case, the price of cottage cheese has fallen, which might explain why a Haaretz poll found that three-quarters of the public thinks they are slightly or significantly better off now than they were a year ago. The price of cottage cheese greets you every week at the checkout counter, which is why it so easily upset people when it was on the way up and now gives them cause for mild contentment as it has gone down.

Symbol in waiting

Moshe Silman is a potentially powerful symbol of social justice denied, but he doesn't quite capture the movement's zeitgeist. He wasn't ripped off by high prices at the supermarket or by scheming tycoons; his woes were the consequence of an incompetent and uncaring bureaucracy. Yet what the protest movement's leading activists - at least a lot of them - are demanding is more government.

More government would mean, among other things, more public housing, something Silman was denied, at least in part due to the fact that there isn't enough of it. But the middle class that is supposed to form the backbone of the social justice movement doesn't care about public housing. The poor didn't come out last year to the rallies and are unlikely to come out this year either, with or without Silman to inspire them.

But then Mohamed Bouazizi's problems with the authorities over the right to set up his vegetable cart could hardly be inspiring rebel forces in Syria today. Yet who would deny there is a direct causal link between one and the other?

Silman could revive the social justice movement, but even if he does - almost no good can come from it. The Finance Ministry is already between a rock and a hard place over the budget. Tax revenues are way behind forecast, leaving the government with a gaping deficit this year and a worse one to come in 2013.

Even with a go-ahead from the cabinet for a wider deficit equal to 3% of gross domestic product next year, the treasury will have no choice but to impose a painful round of tax hikes and spending cuts.

Exactly where will there be money to start building, say, public housing or to hire more sympathetic National Insurance Institute clerks is anyone's guess.

One can certainly see a scenario where the protests gather momentum and a prime minister running scared - as he tends to do - decides that he has no choice but to answer their demands for more public spending. After all, Israel's fiscal situation is not as dire as Europe's and the economy is slowing so there is a good case - though far from an excellent one - for running a higher deficit for a year or two.

That could well happen, leading to a fiscal and ultimately social disaster that Silman would never have imagined.