From Bonfire to a Single Flame

Moshe Silman’s near-martyr status threatens to redefine Israel's social protests in terms of victimhood and desperation.

When the social justice protests began last year, the poster child was a young woman who pitched a tent and launched a movement predicated on a vision of a better future.  In the process, Daphni Leef helped mobilize a population through possibility and inspiration.

This year, the poster child of the protests is Moshe Silman, who set himself on fire in a violent, public act of desperation. He has now been joined by Akiva Mafa'i, a disabled IDF veteran who set himself on fire on the day of Silman's funeral.

The symbolism of Leef and Silman speaks to how far the idealism of the social justice movement has fallen and how desperate we are to recapture the urgency of last year

But activists should think twice to adopt Silman as a hero or martyr.  Not because his story doesn’t deserve empathy and not because he doesn’t symbolize much of what’s wrong with the diminishing social safety net in Israel.  Rather, because as a symbol, he threatens to cast the entire movement in the shadow of victimhood, whereas last year we basked in the glow of empowerment.

Self-immolation has a long history as a tool of protest, dating back for centuries.  It appears in old Buddhist myths, has been used often by Tibetans protesting Chinese rule, and entered Western awareness in the 20th century with a string of self-immolations in protest at the Vietnam War. Traditionally it has been used as a stance of ideology, not the public suicide of a person who has lost all hope.

Last year, self-immolation played a significant role in the Arab Spring when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire, also in an act of personal desperation, in protest to the humiliation and harassment by municipal officials.  The act initiated the Tunisian Revolution and lit the spark, so to speak, of the regional revolution that was already simmering.

Silman’s act, while similarly responding to a system that failed him, differs in that he did not launch a revolution but rather has come to redefine one.  The question is whether, as a symbol, he redirects this year’s protest in a direction that we collectively want to go.

Already the protests this summer, to say nothing of their significantly reduced size, seem to have slipped into anger and accusation, a noticeable departure from the defiant, hopeful demands of yesteryear. Granted, this time around authorities decided to cast themselves as active opponents, thus giving the protests a reactionary feel from the start.

Quickly, the protests became about the police.  Now, they are about Moshe Silman.  His elevation to rallying cry feels like another reaction from a movement that has, unfortunately, failed to capture the national imagination for a sequel to last year’s thrilling success.

Such a dramatic action is impossible to ignore. Perhaps this was the only way to demand the attention of a distinerested government.  And Moshe Silman may very well single-handedly make an impact in a way that a summer of tens of thousands of protesters never could.

But in the process, is something sacrificed by allowing one man to redirect the conversation from a universal message of national identity to the tragedy of an individual life?

Maybe in this sweltering heat, it's too much to ask half a million people to converge once again in the center of Tel Aviv and throughout the country on the basis of collective frustration and abstract possibility.  But if that is the case, if we have lost the pluralism of voices already, then surely the flames of Moshe Silman will singe and deter most Israeli citizens.  

We must talk about Moshe Silman.  We must learn from Moshe Silman.  But we should be wary lest he come to soley define this movement as one of vicitimhood and defeat. 

If symbolically and rhetorically we adopt his desperation, we risk turning the roaring bonfire of mass popular passion that was so magical last year into a vigil for a single flame.

Brian Schaefer is a Tel Aviv-based writer and student who works for Haaretz English iPad edition.