Israel Is Privatizing Its Citizens' Despair

The prime minister doesn't want 'extreme situations' such as Moshe Silman's case to reach the media.

"A big personal tragedy," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday, opening a meeting of Likud cabinet ministers hours after Moshe Silman nearly burned himself to death. "A big personal tragedy," said Netanyahu, wishing "Moshe" a full recovery.

He also ordered the ministers of Housing and Construction, and of Welfare and Social Services, to look into the matter. And so "Moshe" has now become a friend of the prime minister, and is deemed worthy of personal attention given by cabinet ministers - Silman has even been dubbed worthy of the prime minister's blessing for "full recovery," as though that is a viable option for somebody with burns over 94% of his body.

Netanyahu's response was neither a slip of the tongue nor an improvised comment. It is his policy. Netanyahu's policy is a policy of privatization. And this is how it is done: This is a case of privatizing a citizen and his problems. "Moshe" was precisely that - a private citizen with a private business. He worked, served the state, and everything was alright in his life. So what does Netanyahu have to say to someone who has done his part, and yet whose life collapses and who faces a vindictive state? He wishes him a full recovery and good health.

A week before Silman burned himself, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel published a detailed report that describes the various ways Israeli governments have in past decades pulled the plug on social services. With institutionalized violence, each government has cut budgets drastically, implemented privatization policies behind the Knesset's back, used intimidating language to stifle any sign of opposition to its policies, avoided enforcing social welfare laws, and has even proactively violated labor, education and public housing laws.

Throughout these years of privatization, thousands of organizations have arisen to fill the vacuum left by the state. Such NGOs attempt to provide assistance to all those who have been neglected by the state. Yet in recent years the state has transposed the methods it has used against the weakened; it now uses the same methods against organizations which help those disadvantaged. The same institutionalized violence that was directed against the weak is now deployed by the government against NGOs: the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, headed by a "socially oriented" minister, and the Finance Ministry today threaten the organizations and predicate the continued disbursement of budget resources upon the issuance of tenders. Any contractor who wins such a bid can take care of battered women, victims of sexual abuse or physically handicapped persons to earn an easy profit.

Much has been written since Saturday night about the ordeal endured by Silman in the bureaucratic labyrinth of the National Insurance Institute, the legal system and the Housing and Construction and Welfare and Social Services ministries. The ordeal led to his gruesome self-sacrifice. All the stops on his Via Dolorosa involved institutions, and it is easy to talk about institutions as though they are guilty of bureaucratic indifference. But institutions are made up of people. Needy assistance-seekers turn to human beings for help. Human beings, who hold the bureaucratic positions, are the ones who unwind the red tape, reject requests, abuse the helpless. These are men and women who have internalized the spirit arising from the government for many years: every man for himself, anyone who needs help is an exploiter, a parasite and a liar. Anyone who wants to make it, can make it, and if he can't make it, that's a sign something is wrong with him; there's nothing wrong with us. We keep the budget trim.

Though it seems the culprit here is the bureaucracy, a bureaucracy is nothing more than a means for the implementation of policy. When there is no will to invest money and help citizens, the bureaucrats will ruin you. When there is a will to invest money and help citizens, the government can decide - as it just did - to relay NIS 100 million for a university in Ariel, which is being established without any bureaucratic input at all.

The Prime Minister's Office website does not convey what Netanyahu said about Silman. Nobody bothered to update the site in this regard. In response to the act of self-immolation, Netanyahu chose neither to change the cabinet's agenda, nor to change his policies.

In a show of rank hypocrisy, the Welfare and Social Services Ministry and the NII have decided to establish a joint committee, headed by no less than the directors general of these two entities, to handle "extreme situations." They took the hint: The prime minister doesn't want "extreme situations" such as Silman's case to reach the media. As is his wont, instead of grasping that there is a genuine problem and taking steps to solve it, the prime minister is simply stamping out the latest fire.