Although Moshe Silman called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz “scoundrels” in the letter he wrote before setting himself on fire Saturday night, Netanyahu wished him a full recovery and even called Silman’s situation a “great personal tragedy.”
But this is not just a personal tragedy. It is also a public tragedy and a harsh protest against the government’s cruelty to its citizens. It was no coincidence that Silman chose to immolate himself at the social protest rally on Saturday night. He felt he was an integral part of the protest and was expressing his feelings in his letter, feelings that are shared by many other participants in the demonstrations.
Silman wrote in his suicide letter (let us hope that he recovers from his horrific burns): “The State of Israel stole from me, robbed me, left me with nothing. It does not even give help with rent. The court obstructed me. I blame the State of Israel.”
Silman was a working man. Until 10 years ago he managed four delivery trucks. But as was the case with many people during the second intifada, work dropped off sharply, and he began to rack up debts. In 2002 Silman owed NIS 15,000 to the National Insurance Institute, which therefore seized one of his trucks. From there on in, things began to snowball; the debts ballooned, the business shut down, and Silman lost his apartment in Jaffa. And if that was not enough, he also had a stroke; he was recognized as disabled and entitled to benefits, but they were too low to be of very much help. Silman’s distress was so great that on Saturday night he chose the most agonizing form of suicide.
This is a person who tried to make a living, but could not. A person who did reserve duty until age 46. He is neither parasite nor gambler nor criminal. This is exactly the kind of person that the National Insurance Institute should be taking care of with the utmost sensitivity, and providing him a safety net. That is precisely why the National Insurance Institute has NIS 60 billion. Why demand from a person such as Silman a paltry NIS 15,000 and seize the source of his livelihood, when the amount owed does not come to even one millionth of the institute’s budget?
The attitude toward people like Silman must be the polar opposite of the one he experienced. They should be allowed to repay their debts in installments, or their debts should be forgiven. They should be provided assistance in managing their businesses or in seeking an alternative business. That is what the National Insurance Institute, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, the Social Affairs Ministry and the Housing and Construction Ministry are there for.
The bureaucracy, somewhere up there, must not be allowed to be cruel to the weak and to destroy them. It has the opposite task: to raise up, to assist, to raise the poor out of the dust, to lift up the needy from the dunghill.
Silman’s horrific act, which came from utter despair, happened precisely at a moment when government ministers are busy with a much more pressing issue: should the new car they receive be a BMW 528i, which sells for NIS 398,000 or should it be a Citroen C5, with a market cost of “merely” NIS 205,000.
Any way you look at it, it’s nauseating. The purchase of a prestigious BMW for ministers shows what the government really thinks of itself − that they are above the common people and therefore they deserve to drive the car that the top thousandth percentile of Israelis drive. To purchase such an ostentatious car when we are all facing budget cuts is insane. To buy a German car when Holocaust survivors are still living among us is the height of insensitivity. To receive a 48 percent discount is very close to bribery, because no other group receives a similar discount.
The treasury’s initial response was arrogant and infuriating. It stated that all was well, that the tender was issued in a “two-phase” process and that “it was formulated while maintaining the principles of equality, free competition and economic efficiency.” But as public criticism grew and became harsher, Steinitz realized that his ministry had gone too far. He announced that he would study the tender in order to annul it. He’d better.
This huge gap − between Silman’s distress and the ministers’ BMWs − illustrates well the gap in our society that has grown in recent years between the rich and the poor, between those who are close to people with influence and those who are cut off from such people, between those who make millions and those who earn nearly nothing.
And that is the basis for the outbreak of the social protests. Netanyahu tried to keep Silman’s tragedy on the personal level, but the truth is different. Silman is a symbol of the gaps, the anger and the bureaucracy, all of which must be addressed immediately.