The public suicide attempt in the demonstration marking one year since the start of Israel’s social protest is a watershed for the movement. No longer does the protest express the frustrations of the Tel Aviv “sushi-eaters.” Now it expresses the extreme hardships of the masses, trodden underfoot by the state, driven to their last crust. And behind them are hundreds of thousands who stand on the brink, fearing a fate like that of Moshe Silman.
During the demonstration of July 14, something fundamental changed in Israel. Protest-movement activist Moshe Silman, aged 57, set himself alight in an act of despair after authorities had slammed all doors in his face. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to present the case as the personal tragedy of a lone man, but anyone with eyes in his head knows otherwise. On that day, we of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN) marched together with Silman, side by side with thousands of other activists demanding social justice. Not all agree on the same agenda, but this does not detract from the validity of the protest or its authenticity. Silman’s desperate cry turned the protest into a mighty call challenging the warped social order in Israel today.
I met Silman in WAC’s Haifa offices in May this year, during a meeting between social-protest activists and truck drivers. The aim was to win the support of the truckers for the protest movement. Silman told us he was independent, bankrupt, and barely scraping through. He argued heatedly, expressing enormous anger toward the system that had crushed him. Silman took it upon himself to reach other drivers and persuade them to join, and following the meeting we went down to Haifa port to distribute flyers to truckers. “It’s your protest!” he shouted at those who drove past. “Don’t be silent – join the protest!”
How desperate must a person be in order to burn himself to death? His public suicide in the heart of the demonstration marking one year since the start of the social protest is a watershed for the movement. No longer does the protest express the frustrations of the “sushi-eaters,” the comfortable Tel Aviv middle class. Now it expresses the extreme hardships of the masses, trodden underfoot by the state, driven to their last crust. And behind them are hundreds of thousands who stand on the brink, fearing their fate may be like that of Silman.
In his testament, Silman wrote, “The State of Israel robbed me and plundered me, and left me with nothing. I blame the State of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu and [Finance Minister] Steinitz, the crooks, for the humiliation weak citizens undergo every day. I have no money for medicines or rent, I have no way of getting through the month after I pay millions in taxes, and I served in the army and did reserve duty till the age of 46. I refuse to be homeless, therefore I protest against all the wrongs the state has done to me and to those like me.”
The State of Israel unilaterally violated its contract with its (Jewish) citizens without having to account for itself, until the protest movement broke out. And even after this movement gathered steam, the state busied itself with public relations maneuvers, tried to buy time, and hoped Israelis would swallow the bait. But not a single issue at the root of the protest was addressed; on the contrary, the problems got worse. Therefore the protest didn’t die down, and it will neither forget nor forgive.
Israel today is cruel towards the weak, and who is not weak in the Israel of 2012? Not only the Palestinians whose lands have been stolen and houses destroyed; not only the African refugees and migrants, victims of a racist manhunt and ugly deportation campaign; not only the Arab citizens, half of whom live beneath the poverty line; not only the disabled, elderly, holocaust survivors, unemployed, or unskilled workers – but the young, educated and skilled workers as well, those who dreamed of building themselves a future. All have been sent into the “free market” grinding mill as the state rids itself of any responsibility for the welfare of its citizens.
The frustration, rage and feeling of powerlessness are near the boiling point, and the situation will only get worse as the global financial crisis shakes up Israel too. When so many receive starvation wages or work via labor contractors, when government ministries care only for the rich, when citizens are milked dry by banks, insurance companies and local authorities, when the National Insurance Institute charged with their welfare has become part of the system trampling them underfoot – the social protest movement will not evaporate, and it will not content itself with polite slogans. The people need real solutions – they need revolution!
The protest movement which began exactly a year ago raised the question: is the Israeli regime so different from the Arab regimes which were swept into the dustbin of history by the Arab Spring? Will Israelis, like the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square and the Jasmine Revolution, fight the barbaric system which drives people to despair? Many already understand that neo-liberal capitalism, which regards anything unprofitable as worthless, is responsible for Moshe Silman’s fate.
Some are comparing Silman to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself alight on December 17, 2010, setting off the wave of revolutions that shook the Arab world. Bouazizi was a college graduate who could not find work in his field and was compelled to sell vegetables from a handcart. The way he was treated by police and inspectors, who confiscated his merchandise repeatedly, and the way the city governor ignored his complaints, which were met by blows and humiliation, drove him to self-immolation.
As of this writing, Silman is still struggling for his life in hospital. If there is a way to strengthen him, to help him feel his life is not worthless, it depends on us to continue to build up a social protest movement which will not compromise with the system, which will not be silent until this government is brought down.
Translated from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger