Silman’s act is a terrible reminder the social problems that prompted huge protests in Israel last year remain.
The social justice protests we saw exactly a year ago in Israel could not be more different than the renewed wave of rallies that have once again brought people out to the sweltering streets.
Last year, tens of thousands participated in the J14 weekly marches against the high cost of living in Israel and the deterioration of social services. The rallies grew week on week, culminating in nationwide demonstrations on September 3 that brought over 400,000 people to the streets. This was the largest – and most peaceful – protest against capitalism that summer across the globe, not only percentage-wise (6% of the population) but in absolute numbers as well.
There’s a different atmosphere on the streets this summer. Polls show there is still widespread support for J14 (named after the day the protest began, July 14), but fewer are participating. Saturday’s demonstration, the largest so far, managed to muster just 10,000 people. The ad hoc leadership of the movement has splintered into numerous factions, some calling for more co-operation with the political system, while others want a confrontational approach.
Both the citizens and the state are losing patience. Police are showing less restraint this time round and videos of protesters being beaten have quickly spread across the social networks. Police even brought in a high-tech military surveillance vehicle used in the occupied territories to monitor protesters. And even before the protests started up again, key activists were summoned for interrogation at police stations. On the protesters’ side, the confrontational approach took centre stage a few weeks ago when a bank was “occupied” and its windows smashed.
Yet all this changed on Saturday night. Moshe Silman, 57, a son of Holocaust survivors, took a bus from the northern city of Haifa to the protest in Tel Aviv, a bottle of petrol in his hand. Just as the demo was about to end, he doused himself and lit a match. At the time of writing he is in critical condition with third-degree burns covering 94% of his body.
Just before setting himself alight, Silman handed out a letter telling his story of how a small debt of around US$1,000 to the National Insurance Institute spiralled out of control. From a man who owned a small truck delivery business, Silman’s battle against Israeli authorities took him through bankruptcy, mental despair, and eventually severe deterioration in health. He suffered a stroke, could not work, and when he asked for minimum assistance in rent, he was turned down. It got so hard for him that friends recall him saying the only time he was at peace was in hospital, where he got three meals a day.
Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, used an interesting choice of words, calling Silman’s self-immolation a “personal tragedy”, as if it had nothing to do with the social structure of the state and did not reflect a much larger disease in Israeli society.
A “personal tragedy”? The truth is, Silman is just one victim in a country that long ago lost any of its social-democratic values, and now some of its humanity. As Israel’s occupation of Palestine looks increasingly like apartheid, as basic democratic norms are being discarded one by one, Israeli governments over the past three decades have drastically cut back on social rights and services for its citizens inside the green line, as well. Housing, education, employment, welfare – all have been drained of their resources.
Recent data shows that Israel spends only 16% of its GDP on public services, compared to an average of 22% in the OECD, of which it is now a member. The health system is one of the hardest hit, as even Silman himself learned that Saturday, when he could not be admitted to the hospital burn unit because there were only eight beds, all taken.
Silman’s case clearly shows that the economic and social problems that brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets last year remain unresolved. The gaps between rich and poor are some of the highest in the west, with 60% of the wealth being held by only 10% of the public. Indeed, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the gap between the regime and its citizens is only widening.
Despite their support for J14, many Israelis consider the movement a failure. Some say that such huge numbers of protesters should have brought about more substantial change, and quicker. Others take issue with J14 demanding “social justice” – yet avoid the social justice that the Palestinian people long for and deserve. Yet, its greatest success is actually in the slow process that it has set in motion: since Israel’s independence, its political discourse has been completely dominated by military and security issues. Thanks to J14, this is changing. Politicians now spend huge amounts of time discussing it, conglomerates know they are being watched much closer by the public – and some have even been punished by consumers. For the first time in its history, Israelis may be able to say in the next elections: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Silman is not the Mohamed Bouazizi of Israel, however. The Netanyahu regime will not be brought down by crowds of people storming the Knesset. Yet, his act may make people who have lost faith in J14 come out to the streets again. Essentially, what Silman has shown most middle-class Israelis is that they didn’t know how bad it really is here. How rotten to the core the system has become. He has opened our eyes to the fact that his tragedy is not personal, as Netanyahu would want us to believe. It’s national.
Let’s keep this award-winning site going!
|Yes, audiences applaud us. But do you?If yes, then buy us a beer. The wingnuts are falling over each other to make donations…to their causes. We, on the other hand, take our left media—the only media that speak for us— for granted. Don’t join that parade, and give today. Every dollar counts.
|Use the DONATE button below or on the sidebar. And do the right thing. Even once a year.|
Use PayPal via the button below.