by Ben Piven
16 July 2012
Before the day’s events unfolded, the first anniversary of Israel’s popular protests of 2011 had been feared by many activists of becoming yet another botched attempt to revitalise their social movement.
Instead of proving the concerns correct, the July 14 event has provided the movement its most powerful and shocking symbol – the image of a down-on-his-luck son of a Holocaust survivor setting himself on fire to protest a long battle with the government to receive social services.
In doing so, 57-year-old Moshe Silman may have rallied an angrier set of demonstrators behind the cause and given new life to Israel’s social protest movement. The Haifa native used the opportunity to highlight his frustration with an increasingly desperate economic and health situation, and now his life hangs in the balance.
It was the first self-immolation in Israel since an opponent of the Gaza disengagement set herself alight in 2005.
“What Moshe did represents the whole range of problems of our society when a person loses everything and comes to authorities to get help and they deny him,” Alon Lee-Green, an activist with the social movement in Tel Aviv, told Al Jazeera.
“And then he cried out for help. They told him, we can’t help you. But this was not a personal problem but a national problem,” he said.
“Our movement stands with every man and woman who suffers from these problems. It is not only their problem. It is our problem. We are all July 14. And if he dies, it will be bring [everyone] into the streets.”
Crowds swarmed around Silman on Saturday evening, trying to douse the flames with shirts and water. But the fire engulfed his body, and his suicide note was left to indict the system for what it had done to his life.
“I accuse the state of Israel, Netanyahu and [Finance Minister] Yuval Steinitz, the bastards, for the humiliation that the weakened citizens of Israel endure on a daily basis,” the letter said.
After the incident, Silman was transferred from a hospital in Tel Aviv to the intensive care unit at Tel Hashomer’s Sheba Medical Center, where he is fighting severe burns on more than 90 per cent of his body. In critical condition, he was expected to be moved to the burns unit once a bed there became available.
A representative of the hospital told Al Jazeera that she was not legally authorised by Silman’s family to share any information about his condition with the media, but there are persistent rumours that he is already dead.
On Sunday, hundreds of protesters clamoured in Tel Aviv in support of Silman. Outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem many Israelis gathered under the banner: “We’re all Moshe Silman: The Blood is on The Government’s Hands”, and carrying signs that read, “Bibi, you burned us, too”, in reference to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
As protesters were rallying behind Silman, some officials were eager to downplay his graphic and high-profile act.
Mark Regev, spokesman for Netanyahu, said the tragedy was a “humanitarian situation and had nothing to do with politics”.
Eytan Schwartz, an adviser to the Tel Aviv mayor, said in an email: “While this tragic incident took place in Tel Aviv, it really has nothing to do with the city establishment. The person who lit himself came from outside of Tel Aviv to protest in a large manifestation which took place in the city.”
Israel’s National Insurance Institute, which was handed Silman’s claims, and which Silman accused from his Facebook page last March of being the “Anti-Social National Insurance Institute”, declined to comment.
According to an article by Haaretz which chronicled his long fight with government bureaucracies, Silman owned a transport company that went out of business after a series of run-ins involving the confiscation of his trucks due to chronic debt problems.
The seizure of his company’s vehicles exacerbated his financial woes, and he sank deeper into debt. Between the beginning of his economic decline in 2002 and the unsuccessful lawsuit he filed in 2008, his income faltered, and with that, his personal health.
His bank accounts were seized in order to pay off spiralling debts, which reportedly approached $100,000. Following a stroke, his monthly disability payment was just 2,300 shekels ($581). With help from his sisters, he managed to scrape by.
Silman was unable to resume even the part-time taxi driving he had been doing because his license was revoked due to health reasons. The government stopped his pension last December, and only resumed it two months ago. He soon became homeless after the housing ministry declared him ineligible for public housing.
When he joined the social protest movement in Haifa as rallies began last summer, he may have never anticipated the exposure he would bring to the cause.
Activists portrayed his story as the archetypal citizen, falling through society’s cracks. The prime minister on Sunday referred to his plight as a pedestrian “tragedy” that should be “looked into” by the housing and social affairs ministries.
He presented an opportunity for Labour opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich to rail against the government’s tough criteria for certain welfare benefits, but she also said cautiously that Silman “definitely must not be seen as a symbol of the social justice protest”.
Carmel Shama-Hacohen, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee and a member of the prime minister’s party, said on Sunday that he intended to carry out a detailed investigation of Silman’s case.
Silman’s sister, Bat-Tsion Elul, in an interview with Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, said: “He fell on his luck when they took everything – his business, trucks and house. His situation has deteriorated ever since … He could not stand it. He turned to all the agencies and got no answer.”
“Now everyone just wants to understand why,” his friend Shai Gali told Yediot. “Moshe was in a generally difficult situation after his health problems.”
His neighbours told local media that he was barely alive, with no money, and lived in great distress. They said they never imagined that he would hurt himself.
In the end, the man who swore to his friends that he would never live on the streets, attempted to die on one. What his act will come to symbolise is still open for interpretation.
On Sunday, activists across Israel began changing their Facebook photos to pictures of Saturday night’s burn victim, with text reading: “I, too, am Moshe Silman.”
The protests continue to emphasise the high cost of living in Israel’s cities, and call for a better social safety net in an era when price levels for basic good continue to rise – and with it, a sense of desperation.
Sharon Malki, a city councilwoman in Tel Aviv, said: “Four hundred people per year commit suicide because of economic hardship, but they are not doing it next to our home.
“I was next to the protest when [the self-immolation] happened and of course it was very shocking. He could be the guy next door,” Malki told Al Jazeera. “This can happen to anyone, since he wasn’t a drug addict or a criminal – just took a wrong turn and hit a dead end, which made him very miserable.”
“I’m not a prophet and I don’t know where it will take us, but I hope that that Moshe Silman will get well soon and that someone will take responsibility and proper care of him.
“But I also hope that he will be the last person to make such an extreme move, and maybe it will be example for policymakers that public housing is not something the government can give up on.”