Desperate man's self-immolation reflects Israel social protests

By Anshel Pfeffer, July 19, 2012
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A social welfare protester

A social welfare protester

The self-immolation by a marcher at one of the social protests in Tel Aviv last weekend has refocused public attention on the movement that began exactly a year ago. Yet, despite the terrible story of 57-year-old Moshe Silman, who used to own a small trucking business but was driven to his desperate act by bankruptcy and a growing debt to the National Insurance Institute (NII), the protests seem to have lost steam.

Mr Silman, who remains in critical condition at Sheba Medical Centre, chose to set himself alight at one of the demonstrations on Saturday night marking a year since the protest movement began. In Tel Aviv, there were two separate marches, which highlighted the fact that many of the original leaders of the movement have become disaffected by its lack of clear objectives, while others have criticised some of the leaders for seeking to bill themselves as political figures. Around 15,000 demonstrators marched in half-a-dozen protests around the country, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands who crowded the streets last summer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was worried enough about the implications of the protests last year to set up a special committee to deliver recommendations on new social priorities and programmes, seems less concerned this year. He saw how the protest waves dissipated as soon as there was a terror attack on the southern border, and how the Israeli public were more interested in the Gilad Shalit prisoner deal, which translated itself to higher popular ratings for Mr Netanyahu.

On Sunday morning, the prime minister referred to Mr Silman’s suicide attempt, wishing him a full recovery, saying it was “a great personal tragedy” and that he had instructed the housing and social affairs ministries to look into his case. He did not acknowledge the fact that Mr Silman had committed his act as part of a wider social protest. Yisrael HaYom, the daily free newspaper, owned by Mr Netanyahu’s backer, Jewish-American casino mogul, Sheldon Adelson, deleted the references to the prime minister and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz in Mr Silman’s farewell letter that he had handed out before he set himself alight.

It is still unclear whether the majority of Israelis will see what happened to Mr Silman as symptomatic of their wider financial situation — so far his action has yet to galvanise a new wave of mass protests, and the movement remains as divided as ever.

The government’s response was to set up a “red-light” team in the National Insurance ministry, which is supposed to monitor similar bankruptcy cases and give prior warning of possible acts of desperation, though it is unclear how this is supposed to work.
Meanwhile, there are bigger political stories this summer.

Last updated: 12:18pm, July 19 2012