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Israelis React to Self-Immolation at Social Justice Protest

Oמ Saturday evening (July 14), 56-year-old Moshe Silman attended the Aviv social justice protest, which marked a year since the beginning of the #J14 protest movement. Silman, a fixture in the social justice protests in Haifa, spoke publicly before attendants of the protest, handed out a letter detailing his hardships, then poured gasoline on himself and set himself on fire. In his letter, Silman, the former owner of a shipping company, describes that due to a small debt to the National Insurance Institute (NII) the trucks of his business were repossessed. The Israeli court system then failed him when he attempted to get the trucks back. Silman then started working as a taxi driver to make ends meet, but following several strokes, he was unable to work any longer. The NII granted Silman a meager disability stipend only a year after he became disabled. Silman then turned to the Ministry of Housing to receive public housing. Despite his extreme poverty, he was ineligible to receive public housing because he didn't meet the criteria of never owning real-estate in Israel. Silman set himself on fire a week before he was about to become homeless, stating in his letter: “I refuse to be homeless, this is why I am protesting.” Silman is now hospitalized in critical condition, with 92 per cent of his body covered in burns.

Since the self-immolation, the discussions about it dominated the Israeli cyberspace. The initial reaction was shock, especially of the hundreds of people who witnessed the self-immolation. Many shared online their personal feelings of horror and pain about the event. Many expressed the feeling that Silman's story could have happened to most Israelis due to the near total absence of a government safety net. To express this, some have changed their profile photo to that of Silman. The spending of the government on welfare has significantly decreased in the last two decades in Israel, leaving many Israelis in desperate situations, similar to those of Silman.

Activist and blogger Haim Har Zahav, just as Silman's letter did, connected Silman's personal story to the broader struggle for social justice in Israel:

כבר שנה שלמה ששוועת העם עולה מן הרחוב. חצי מיליון ישראלים – גברים, נשים וטף – יצאו מהבית בערב אחד, והרבה יותר ממיליון יצאו במצטבר בקיץ הקודם וביקשו שינוי. ביקשו לדחות את הקפיטליזם הקיצוני של הליכוד. ביקשו לחזור למדינת הרווחה. למדינה שבה אדם יודע שגם אם יתרסק כלכלית, ואפילו אם ההתרסקות היא בגלל טעויות שעשה, המדינה לא תתן לו להגיע למצב של איבוד עצמו לדעת. המפגינים ביקשו להחזיר את רשת הביטחון הסוציאלית. הרשת שהייתה מונעת, מן הסתם, מהאיש שהצית את עצמו בתל אביב להגיע לידי יאוש מוחלט.
It's been a whole year that the cry of the people has been rising from the streets. Half a million of Israelis – men, women and children – left their home on one night, and over one million put together came out and demanded change last summer. They asked to reject the radical capitalism of the Likud party. They asked to return to the welfare state model. To a state in which a person knows that even if he experiences a financial crash, and even if this crash is a result of mistakes that he had made, the state will not let him reach a state of taking his own life. The protesters demanded to return the social safety net. A safety net that would have probably, prevented the man who set himself on fire in Tel Aviv from reaching utter despair.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who called the event, a “personal tragedy“, was attacked for it by many Israelis online for absolving the state of the responsibility for the tragedy. Israelis turned to the web to share their personal stories about the disregard of authorities, and in particular of the NII, toward their hardship, to show that Silman's story is not merely a personal tragedy, but a result of an abusive system designed to deny people benefits. Due to the prevalence of these personal stories, blogger Nitay Peretz opened a new blog to collect those stories, for example, the story of a woman who was forced to prove that she hasn't grown a leg since the last time her disability was examined by the NII.

Prominent leftist blogger Yossi Gurvitz wrote:

משה סילמן שירת את המדינה שלו בנאמנות, שילם לה מיליונים במסים, ומזה סכומים עצומים לביטוח הלאומי – שטורף 16% מההכנסות של עצמאים – וכשהוא נפל, היא לא היתה שם בשבילו.

וכולנו, במובנים רבים, משה סילמן. כולנו שני צעדים, שלושה במקרה הטוב, מחורבן טוטאלי שהמדינה לא תנקוף אצבע כדי להציל אותנו ממנו. כלכליסט מצא לאחרונה שרק שליש מהציבור יכול לגייס 8,000 ₪ בלתי צפויים תוך חודש. ל-63% ממה שמוגדר כאן בטעות כ”מעמד הביניים” – אין כזה, בישראל רק העשירונים השמיני עד העשירי סוגרים את החודש – “יהיה קשה עד בלתי אפשרי לעמוד בהוצאה חד פעמית ובלתי מתוכננת.” תאונה אחת, מחלה אחת, ואתם מחוסלים.

Moshe Silman served his country loyally, paid millions to it in taxes, and of this huge sums to the NII – which eats up 16% of the income of the self-employed, and when he fell, the state wasn't there for him.

And all of us, in many ways, are Moshe Silman. All of us are two steps, at best three, from a total collapse, which the state will do nothing to rescue us from. Calcalist [an Israeli financial daily] recently found [in a poll] that only a third of the public can raise $2,000 in a month if they need it for an unexpected expense. 63% of what is erroneously called in Israel “the middle class” – there is no such thing, in Israel only the top 20 per cent make ends meet – “it will be difficult to impossible to handle an unexpected one-time expense.” One accident, one illness, and you're destroyed.

The popular anonymous blogger Ishton commented about the influence of the internet on the way people perceived and reacted to the event:

כשם שהרשת היא כלי להעברת מידע במהירות שכמותה לא נראתה, כך היא גם קיצרה את זמן המחזור של אותו המידע – הזמן שנתעניין בנושא והזמן שייקח לו להפוך ללא רלוונטי… אם פעם עצם העובדה שאדם בחר לעשות מעשה כל כך כואב ובצורה פומבית, הקנתה לו זמן חסד מסוים ושידרוג לדרגת מרטיר, הרי שבימינו לקחו שעות בלבד עד שלכל אחד היתה דעה; בבוקר כבר החלו הנאצות ועד הצהריים כבר הופיעו ממים, שהצליחו למצוא הומור בנושא.
Just as the internet is a tool for spreading information faster than ever before, it has also shorted the cycle of that information – the time we will take an interest in the subject and the time it will take the information to become irrelevant… If in the past, the mere fact that a person decided to publicly commit an act so painful automatically granted him some good will and the status of a martyr, today it took only a few hours until each of us had an opinion; in the morning he was already being cursed by some, and the lunchtime, memes have already begun appearing, which found some humor in the subject.

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