For the thousands of people who made it to last Saturday night’s renewed social
justice protest in Tel Aviv, the reunion event – called to mark a year since
last year’s mass demonstrations – is likely to be one they will never
As the rally was about to wind down, Haifa resident Moshe Silman,
who has since become a symbol to many of those committed to the social justice
protest movement, doused himself with flammable liquid and set himself on fire.
Just before he went up in flames, the 57-year-old distributed a letter
explaining his actions: “The State of Israel has stolen from me and robbed me,
left me with nothing,” he said.
Silman went on to blame Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz for “the humiliation that
disenfranchised citizens go through day in and day out, that take from the poor
and give to the rich and to public servants, those that serve the State of
A day later, as Silman lay in intensive care at Sheba Medical
Center in Tel Hashomer, friends and relatives of the man who has succeeded in
taking this summer’s social justice protests to a new level described how he had
gone from successful small-business owner to a man about to be made homeless
after the social welfare system let him down.
According to reports,
Silman’s down-on- his-luck spiral was sparked by one small debt to the National
Insurance Institute. As that debt grew, he lost his business, his property and
his home, and eventually suffered a debilitating stroke that left him 100%
Despite receiving a meager disability check from the NII, he
was barely able to afford essential medicines. let alone pay rent on an
While his drastic actions Saturday night might not be the path
that most people would choose to follow – even though throughout the week there
were several attempts at self-immolation by others – it was Silman’s desperate
tone that resonated far and wide throughout society. Sadly, his seems to be a
story many people in Israel can identify with.
“I really hope that no one
else will follow this path, but at the end of the day he was sick of the
situation and he had no choice,” said Rabbi Idit Lev, manager of social justice
projects at Rabbis for Human Rights.
For the past year, Lev worked
closely with Silman to help him navigate through the bureaucracy of the social
welfare system and fight for the right to public housing.
“He felt that
no one in the State of Israel was listening to him,” said Lev, explaining that
she meets many individuals and families in similar distress.
know how these welfare policies are decided, who gets help and who does not, but
at the end of the day, no one would help Moshe.”
Of course, after Silman
set himself alight, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other government
officials were quick to respond. But did the prime minister’s well-wishes fall
short of fully understanding the scope of social welfare problems in this
country when he referred to Silman’s “great personal tragedy.”
the depth of the country’s social problems was exposed clearly on Tuesday when
hundreds of people waiting to be assigned public housing showed up for a
pre-planned meeting of the Knesset Lobby for Public Housing and the Forum for
As the meeting turned stormy, with people sharing their
personal stories of depravation and degradation in trying to beat the poverty
trap or even just survive within it, Silman’s desperation seemed to echo
throughout the room.
“Silman’s story is something that could happen to
any of us,” commented Jerusalem resident Batela Shahar. “I am a widower of 25
years, I have five children and I have lived in public housing for 30
“While I am a mother and can’t let myself go like Silman did, I
can totally understand how it came to that,” she said, adding that there are
many people in Israel who are stuck in similar situations.
MK Ilan Gilon summed it up most eloquently when he told those gathered: “What
happened to Silman should not be seen as a personal tragedy but as a collective
tragedy, as it highlights the shame of the State of Israel.”
“It is both
a personal tragedy and a national tragedy,” Yisrael Livman, director of Mekimi,
a non-profit organization that provides solutions, counsel and guidance to
families in financial distress told The Jerusalem Post on
Silman obviously had deeper problems but, at the same time,
“he is letting out what many families in Israel are feeling,” Livman said,
pointing out that a mix of bureaucracy, lack of “protexia” (personal contacts)
and lack of knowledge about legal rights contributes to the growing
“People do not understand the system and government agencies
fail to help them understand,” he continued, adding that it is time for the
government to “wake up.” People make mistakes in life, for whatever reason, but
it is still the responsibility of the authorities to help them navigate through
those hardships and back to the surface, he said.
While Livman believes
that the state does have the tools to help those in need but is just not
effective in dispensing them, Dr. Emily Silverman, an expert in public housing
and progressive social planning, paints a much bleaker picture of the
“To say that [Moshe Silman] has fallen through the cracks is
to assume that some type of social welfare net actually exists,” commented
There is a net, she continued, but “it is only touching about
2,000 out of thousands more people who need help.” Silverman used the example of
public housing to show how the social welfare net does not stretch far enough to
help all those in need.
“Most Western countries expect that there will
always be a percentage of people who will never be able to purchase or rent
homes,” she said, pointing out that successive governments have made clear over
the past 20 years that this philosophy is not truly accepted in
“No new properties have been built for the past 20 years,” stated
Silverman, estimating that there are roughly 2,000 households who should be
eligible for public housing but are not getting it. And, she said, out of the
66,000 households currently living in public housing, most received that housing
in the 1950s and 1970s.
“I think Moshe Silman’s actions woke up a lot of
people to just how bad the situation has gotten,” said Silverman. “I do think
there will be change – already the social justice protests last summer caused
some changes and now I think people are realizing that it has just gone too
Indeed, as tragic stories like Silman’s cropped up throughout the
week, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs together with the NII committed
to creating an emergency task force to take on extreme welfare
“The goal, at this point, is to make sure that they know there is
someone out there who will listen to them and help them with any bureaucracy,”
said Nachum Itzkovitz, director-general of the Welfare Ministry.
after the creation of the task force, it had already received some 600 calls for
assistance from families and individuals.
While most of the calls were
over public housing – for which the welfare ministry is not responsible – many,
said Itzkovitz, were dealing with NII bureaucracy.
“Our system treats
hundreds of thousands of people, distributing over NIS 70 billion, so there
needs to be some level bureaucracy. We can’t just hand out this kind of money
without it,” explained NII spokesman Haim Fitussi. “However, if there are
breakdowns, then we are usually aware of the problems and we strive to deal with
Starting next week, the two agencies will open an emergency help
line aimed to assist people in extreme economic or social straits.