The Welfare and Social Services Ministry is bracing itself for what could become a wave of copycat self-immolation acts after Haifa resident Moshe Silman set himself on fire Saturday night at a social justice protest.
Silman, whose goal was to draw attention to his battle to gain public housing, has become a symbol for those who feel sorely let down by the country’s ever-shrinking social welfare system.
Since Saturday night, five more people around the country have tried or threatened to set themselves on fire.
“It has sparked a chain reaction,” Welfare Ministry director-general Nachum Itzkovitz told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. “We are trying to stop it, but it is like when there is a wave of suicides, there are always going to be people in similar desperate situations who feel that no one is listening to them and who try to emulate an extreme act.”
“Of course I would never tell the media what to write, but they should be aware that putting the spotlight on it will bring more cases,” he said.
On Monday, Welfare and Social Services Minister Moshe Kahlon appointed Itzkovitz to head an emergency task force to look into extreme social welfare cases and devise special tools to help those facing similar economic woes to Silman.
Together with National Insurance Institute directorgeneral Shlomo Mor Yosef, Itzkovitz will also investigate how Silman fell through the cracks and ended up taking such drastic action. He is in critical condition at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer.
While some, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, called Silman’s self-immolation act a “personal tragedy,” activists at a meeting of the Knesset Lobby for Public Housing and the Forum for Public Housing on Tuesday said Silman’s desperation was shared by a wide variety of citizens who have been waiting for years for access to public housing.
“It is something that could happen to any of us,” Jerusalem resident Batela Shahar told the Post following the meeting. “I am a widower of 25 years, I have five children and I have lived in public housing for 30 years.”
Shahar said that her stateprovided apartment in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood was almost inhabitable and the agency that provided public housing consistently refused to renovate it.
“I am a mother and can’t let myself go like Silman did, but I understand how it came to that,” she said, adding that there were many people stuck in similar situations.
“What happened to Silman should not be seen as a personal tragedy but as the collective shame of the State of Israel,” Meretz MK Ilan Gilon said at the Knesset meeting.
He blamed a lack of priority by the government in dealing with the problem of providing public housing to those in need. “All citizens of Israel who are not able to put a roof over their heads should be entitled to public housing.”
His comments were well received at the stormy meeting, where more than 100 public housing activists from all sectors of society called on the government to immediately address the problem or face additional violent acts of protest.
On Tuesday, one day after the creation of the Welfare Ministry and National Insurance Institute emergency task force, Itzkovitz said he had already received more than 600 calls from individuals and families in distress. Most of the problems pertained to a lack of public housing, he said, although a significant portion were about NII bureaucracy.
“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,” Itzkovitz said, emphasizing that the ministry did not have direct responsibility for allocating public housing.
He said that he hoped the government would deal with the shortage of housing so that no one else repeated what Silman did on Saturday night.
Bar-Ilan University Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig, who has written two books on social protests in Israel, said, however, that copycat actions were predictable, “especially when there are serious social welfare problems.”
“In Israel public housing has not been built for many, many years, so we know there is an acute problem,” he continued, adding that the perception among those fighting for social justice was that the government had done little since last summer’s mass social justice protests.
“While I disagree with them – the government has come halfway since the protest last year – they feel nothing has changed and they are getting desperate,” said Lehman- Wilzig. “When people get desperate and feel that nothing is being done to change the situation, then there will be an escalation into violence.”