Like most Israelis, I didn’t know Moshe Silman’s name until after he set himself on fire at a social justice protest in Tel Aviv on July 14. Unlike most, however, I knew his story. It took me a few hours to realize that the 58-year-old man who hovered between life and death in the Sheba Medical Center burns unit, dying there on July 20, was my mystery caller.
On two recent Fridays I have received phone calls from a man desperate not so much for fame as for revenge. He wanted his story to be told.
He refused to give me his real name during our first conversation, but he couldn’t stop describing how he had been wronged by the National Insurance Institute and to a lesser extent the Income Tax Authority and the medical establishment. Although he was polite and soft- spoken, there was an undercurrent of aggression. Early on in the conversation, silently blessing whoever had given him my personal mobile number, I moved out of my living room so that my young son wouldn’t overhear what I was talking about.
I still do not know who suggested Silman call me: He didn’t say. It’s possible it was someone who had heard his story too often and wanted to pass the burden along.
My capacity for sympathy is not matched by quantities of patience but I listened to Silman – for I am now positive that’s who it was – for close to an hour that first Friday, acutely aware that I had abandoned my son to the TV and my Shabbat preparations to the grace of God. Acutely aware, also, that the man at the other end of the line was feeling lonely. Beyond lonely. Alone. Alone in a battle that was constantly being waged in his mind.
As the details of his story unfolded, I wondered how the clerks, social workers and medical staff with whom he had evidently been in touch coped. He had obviously spoken to other media people, too. I explained that his story – the one that the sight of his burning body has now scorched on our minds – could only be published under certain conditions. The most problematic, from his point of view, was the need for the media to ask the relevant office for a response. He told me others had said the same thing. I felt like my own responses were being tested: Was I lying? Had those who had advised him before me lied to him?
At some point I suggested that he publish his story on Facebook or a blog, where a private individual is not bound by the same regulations as the press. He said it was a good idea, and others had also suggested it.
After a while, when he returned to the same details yet again, as if he hoped to suddenly discover some new insight, I tried to bring the conversation to an end. He reacted in a way that today feels even more chilling. In a perfectly normal tone of voice, he threatened suicide.
I asked about his family (and he said something like he wasn’t in touch); I asked if he had a friend he could speak to (no), or a rabbi (eliciting a response along the lines of “I don’t belong to that sector”).
He seemed to calm down just by talking some more and told me he wasn’t really thinking of killing himself; he only wanted his story to be told.
I explained that if he sent me the documentation and details in writing, I would have a clearer picture of what could be done.
I also told him that if he did feel suicidal he could speak to his family doctor or even go to the emergency room if it was on Shabbat.
He dismissed that by telling me they would only lock him up (I think he said “again”). When I heard that he had been in a hospital emergency unit a few hours before he had self-immolated I felt a small stabbing pain – not a pang of guilt but the sting of sadness.
Someone else had also misread the warning signals.
We ended the conversation with him promising he would send me an email with the relevant information, although he still did not give me his real name or phone number.
The conversation played on my mind. On the Sunday, I kept an eye open for the email, but it wasn’t in my inbox. I wondered, once more, whether he wasn’t looking mainly for sympathy and checking my reactions and advice against what he’d already received.
Two or maybe three weeks later, again on a Friday, he called and apologized for not having emailed me. This time he gave me his first name and asked me to help him translate material from Hebrew into English (for payment). I politely but firmly turned him down and said he could probably find someone to help him closer to where he lived (in Haifa).
He wanted to go over the details again but I stopped him, asking for the written material. We wished each other “Shabbat shalom” but I felt my name was now on an ever-growing list of people he could not trust and had refused to help him. It was hard to escape the depth of his obsession at having been wronged, although he also seemed incapable of accepting any aid that was offered.
SILMAN’S STORY – the debt that had continued to grow and grow; the lack of any place to call home; the health problems; the failed business; even the solitude – is far from unique. I have heard similar sagas in Israel and read of similar cases abroad.
I mentally went over his words – and my response – even before I learned that a protester had set himself on fire; long before I realized who it was and that I would not be getting that email or another Friday afternoon call. Perhaps I was testing myself against the reactions and advice of others.
My response, however, has been different to that of several of my friends. Silman was a person – a unique and special person. He was also clearly a troubled man. He should not become the symbol of a social revolution. Those who now harness his burned body to their cause are exploiting him and his pain.
All over the world, people have bureaucratic encounters that incense them; mercifully few actually set themselves on fire. To “fume” to friends and anyone who will listen is a normal response; to self- immolate in the middle of a public rally is the last act of a tortured mind.
Things do need to change, but there is a difference between the flames of passion and setting the country on fire in a revolutionary zeal. That demonstrators on July 15 marched to the Prime Minister’s Residence and elsewhere chanting “We are all Moshe Silman” and “Let’s burn ourselves” is somewhere between disturbing and disgusting. If nothing else, it smacks of verbal violence and emotional blackmail.
Healthy change is a process of growth, it needs to be nurtured.
Reform needs courageous, and selfless leaders, not martyrs – and certainly not a martyr like Silman. This was no visionary. He was sadly a man who dwelt on old grievances and did not see a future even for himself.
Those who try to exploit Silman’s tragedy are doing neither him nor their cause justice. It would be more fitting and helpful to harness the compassion naturally felt when Silman brutally made his story known, rather than fan the flames of dissent and hatred. May his memory be for a blessing.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.