Moshe Silman: Collective tragedy, or a personal one?

When Binyamin Netanyahu called Moshe Silman’s self-immolation a "personal tragedy," was he overlooking the fact that a growing number of Israelis feel there is no social safety net to support them?

July 19, 2012 23:35
Moshe Silman, who set hemself afire in Tel Aviv.

Self-immolator Tel Aviv fire protester Moshe Silman 390. (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)


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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 forget.

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 Israel.”

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% disabled.

Despite receiving a meager disability check from the NII, he was barely able to afford essential medicines. let alone pay rent on an apartment.

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.

“I don’t 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.”

In fact, 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 Public Housing.

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 years.

“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.

Perhaps Meretz 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 Wednesday.

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 problem.

“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 situation.

“To say that [Moshe Silman] has fallen through the cracks is to assume that some type of social welfare net actually exists,” commented Silverman.

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 Israel.

“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 far.”

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 cases.

“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.

One day, 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 them.”

Starting next week, the two agencies will open an emergency help line aimed to assist people in extreme economic or social straits.

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