Self-immolator Tel Aviv fire protester Moshe Silman 390.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Moshe Silman, 58, was hospitalized in Tel Hashomer on Saturday night in critical
condition. He is suffering burns on over 90 percent of his body after he
doused himself with fuel and lit himself on fire during a social protest in Tel
Doctors fear that the severe damage to most of his skin will result
in kidney and liver collapse and other complications that will keep him in a
life-threatening state for the near future. We join in prayers for his speedy
Silman’s personal story – including his self-immolation – is a
tragedy. In 2002, his shipping and delivery company went bankrupt after one of
his four trucks was confiscated as collateral for an outstanding
loan. After suffering a stroke, he was left partially handicapped, making
it nearly impossible for him to work. For a variety of complex
psychological and social reasons, Silman had supreme difficulty dealing with the
setbacks in his life.
Silman’s case raises ethical issues regarding the
limitations of our welfare state. No matter how extensive the social aid
provided by the state – this one or any other – there will always be individuals
like Silman who will somehow fall through the safety net. More specifically,
since Silman’s immediate concern was housing, perhaps renewed efforts can be
invested in implementing the long-term housing reforms recommended by the
Improving public transportation so that commuting
from outlying areas, where real estate prices are lower, becomes more feasible
and streamlining the process of rezoning state land for construction were two
recommendations. A reexamination of public housing or state-subsidized
mortgages might also be in order.
Silman’s tragedy should also spark
debate about the increasing atomization of Israeli society. Was Silman so devoid
of support from friends, family and the community that he opted for suicide?
But, as opposition leader Shelly Yechimovich warned, Silman’s self-immolation
“cannot be used as an example or inspiration for youth or adults, and it
certainly must not be seen as a symbol of the social
Yechimovich rightly made it absolutely clear that Silman’s
highly imprudent decision to set himself on fire in a fit of despair should not
be made a legitimate reaction to the current socioeconomic situation in
Unfortunately, there were those who lacked Yechimovitch’s common
sense. One Ha’aretz
columnist unthinkingly compared Silman to Mohamed Bouazizi,
the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010 in protest
against the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that he
suffered at the hands of a municipal official and her aides.
Are we to
believe that Israel’s dynamic, free economy and relatively generous welfare
state can conceivably be compared to the stifling nepotism, Byzantine
bureaucracy and arbitrary restrictions under then-president of Tunisia Zine
el-Abidine Ben Ali’s autocratic rule?
The circumstances of Silman’s life are
familiar: bankruptcy, a sudden debilitating stroke, a lack of economic support
from family or friends. Theoretically, any one of us could suffer similar fates.
But it would be wrong and potentially dangerous to in any way justify Silman’s
act of desperation and self-destruction.
In some eastern cultures, where
there is a tendency toward fatalism and viewing one’s existential state as
immutable, self-immolation is a common, grudgingly tolerated phenomenon. In
contrast, Judaism’s emphasis is placed on autonomy and the ability of the
individual to overcome adversity. Bouncing back from life’s many setbacks is the
single best recipe for success. Failing to do so is probably the most
common explanation for failure.
While we can be sympathetic to Silman’s
despondency, his self-destructive act, which has effectively made it impossible
for him to ever rehabilitate his life, should not serve as a symbol for a
movement claiming to stand for social change and tikkun olam. Self-immolation is
nothing to emulate.