Emulating immolation?

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.

July 15, 2012 23:27
3 minute read.
Moshe Silman, who set hemself afire in Tel Aviv.

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 Aviv.

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 recovery.

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 Trajtenberg Committee.

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 protest.”

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 Israel.

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.

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