Is Moshe Silman the Thích Quảng Đức of Israel?
Editor’s Note: Thích Quảng Đức was the Buddhist monk who set himself afire on June 11, 1963 at a Saigon intersection to draw the world’s attention to the abuses of South Vietnam’s President Ngô Đình Diệm. Self-immolations thereafter became a regular form of protest in South Vietnam.
By Ira Sharkansksy
JERUSALEM–We are seeing the reality of that quotation attributed to Josef Stalin about one death being a tragedy while a million is a statistic.
Moshe Silman has not died as of this writing. He poured gasoline and set himself on fire during a Saturday evening social protest demonstration in Tel Aviv.
Physicians are fighting for his life. Meanwhile he has wiped from the headlines concerns about drafting ultra-Orthodox, the Levy Report legitimizing settlements in the West Bank, the visit of Hillary Clinton along with its issues of the peace process and Iranian nuclear weapons, the latest worries about Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, and this weekend’s slaughter of hundreds more not too far from Israel’s northern borders. Even the confrontation between Sara Netanyahu and the housekeeper suing her received only limited coverage at the tail end of everything else.
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu spoke of Silman’s tragedy at the weekly government meeting. President Shimon Peres said that he was praying for his recovery.
Two days after the event, an unusually large headline on page one of Israel Hayom was, “The Tragedy.” One of the sub-headlines ,”Thousands demonstrate across Israel, (chanting) ‘We are all Moshe Silman.’”
Several groups have fastened onto Silman, including one that lit a fire at the entrance to a National Insurance office in Ramat Gan. A graffiti reading “Price tag Moshe Silman” played on the “price tag” label used by settler extremists who attack Palestinians. The Internet site of Ha’aretz headlined that governmental bodies dealing with sucide prevention will increase their concern with economic distress. Analysts worry that the attractions of self-immolation in a politically aroused crowd will spread in Israel’s vulnerable population like suicide bombing among its enemies.
The details of Moshe Silman’s story are as complex as they are tragic. We hear about a disabling health episode, lack of success in disputes with tax and welfare authorities, unsuccessful investments, loss of his business and two apartments, homelessness, unwillingness or inability to gain help from close relatives, and a previous attempt at suicide. The act that put him in the headlines occurred in the midst of a Saturday evening demonstration of perhaps 5,000, whose leaders were trying to revitilize last summer’s demonstrations that had attracted hundreds of thousands.
Israel has moved along with other western countries from socialism toward individualism. The political icons are Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Benyamin Netanyahu. The themes of public policy used to be housing, medical care, and basic education for masses of European refugees from the Holcaust, and threatened Jewish communities in the Middle East. Now the grandchildren of those refugees compete for investments in high-tech start-ups, and sell their companies for hundreds of millions to multi-national firms. Free child care for two-professional families has proved to be more popular than building public housing for the severely distressed.
Against those who say that Silman demonstrates greater needs for affordable housing are those who say that he demonstrates greater needs for mental health. One of Israel’s financial dailies headlined the comments of a neo-liberal economist, “Don’t believe in public housing for parasites who don’t work.” The article cited his reference to emotional counselling only in its last paragraph.
This inept academic might have a small impact on another discussion, about whether to upgrade his institution to a university. It is located in the town of Ariel, a controversial place at the tip of Israel’s most prominent intrusion into the West Bank. The heads of established universities are united in a campaign against upping its status at the cost to their own slices of the budget. Heads of other colleges are questioning whether the institution in Ariel is the closest in deserving university status.
Insofar as the Likud Minister of Education has already signed on to the settlers’ campaign to upgrade the institution, the clumsy comments of one economist (or his exploitation by a journalist) might do nothing more than raise some eyebrows among other academics.
For the time being, Moshe Silman owns the headlines. While there are some who see his tragedy as able to change the nature of Israeli policy, we’ll have to see if it has staying power against those wanting to draft the Haredim and send them to work, those wanting to expand settlements, those wanting to remove settlements, Sara Netanyahu’s latest tiff with household help, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and whatever happens between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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