A great public tragedy

A great public tragedy

In describing the Israeli protester who set himself on fire at a Tel Aviv demonstration Saturday as the victim of “a great personal tragedy,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have missed the mark.
It was not a “personal tragedy,” as Netanyahu said; but a public tragedy — the most extreme and disturbing kind — intended to send a message to the powers that be in Israel.
Moshe Silman, 57, of Haifa, doused himself with gasoline and set his body on fire Saturday night during a demonstration in Tel Aviv to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of social justice protests last summer.
In a letter he left behind, Silman, who is being treated at Sheba Medical Center for third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body, attacked Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz for “the humiliation that the weakened citizens go through every day, taking from the poor and giving to the rich.” He reportedly owed money to the Tax Authority and to the National Insurance Institute of Israel, but his payments ballooned over procedural errors and lost court cases.
Anyone who thought this kind of thing could never happen in Israel must now reconsider. Please note, we’re not predicting a wave of Israeli protestors opting for self-immolation, but Israelis, including Israeli political figures, are definitely concerned.
In tweeting about the episode, former Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni said Silman is not the only person to reach “the most difficult level of despair.” Indeed, Ynet reported that a man armed with a bottle of inflammable liquid walked into a cell phone store in Ariel a day after Silman set fire to himself and threatened to do the same because he could not pay a 20,000 NIS debt. A security guard stopped him.
The PM has ordered all relevant ministries to look into this case. In addition, the Tel Aviv municipality issued a directive Sunday requiring a permit for public demonstrations like the one Saturday night, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. It’s not clear if the PM’s order and the Tel Aviv directive are related, but responding to this self-immolation by tightening controls on public expression would definitely be the wrong way to go.
People don’t set themselves on fire in public for personal reasons, as the prime minister suggested. They do so to lodge public protests that cannot be ignored. We have seen what such protests can do to governments elsewhere. We’re not saying the same will happen in Israel, but if we ignore Silman’s protest, or casually dismiss it, then we do so at our own risk.