As a Jew I do not justify suicide, and it does not matter if it’s the suicide of the hero Samson, of those at the fortification of Masadaor of Moshe Silman at the demonstration on Shabbat evening a week ago. Life is given to us without our permission and it is also taken away without our permission or objection.
But it is not always enough to condemn the attempted suicide itself, in the hope that this condemnation and the denial of rituals (burial outside the cemetery, etc.) will deter the living from choosing suicide. Sometimes we must also look into the reasons for the suicide, in order to perhaps try to deal with them and to give hope to those who are so desperate that suicide has ceased to frighten them.
When faced with the terrible act of Moshe Silman, who set himself on fire in Tel-Aviv at demonstration of one year struggle for public housing, the only way we can give meaning to his act is to bring hope and the possibility of alternatives to those who are in a similar situation of ruin – we as a community will commit ourselves to fighting those forces that made Silman despair, until we correct the situation: to fight against the Ministry of Housing which has been gradually destroying public housing over the last ten and a half years and laying down impossible criteria (for example, because Moshe Silman owned a flat before his economic collapse, he had no chance of having the right to public housing), for public housing which respects the tenants and does not imprison them in separate ghettoes; to fight for humane behavior on the part of the Bituach Leumi (Social Security), so that they understand that they should be on the side of those who come to them even if the state determines the insufficient allowances and the terrifying bureaucracy; to fight against the mafia-like behaviour of the bailiff’s office, which can by law levy inhuman interest, and expropriate a person’s basic property (which sometimes is his means of earning a living, like Silman’s lorry), and so turn a relatively small debt into complete economic collapse; to fight for a legal system which will be accessible to people of low standing, and not closed to them (see Yuval Albeshan); to fight for the resignation of the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister who are responsible, with their consistently inhuman policies, for Silman’s setting himself on fire.
Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu reacted to Silman’s act as “a great personal tragedy”. Bibi made it clear by describing the tragedy as “personal” that he was rejecting the social, economic and moral reasons, and showed his outlook onthe world– that collapse is only personal –this, as long as the macro results of the economic policy are good, as long as his chair is padded, with no connection to the personal fate of many citizens (this when the tycoons’ tragedies may cause them heavy losses which are not personal, and are collected as a “haircut” from citizens’ accounts, and so the banks are saved from collapse without it being claimed that their tragedy is personal and the responsibility personal).
More extreme than Bibi, but in fact an expression of the same standpoint, was Professor Amir Hetzroni from the Academic Centre in Ariel, who wrote delicately, “The setting on fire did not make an impression on me. It may be that we have got rid of a parasite cheaply,” and added: “the heart of the matter – from a global perspective, is that such people add very little to the Israeli economy, which I am part of… true, there is a certain entertainment value in bonfires, but when we take into consideration the cost of the fire brigade –our cost outweighs our loss.”
Hetzroni wants to portray Moshe Silman as a parasite asking to live at the baron’s expense – and he considers itself as the “baron” Of course, it is possible to examine how much Hetzroni has worked in his life compared to Silman who worked as a lorry and bus driver and as owner of a delivery company; Hetzroni’s stance, which he defined as neo-liberal, explaining that “here we have a class war between the working public and the parasites” (in parallel to his proposal that the only assistance Silman needed was admission to a mental hospital; and see the article of Eva Iluzon the psychologization of the social struggle), an idea close to Bibi’s declaration in his fight against single-parent mothers at the time of Vicky Knfo’s fight, when he spoke of the poor as lazy and parasites contrary to the reality of the working poor, doing harder work in fact); the ideas and values of these two are expressed in the arrogant self-confidence of the young-beautiful-successful to whom accidents don’t happen, and who have never been caught in a situation where they need help, and therefore, dignity means personal responsibility and independence and dependence means shame.
It could be that there are people who are really far from the possibility of needing the charity of others, even though our sageshave taught us that only the eternal living God knows what the future will be, and even though we know that these people, who speak in lofty tones about personal responsibility and independence, enjoy strong connections with the wealthy who support them, without demanding that they be asked to embarrass themselves, and rescue them from collapsing, like the tycoons, and society pays their debts.
But, as it was reported in the newspaper “Calcalist,’ around 63% of us are in a situation of “financial fragility,” in which we could not withstand a one-time unusual expense of 8000 NIS. This means that occurrences such as losing one’s job, a long delay in receiving one’s salary, bankruptcy, even divorce, and of course the serious illness or, God forbid, death of a family member, can drag a man down sharply from being apparently middle class economically to the oppressed, a position where housing security, available medical services, etc. are put in question.
It may be of course that the Prime Minister does not expect to be “financially fragile” in the future, although one never knows, and it may be that Professor Hetzroni also feels safe from this possibility owing to his strong connections. It may be that they now believe it because they are healthy, successful and protected, and “personal” or family tragedies will shatter this belief. Most of us are not in their situation, and need to know that beyond the at times empty slogans of “personal responsibility,” there is a need for a mutual community and citizen guarantee so that we will have an insurance for survival in situations of breakdown. Otherwise, it is just a question of statistics as to who this will happen to and who not (obviously, the statistics are not equal, in fact where you start off in a certain sector of the population economically indicates your future prospects, as does living in the centre or the periphery, ethnic and gender identity, etc).
Therefore, the message behind the expression “We are all Moshe Silman” during the protest last week is not an encouragement to commit suicide, but an understanding that it is not an exceptional occurrence that we could never reach, and that the only way to prevent ourselves getting to that stage, from personal, narrow and egoistical interests, is to express the great break in the system, the breakdown of total loss of faith in one’s ability to live tomorrow – in dignity, with a roof over one’s head, with the basic needs of food and medicine.
Aside from that, burying your head in the sand is not real – attempted suicide against a background of economic distress is not new, as one can see from the figures in Israel for previous years, and the rise in the rate of suicides in Greece in the last year. The difference is that Moshe Silman did not commit suicide at home, quietly, hidden, in shame, but in public, in a crowd and in a large fire, while making precise accusations.
After the suicide, there was suddenly widespread media interest in the topic of public housing, after years of neglect. Activists who have been dealing with public housing for years, and have mostly not succeeded in interesting reporters in the stories of hardship, have been overwhelmed by requests from the newspapers. It is sad that for the media, and also perhaps for the Israeli public, we need such a shocking event to remind us of this burning issue, which is at the centre of many people’s lives. In spite of this, we should not leave out the possibility that this public outpouring will pressure a change in policy, the building of public housing (combined with other housing and not in separate ghettos), new criteria, the cancellation of evictions, the accounting for the three billion stolen from public housing (see the Knesset report), although – unfortunately – such issues which come up for a while, also disappear, and we need to continue the fight for a long time.
Part of the media debate has focused on the roots of the crisis, and on the question as to how public housing has dried up in the last ten years, and who is responsible for this. Yet other sections of the press went in the direction of sensationalizing the protest: Razi Barkai, in the morning after the tragedy, asked activists whether the suicide had not damaged the protest strategy, as if this was the issue, and as if it was not the job of journalists on such a morning to ask difficult questions of the Finance Minister, the Minister of Housing, the Prime Minister, the heads of public housing companies, the Bituach Leumi, the bailiff’s office and the legal system; Kobi Arieli blamed the protesters for the suicide, and forgot to blame them for the deaths of all those who committed suicide in their homes (or in the street at night) in the last year, because of financial difficulties.
Between the discussion of the roots of the crisis and the sensationalism, most journalists tended to look at the issue from the perspective of “people in need”, and asked the activists to give them personal hardship stories. The framing of the story as one of an individual in need, and the replacing the story of the struggle with the story of an individual, ultimately serves the liberal standpoint which denies that the story represents an average and sees in it just a “poor” individual. What took form in the tent protest in the last year points to an alternative: groups fighting for public housing and other activists, such as “Free Be’er Sheva”the public housing team, the forum of the areas of the periphery and Hamaabara, and before that the organization “Living in Dignity”, which combines individual stories of homeless people in Israel together with an ideological wide-ranging fight about principles, for changing the system. The joint struggle can give hope to people in need and a desire to go on, and not to be broken like Silman but to continue to fight. It is important that the media learn to present this aspect of reality as well.
Who will put out the blaze? The blaze lit by the government of Israel consumed the body of Moshe Silman, and the doctors couldn’tsave him. What about the blaze lit by the Israeli government in Israeli society? This fire will take a long time to put out and to rehabilitate, to create from the struggle a place for mutual bonds, for community and sanity, and not for hatred, exploitation, and cultural, economic and social oppression and humiliation.
May God have mercy on the soul of Moshe Silman and on us.
The translation of Moshe Silman's letter:
“I am Moshe Silman, ID 052365343, Maale Hashror, 21, Haifa.
The state ofIsraelhas robbed and plundered me and left me without anything.
,the district court of Tel-Aviv, broke the law and disrupted the legal process, out of arrogance.
I do not even get help with rent.
Two boards of the Ministry of Housing rejected me even though I have had a stroke and received 100% work disability, ask the director of Amidar inHaifa, Rehov Ha’Neviim.
I accuse the state ofIsrael, Bibi Netanyahu and Steinitz of the humiliation of weak citizens, which happens every day, of taking from the poor and giving tothe rich,to government workers
And Israeli government Bituach Leumi staff, especiallyBen David,director of the bailiff’s office, and the director of appeals, Tzila Karako, in Lincoln, Tel Aviv, who unlawfully confiscated my work equipment, my lorry,
The Bituach Leumi inHaifa, which abused me for a year until I got my disability
From the 2,300NISa month I pay health insurance and for medicines
I have no money for medicines and rent
I cannot start again after paying millions in taxes, I served in the army and did reserve duty until I was 46.
I will not be homeless and so I am protesting against the injustice the state does to me and to those like me”.