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Israeli man’s self-immolation puts country’s ‘land of plenty’ reputation to the test

An Israeli man covers his face with a bandage as others, not seen, block a highway in Tel Aviv on Sunday, July 15, 2012, during a protest against the economic policies of Israel's government and to show solidarity with Moshe Silman, an Israeli protester who set himself on fire on Saturday during a protest. The sign in Hebrew reads: "Bibi you burned me too," referring to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname.

Oded Balilty/AP

Moshe Silman couldn't take it any more. The 57-year-old Israeli father and businessman owns a small shipping and delivery company in Haifa in northern Israel. He did his duty to the state, serving for seven years in the army and fulfilling reserve duty requirements for several years after. He paid his workers, his taxes and his obligations to the country's national insurance system on behalf of his employees.

In the past decade, however, business fell off and Mr. Silman fell slightly behind in his national insurance payments, to the tune of 5000 shekels (about $1,300).

For reasons that remain unclear, the state confiscated one of his four delivery trucks, saying it would be returned if Mr. Silman paid his growing debt to them.

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It was a classic Catch-22. The man could only get his truck if he paid his debt, but he couldn't make the money to pay the debt without that truck.

The company's finances spiralled. Mr. Silman, who lives alone, had a stroke and remains partially paralyzed. His efforts in dealing with the government to help him save his company turned to efforts to help him get assistance in housing and other welfare.

Again, for reasons that are unclear, he got little help.

When his mother passed away recently, he reportedly inherited her house, only to see it, too, confiscated by the state.

On Saturday evening, in Tel Aviv, during a march for social justice, Mr. Silman poured an inflammable liquid over his body and set himself on fire. He is in critical condition in a Tel Aviv hospital with burns to some 90 per cent of his body.

Some 19 months ago, when a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, similarly self-immolated in protest against the failures of his government, he ignited a protest movement that swept across much of the Arab world.

It is apparent that Mr. Silman sought to replicate Mr. Bouazizi's actions in hope that he too could spark a protest movement in Israel.

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Considering the autocratic nature of so many of the Arab states, it seemed obvious why Arabs wanted to rise up in protest for dignity and human rights and would go to any length to achieve it – but in Israel? A member of the OECD club of advanced, affluent nations? A state founded on egalitarian and socialist principles? How could a man be driven to take such drastic action?

It seems increasingly clear that in Israel, what is one man's affluent society is another man's poverty.

The morning after Mr. Silman torched himself, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the government had finally completed expensive high-speed improvements to the train service between Tel Aviv and the southern Israeli city of Beersheva that shaved 21 minutes off the journey between the two cities, reducing the trip from 76 minutes to less than an hour.

"This is huge," Mr. Netanyahu said. "This is a revolution that we always dreamed about."

The Prime Minister added that his government also was doing many things to counter the flow of economic refugees from Africa who have been infiltrating the country via the porous border with Egypt; It is warning African countries that their people will not be welcome in Israel; It is building enormous holding pens in which to house the infiltrators in the South of the country; It is punishing employers who give jobs to any such people, and it is completing a 220-km fence that stretches from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

When word spreads of the drastic action Mr. Silman took to end his desperate struggle, that may do more than any of the measures to discourage people from thinking Israeli is the land of plenty.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More


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