Sunday, July 22, 2012

Lighting a Flame that must not go out

(photo: Haifa Front/החזית החיפאית)
MOSHE SILMAN, who died on Friday, seen on earlier protest in Haifa. Despairing at government treatment of poor, and imminent prospect of homelessness, the former haulier desribed Netanyahu and ministers as "scum", before setting fire to himself in Tel Aviv protest.

THERE were demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and Be'ersheba last night in honour of Moshe Silman, the man who set himself on fire at the end of a march in Tel Aviv a week ago, and died in hospital of 94 per cent burns, on Friday.

Facing homelessness, the former hauler had said he was protesting not just on his own behalf but for "others like me". He blamed the State of Israel and more especially prime minister Netanyahu and his Finance minister, calling them "scum" who had robbed poor people.

Although the demonstrations last night were intended as peaceful vigils, with people lighting candles for Moshe Silman, the mood of sadness over his death could not conceal hardening anger. In Tel Aviv this easily erupted:

"Police arrested a social protester at a Tel Aviv solidarity protest on Saturday night, as several hundred demonstrators broke through a police line and headed toward the Ayalon freeway. Demonstrators tried to block the police van in which the arrested person, a Beduin-Israeli, was being taken away, but failed. Additional police forces blocked the protesters' path onto to the freeway and closed Ayalon to traffic."

In a comment before the demonstrations on the +972 website, Yuval Ben Ami wrote:

"Silman, once a small business owner, was trampled by the establishment due to a $4000 debt, to the point where he was one week away from becoming homeless. He refused to die at home, like hundreds of others who commit suicide annually due to economic hardship. (According to data published by Haaretz: 325 Israelis died under such circumstances in 9007, 404 in 2009.) Instead, he went out and did something grotesque, something horrible, that reminded all of us how intolerable things really are for over a million Israelis who battle with poverty."
Comparing the proposed silent demonstration with candles to those held for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Ben Ami questioned whether this was the right reaction:
"Should we take the wild flame that took him and spread it over a thousand harmless candles? It seems wiser to put it into our eyes and return both to the streets and to other settings of social and political activism, determined to achieve change. We must not let our anger melt with the wax. This anger is precious, it is the fuel of change. We are indebted to the late Mr. Silman, and must repay our debt by remembering that his passing was not, as Prime Minister Netanyahu put it “a great personal tragedy,” that it is a national tragedy, and that the Netanyahu’s government is in every way responsible for it. That governement does not deserve candles. It deserves wrath."

In the daily Ha'aretz, regular colomnist Gideon Levy wrote:

"All attempts to privatize his death and present it as a "personal tragedy" by the father of national privatization, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, could not change the picture. Silman was the victim of acts of hostility: hostility toward the weak.

Against him were pitted three enemies, three monsters of power. The first was the Netanyahu government's neoconservative policy, which is dismantling all the social safety nets. Until last summer Israel was apathetic toward this dismantling; astonishingly, even this summer most of the country still supports those guilty of it. Many of the weak voted (and will vote ) for the Likud, the first proof of blindness and unawareness".
Levy said the other two monsters were those of national paranoia and expansionism, the inflated budgets for "defence" and the settlements.
"These two monsters' innards know no shortage, no cutbacks, no desperation and no Silmans. There, in the land of monsters, everything comes easy. Only six minutes were needed last week to approve the allocation of over NIS 6 billion (! ) to buy new training aircraft for the Israel Defense Forces from Italy. Only four of the 15 members of the Finance Committee bothered to turn up for the discussion, and only one objected.
No less quickly, the government approved tens of millions of shekels for relocating the houses of the Ulpana neighborhood in the Beit El settlement. And, even quicker, the finance minister approved tens of millions of shekels for the university in Ariel. For this there is money: always and unlimited. After all, when have you ever heard of a real cut in the monsters' budgets?
When has any military caprice or settlement whim ever been blocked because of budgetary considerations? These two carnivores control the strongest, wildest and most aggressive lobbies in the land, that no government can withstand. These two draw their sustenance from a never-changing menu: paranoia and nationalism."

Levy went on to conclude:
"The paranoia feeds the defense budget and prevents any cuts in it; the nationalism feeds the settlement budget, which rides over every wave of social protest and economic slowdown with containers and construction. No economic consideration or social reasoning matter when governments discuss the budgets of these two monsters. What's the connection?
What's the connection?! Silman died on the altar of the settlements and defense. Until this connection is deeply understood and assimilated, there will be no efficient protest here - also not from those with terrorized, painful and blackened faces like Silman's. This is not just about the leadership of Israel, it is about its citizens. Change will come if, and only if, they put their hands in the real fire of the defense and settlement budgets. Until then the Silmans will burn, and their deaths will be for nothing".

At the rally in Tel Aviv the crowd was determined that Moshe Silman's death should not be a lone act nor in vain. As an activist read out Moshe's letter on why he had chosen to set himself on fire, line by line, the crowd repeated after him. “The State of Israel has stolen from me and robbed me, left me with nothing and the Tel Aviv District Court blocked me from getting justice,” the letter read.
Silman went on to blame the state for his downfall and specifically Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. Silman also highlighted how he was consistently turned down for public housing, as he did not fit the criteria.
In Jerusalem demonstrators read out the Silman letter in front of the prime minister's official residence.
He got to a situation where he felt like he had nothing to live for,” said activist Viki Vanunu, who was homeless last summer and one of the central activists in the tent protests for homeless families.
“We don’t want other people to be forced to do this, he gave us the drive that we have to continue fighting,” she said. “We fought before him and we will continue fighting, but now we’ll be fighting even harder because someone died for this. I’m not in favor of what he did, but he clearly did change the struggle because we understand we have to work quickly for homeless people. The National Insurance needs to know this isn’t a game,” she said.
In a rousing speech at the Tel Aviv rally, Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka, from the Workers Advice Centre-MAAN, the only Palestinian woman to lead a party in Israeli elections, evoked the memory of Tunisian Mohammad Bouazizi, whose self-immolation was credited with igniting the "Arab Spring":

"We will not give up - even when right wing screams and the voices of racism are emanating out of the throats of the oppressed - we will not give up. Even when they, in power, try to silence us, we will not give up, for the voice of truth cannot be turned off. Tonight's was a demonstration in memory of Moshe Silman. The fire that burnt his bones lit up the path to struggle and solidarity for many. That fire destroyed the legitimacy of the old discourse of racism because Bouazizi has been resurrected and burned again in Tel Aviv, and showed us despair has no nationality. That maxim reverberated tonight in Tel Aviv. This new discourse is the main change that the protest movement has brought to Israel.. All that remains is to link to the Arab world's slogan to its leaders "Irhlu" -- Get away!"



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