Tragic protest

Playing with fire?

As a wave of self-immolation attempts gives Israelis pause, leaders of the country’s social justice movement try to come to terms with the problematic legacy of Moshe Silman

Social justice protesters chant slogans as they hold up pictures of Moshe Silman, who set himself on fire during a social justice demonstration in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Social justice protesters chant slogans as they hold up pictures of Moshe Silman, who set himself on fire during a social justice demonstration in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Monday, two Israelis tried to light themselves on fire – the sixth and seventh to do so in little over a week.

The wave of social protests that swept the country last summer appears to have ebbed, and attempts to spark broad public demonstrations this year have not been successful. But in the absence of the many, expressions of desperation on the part of the few have become dramatically more extreme.

On Monday morning, a security guard stopped a resident of Ashdod from setting himself alight at a welfare office. Later in the day, a 46-year-old man from the southern city of Netivot tried to set himself on fire at city hall, failing when security officers intervened.

On Sunday, Akiva Mafa’i, a disabled military veteran, suffered burns on 80 percent of his body after setting himself on fire near a gas station in the town of Yehud. He is currently comatose in a hospital outside Tel Aviv. The wheelchair-bound IDF veteran was reportedly distraught over run-ins with state bureaucracy. Later that day, a 65-year-old resident of Ofakim tried to set himself on fire at the entrance to a police station, but was prevented from doing so by a local policeman.

The string of incidents began July 14, when Moshe Silman, 57, doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire during a protest. Silman, who was out of work and had been passed over for public housing, left a letter accusing the government and social services of responsibility for his plight. He was rushed to hospital with burns on most of his body, and died Friday.

At least three other people were threatening to light themselves on fire but were stopped by passersby, according to media reports.

Experts have long known that suicides often trigger other suicides, and some believe something similar is at work here.

“Social contagion happens when there is glorification of the people who do these acts, when we emphasize these extreme acts and present them as a solution,” said Dr. Shiri Daniels of Eran, an Israeli hotline for people experiencing emotional distress.

The number of incoming calls about economic troubles, including from people with suicidal thoughts, has spiked in recent weeks, she said.

Recent media coverage of the country’s social problems has been beneficial, by directing public attention to the poor and to government policies. But it is also part of the problem, Daniels said. Coverage of poverty, and especially of acts of self-destruction, catches some vulnerable and unstable people at a crucial moment and sends them over the edge.

“A person with a happy life doesn’t see the news and decide that this is a good idea. But people in crisis, people who see things as black and white, can find themselves in a situation where they will act if they don’t receive an immediate response,” she said.

The apparent emergence of a trend has sparked concern, criticism, and even panic from commentators and political leaders. Initially, Silman was portrayed as a symbol of the failure of government policy and something of a martyr for the flagging social protest movement.

On Friday, after Silman’s death but before most of the other incidents, Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich posted a statement on her Facebook page. “We are not all Moshe Silman,” she wrote, “but his fate is in large part the result of the collapse of the welfare state and the rise of a Darwinist jungle economy.”

On Sunday, after a few more incidents of attempted self-immolation, she  took a more critical tone.

“Suicide is an extreme and awful act and it must not be idealized,” she wrote. “Silman was indeed a victim of a frayed social net, of strict criteria for public housing and of the weakness of small business, but his suicide must not be turned into a legitimate act of protest, as I have been hearing here and there.”

Eitan Haber, a columnist for the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, published an emotional article in Monday’s paper headlined, “For God’s sake, stop.”

“A match and a liter of gas won’t change the foundations of the government. From that perspective, it’s an empty act that will be forgotten. If someone must struggle, if someone must bring about a change, dead people will not do so,” Haber wrote.

The young leaders of the social protest movement see the incidents as both a criticism of the government and of themselves — a spur to more aggressive action and a reminder that poverty is a matter of life and death.

Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders who emerged during last year’s protests, said the movement wanted to “stop this wave while taking the message seriously.”

Silman’s death, she said, “was a very political suicide – he wrote a letter and accused people in the government and social services and burned himself in front of our eyes.

“We have been witness to policies that have abandoned Israeli society. These things have a price, and they kill — usually the tragedies are invisible, but this time we watched it happen,” she said.

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