In Memory of Moshe Silman, Who Died for Social Justice!
The news spread faster than the flames which had engulfed the body of the 57 year old Israeli man who lit himself on fire at a rally marking the one year anniversary of the “Social Justice” protest movement which has shaken Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli's have taken to the streets, and if doubts remained among sceptics regarding the explosive and polarized situation in Israel, let them be laid to rest with the scarred body of this Israeli man driven to desperation by it all. Moshe Silman did not leave the world quietly, and his dying words will haunt Israeli politicians trying to cover it all up with the white and blue of the Israeli flag – but the deeper questions of inequality and occupation cannot be left alone.
Mr. Silman left no doubts as to who was responsible for the suffering. In the copies of the suicide note he distributed, some still wet with the gasoline he used to light himself, he wrote,
“I blame the State of Israel, I blame [Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu , and [Minister of Finance] Yuval Steinitz, both scum, for the humiliation that disenfranchised citizens go through day in and day out, that take from the poor and give to the rich...”
Moshe Silman should have been the example Israel's public relations department dreams up. The son of Holocaust survivors, he was an entrepreneur until because of a small debt to the National Insurance Institute, a truck he used for his messenger business was seized. He was eventually forced out of his apartment and had his attempt to sue the Institute for damages thrown out because he could not pay the court fees. His bank account was seized, and his mother's assets and his drivers license were also taken. He soon had a stroke which left him disabled and unable to work. It also turns out the debt notices had all been sent to the wrong address by the Institute before they started the whole obscene process in the first place. Moshe Silman had been one week away from being homeless.
Welcome to Israel, where protestors outside of Moshe Silman's hospital held up signs which said, “We have flammable potential too!” and already Micky Rosenfield, a disabled and indebted war veteran, is in hospital after setting himself on fire at a bus stop in Yehud. His brother lamented his treatment by the military, “...the army loves you three feet under, but doesn't love you when you're wounded.”
Walk like an Egyptian
At first it was easier to dismiss the wave of discontent in Israeli society. Tunisians had already overthrown their longtime dictator Ben Ali and mass protests in Egypt had forced Hosni Mubarak to resign several months earlier by the time Israelis started a largescale boycott of cottage cheese to protest the rising cost of food and other essentials in June of 2011. At the same time, Israeli financial newspaper Globes reported that when measured relative to average income, Israeli's pay double what Americans do in gas and have the highest post-secondary fees in all of Europe.
That same month Daphni Leef, a 25 year old Tel Aviv resident received notice to vacate the apartment she had lived in for the past three years. After weeks of fruitless searching for an affordable place to live, she pitched a tent on Rothschild Boulevard and invited others to do the same. Hundreds of people joined her, and more “tent cities” sprouted up across Israel. No wonder, Tel Aviv Councilman Noah Efron reported that housing prices had increased over 65% in that city in the last 5 years. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics also reported that average rents in all of Israel had increased by 35% between 2004 and 2010.
Given this reality, the protests grew from 30,000 to 150,000 to 350,000 across Israel by August 8, 2011. The protest defied the sceptics, and were reinforced by other actions like the “stroller protests” where parents would march with their infants, and the protests of doctors against the deteriorating medical system. While the right-wing was almost too busy dismissing the protests as elitist and insignificant, 460,000 people took to the streets on September 3rd, 2011 with 300,000 is Tel Aviv alone. That's the equivalent of over 2 million people in Canada or more than 18 million in the United States, in one day!
The main slogans of the huge marches is “Ha'am doresh tzedek chevrati!” which translates to, “The people demand social justice!” Protesters carry signs which say things like, “ The government against the people, the people against the government”, and “We demand public housing”. Probably the one sign which worried Israel's leaders the most was more creative, “Walk like an Egyptian” - a refreshing acknowledgement of the example set by the protests in the Middle East and North Africa.
Deep Inequality, Deep Divisions
So where did all the people marching on the streets come from? According to the most common measure of inequality in countries, the “GINI Index”, Israel is second only to the United States as the most unequal country in the world. Israeli economist Shir Hever also documented that 18 families in Israel control roughly 60 percent of the equity value of all companies in Israel. This would help explain why a quarter of Israelis live under the poverty line, according to the annual poverty report published by the National Insurance Institute (yes, the same National Insurance Institute responsible for the woes of Moshe Silman).
Not all protests have been positive though. In May, a veritable lynch mob of over 1000 violently attacked Africans migrants in Tel Aviv. This kind of behaviour isn't just isolated, but encouraged by the government. Danny Dannon, member of the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) for the Likud Party of Prime Minister Netanyahu, was part of the anti-immigrant mob. How could he not have been aware of the similarities between his message and that of the Nazi party against Jews when he said, "The infiltrators must be distanced immediately. We must expedite the construction of temporary detention facilities and remove Africans from population centres." This is the man chosen to be the Chairman of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee in the Knesset! Arson and unprovoked street attacks have become common place against non-white Israelis.
The Crisis Continues
The Israeli government has been in a prolonged crisis. Beyond being one of the most unequal and racist countries in the world, it has other factors which amplify its crisis. A unity government between the Likud and Kadima party fell apart after just two months. When the coalition had been formed, its stated objectives were to pass a budget, create sustainable electoral reform, move forward with a “peace process” with Palestinians, and to pass a new draft law. It failed on all four.
The issue of the draft into the Israeli military has become a particularity sticky subject as Israel's economy deteriorates. Under normal circumstance, all Israelis over 18 years of age must serve in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). 3 years for a man and 2 years for a woman. However, according the Israeli newspaper Haaertz, “Beginning this year, and for the next three years, the number of inductees to the Israel Defense Forces is expected to drop substantially.”
This has meant increased debate on the exceptions to conscription, mostly importantly “Israeli-Arabs” (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) and Haredim, or ultra-orthodox Jews who are not required to serve in the military, technically as long as they continue to study the Torah, but practically forever. The issue boiled over after the Supreme Court invalidated a law that granted draft exemptions to Haredi Jews.
Many Israeli commentators point to something deeper than the military service – a large and growing part of the population which is less and less educated and less economically productive – the Haredi because of favoratism, and the Arab Israelis because of exclusion.
Writing for Haaretz, Dan Ben David observed in his article, “Israel's Moment of Truth”,
“The education provided to Arab Israeli children is reflected in achievements below those of children in Third World countries like Jordan and Tunisia. The Haredi boys do not even study any core curriculum subjects after 8th grade, ”
“Already today, Arab and Haredi children comprise about half the pupils in Israel's primary school system,”
“Today's children are tomorrow's adults. Children whose scholastic achievements in core subject areas are below those of children in every one of the First World countries will find it very difficult to reduce the productivity gaps between the First World and Israel that have been steadily growing since the 1970s - and this refers to the children who are receiving the best education in Israel.”
“As for the Arab Israeli children, the problem is not a lack of interest in education, but rather a lack of in the additional resources that the country needs to provide to ensure these children receive what their parents are sometimes unable to give them.”
The entire situation leads us to the two fundamental problems with Israel today:
1) The state of Israel is founded on the occupation of Palestine, on the continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their land, and of the continued sacrifice of everything: human rights, productivity, common sense, to maintain the “Jewish character” of the Israeli Zionist state.
2) The state of Israel would never have existed, and would not exist today without the financial and military backing of imperialist powers who use Israel as giant outpost in a strategically important area.
Occupation Occupation Occupation
"We must expel Arabs and take their places." David Ben Gurion, future Prime Minister of Israel, 1937
A entire history of the Israeli occupation of Palestine requires a separate article, but certain basic facts are relevant to to the current discussion:
-The state of Israel was proclaimed by a United Nations mandate in 1948 in an area already inhabited by Palestinians. In establishing themselves on the land, Israeli forces killed an estimated 13,000 Palestinians and forcibly evicted 737,166 Palestinians from their homes and land. Five hundred and thirty one Palestinian villages were entirely depopulated and destroyed.
- When the West Bank and Gaza Strip were further occupied by Israel in 1967, the UN reported that approximately 200,000 Palestinians were forces to flee their homes.
- One in three refugees world wide is Palestinian. There are about 7.2 million Palestinian refugees worldwide. According to international law, refugees have the right to return to their homes of origin or choose compensation for their loss.
- Israel refuses to allow the “Right of Return” to Palestinian refugees
- Israel does however, have a “Law of Return” which basically allows any “spouse of a Jew, the children of a Jew and their spouses, and the grandchildren of a Jew and their spouses” the right to Israeli citizenship no matter where they come from or how disconnected from that area they are.
Israel defines itself as a “Jewish and Democratic State”, but in practise extending and defending a Jewish population majority, and Jewish control of the land and economy has meant the “democratic” aspects are disregarded when they are seen to conflict with the “Jewish” character, which is every day.
It is no mistake that Palestinians living in Israel constitute 22% of the population but own only 2.5% of the land. It is no mistake that, that their unemployment rates are about double that of Jewish Israelis, which means approximately 14 percent official unemployment and about 36 percent if you consider those who are employed cannot meet their basic needs or have given up looking for work. It's no mistakes that Palestinians in Israel make up only 6 percent of civil servants. All this occurs to maintain the “Jewish character” of the Israeli state. These statistics do not even include the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, which has at least 45% unemployment under Israeli occupation.
The original sin, however, must always be recognized as the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands and the denial of their right to return. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said in his most recent meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama that accepting Palestinian refugees would mean “wiping out Israel's future as a Jewish state.” He continued, “ The Palestinian refugee problem has to be resolved...But it's not going to be resolved within the Jewish state."
So Israel acknowledges the refugees, acknowledges the problem, but refuses to honour their human rights because it would jeopardize a “Jewish state”? It seems as though the word democratic was expelled along with the Palestinians.
Israel receives about $3.1 billion in military aid grants from the U.S. every year, which works out to 8.2 million dollars every day. The U.S. Government Congressional Research Service also released an interesting report in March 12, 2012 titled, “U.S Foreign Aid to Israel”. Some of its findings:
“Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. To date, the United States has provided Israel $115 billion in bilateral assistance...”
“Annual Foreign Military Financing grants to Israel represent 18% to 22% of the overall Israeli defense budget...”
“The United States stores missiles, armoured vehicles and artillery ammunition in Israel.... During the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, the United States granted Israel access to the stockpile. The initial value of the U.S. materiel stored in Israel was set at $100 million. It increased over, time to $800 million in 2010.”
Not in the report, but also important is the fact that the U.S. has vetoed 42 United Nations Security resolutions critical of Israel.
Why such intense support for Israel? Let us ask the U.S. itself. In November 2011, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew J. Shapiro stated:
“...we don’t just support Israel because of a long standing bond, we support Israel because it is in our national interests to do so. This aspect of our relationship with Israel is often overlooked. America’s commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity has extended over many decades because our leaders on both sides of the aisle have long understood that a robust United States-Israel security relationship is in our interests. Our support for Israel’s security helps preserve peace and stability in the region. If Israel were weaker, its enemies would be bolder. This would make broader conflict more likely, which would be catastrophic to American interests in the region.”
We have seen the “peace and stability” the U.S. promotes in its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, but the key point is that the U.S. supports Israel because it is in its foreign policy interests to essentially have a giant military base to operate from and destabilize the region. Israel became even more important when the U.S. lost it's other proxy in the Middle East, Iran, after their Revolution in 1979.
Israel now spends 6.2% of it's gross domestic product on the military, compared to 1.9% for Iran or 4.8% for the United States.
What happens to a dream deferred?
“What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore-- / And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over-- / like a syrupy sweet?/ Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load./ Or does it explode?”
– Black American civil rights poet Langston Hughes, 1951
The Israeli government has no interest in challenging the occupation of Palestine and the oppression of Palestinians, because its cheques are signed and orders dictated in Washington, DC. The unfolding situation is that this has caused conditions in Israel for the Jewish population to fester and deteriorate to a point that they are coming onto the street as well. However, as long as the Social Justice movement does not confront the issue of occupation and Palestinian self-determination it can never really achieve anything resembling Social Justice. As long as the majority of the land's inhabitants are directly excluded from their homes, and a further 22% live as second class citizens what kind of social justice can there be?
The vital part is the possibility that these poor and working Israelis will realize they have more in common with poor and working Palestinians who are also oppressed by the Israeli and U.S. governments and their big business allies. Further more this poor and working Israelis will then discover that they have millions of potential new co-fighters in the real fight for dignity and justice not only in Israel, but in the whole occupied Palestine and the entire region. That's when the real change will start to happen for all Israeli people.
Back to Article Listing