This is part eighteen of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Moshe Silman, before he set himself on fire at a protest for social justice in Tel Aviv last week: “The state of Israel stole from me and robbed me. They left me with nothing.”
Reading his story in Haaretz, Silman’s life is a study in decline on all fronts, economic, physical health and perhaps mental health as well. Such a story of loss and tragedy isn’t peculiar to Israel, not at all. It’s all around us. Being on the verge of losing everything, becoming homeless, every city in America, including Cape Canaveral, has all of this. I see it on the beach often. Our public library down the street is full of the homeless.
Other than abandonment, it isn’t clear how Silman viewed Israel in relation to his decline. Did he see Israel as a special place because of its claims on Jewishness so that abandonment took on an added dimension? Or did he simply see Israel as any place anyone lives where a state bureaucracy and the state itself simply doesn’t care about its citizens? The faceless, Jewish face in the crowd? Or the faceless, face in the crowd?
Daphni Leef is one of the organizers of the protests. Her reflection: “I do not feel we live in a democracy. I feel we live in an oligarchy. A few wealthy families control the whole country.”
Haaretz headline: “Moshe Silman vs. the State of Israel; The desperate act of a man who went from businessman to homeless and jobless within 10 years epitomizes collapse of the welfare system.”
Yes, son of Holocaust survivors. In his fifties. A few years younger than the state of Israel. Nestled into the story of failed businesses and social isolation is a kicker. Silman’s final downward spiral occurred when the second Palestinian uprising severely restricted his business. The Israeli state bureaucracy turned a blind eye to his plight, for sure, but the consequences of its policies toward Palestinians was also a factor.
A tragedy, one that follows last year’s protests about the lack of affordable housing, now starting up again. The Israeli Spring as some called it, with reference to the Arab Spring, has stalled. Last year there seemed to be links between the hopes of all populations in the Middle East for democracy or more democracy, a matter of bridge-building, painstaking, so long in coming. Some thought that this could be the turning point in the Middle East, inclusive of Israel and Palestine. Another hope squandered.
All of this came on the heels of the global Occupy movement. Occupy Israel?
Yes, the word seems worn now, with everyone on the bandwagon, the movement lost its meaning. Or the word was drained of content. The reasons for the movement remain.
So name it what you want or don’t name it all. The issues Silman’s self-immolation raises is beyond a name. It’s about the human caught in a system, any system that functions as state systems function. It’s also about the ideals of a state, any state, and how reality differs from ideals. And yes it’s about the very idea of a Jewish state and whether placing Jewish before a state means anything different at all – even for Jews.
So interesting, in the New York Times, the first part of the article that appears on Silman is paired with reporting on the huge Tokyo rally opposed to the return of Japan’s nuclear power. The second part is paired with Hillary Clinton’s visit to Israel. In the picture, Clinton is being kissed by Shimon Peres, President of Israel, one of the political architects of Israel’s nuclear program.
As the article on Clinton mentions, her visit has much to do with Egypt’s recent Presidential election and, of course, with Iran. Clinton assured the press that the United States and Israel are on the same page regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Whatever they are. Or might be.
Self-immolation. Ritualized suicide. Usually Buddhist. Also Hindu. This time it’s a Jewish body. Burning in a Jewish state. Reports are framed by the empires that have other more important issues on their mind. This might have been Silman’s point. Bigger issues don’t matter if you’ve lost everything.
The issue of oligarchy – definition: a small group of people who together govern a nation or control an organization, often for their own purposes. Of course, oligarchies never discussed it this way. Another global thing. Oligarchs wrap themselves in flags of every stripe. Including the Israeli flag. Everyone outside of that small group fends for themselves. Including a son of Holocaust survivors, even as the Jewish oligarchs wrap themselves in the Holocaust flag.
I mostly comment on Israel’s foreign policy question, that being Palestinians. I follow Israel’s fascinating internal life but leave it at that. Yet the question of questions is whether Palestinians are, for Israel and for Jews in general, a foreign policy issue. There are more than a million Palestinians within the 1967 borders of Israel. The fourth largest Jewish population in the world lives in the area (supposedly) governed by the Palestinian Authority, one that is occupied by Israel.
It’s confusing – the separation of Israel’s domestic and foreign policy regarding Palestinians isn’t easy. Add the remnants of Palestinian life being all around Jews living within and outside the Israel’s 1967 borders, it’s difficult to imagine there being six degrees of separation between Jews and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. Or Jews and Palestinians in their respective often comingled Diasporas.
African immigrants in Israel, low-wage labor, refugees – Eritrea, Sudan and the like – another foreign policy issue? Deportations have been ordered for those threatening to “overrun” the Jewish state. Yet also awakening Jewish history to justice. It seems that the Jews of Conscience justice plate is full. Overflowing.
Full plate. Now self-immolation. A foreign suicide ritual no doubt. But martyrdom isn’t foreign to Jews, is it?
Jewish life has always been all mixed up. In the end, the attempt to purify and separate just furthers the mixing. This is another part of Jewish history that the oligarchy governing Israel – and the oligarchy speaking for the American Jewish community – doesn’t seem to get.
Being left with nothing. Institutions, states, universities, religions – they’ll all betray you in a self-interested heartbeat. Putting “Jewish” before the state doesn’t change much, if anything. Apartheid Walls won’t further separation in the long run.
Eventually Israel/Palestine will be mixed, as it has always been. As it is (unjustly) today.
By the time the oligarchs realize it we might be left with nothing, too.
Self-immolation. Ritualized suicide. Oligarchies do it, too. When they lose their power what will they be left with?