Moshe Silman, a benefit claimant and protestor, set himself on fire before a social justice demonstration in Tel Aviv, Israel, on 14 July. He died six days later.
In a letter he read out before he died, he accused the Israeli government of “taking from the poor and giving to the rich”. Despite being incapable of working due to a stroke, his claim for housing benefit had been denied.
Silman’s tragic death — a “political suicide” — is part of the growing and explosive re-emergence of Israel’s social justice movement, which first rose to national political prominence a year ago when it mobilised the biggest demonstrations in the country’s history.
Several copycat self-immolations have taken place since Silman’s, including one on Sunday 22 July in which a wheelchair-bound man set himself alight and sustained burns to 80% of his body. Thousands of Israelis have mobilised for vigils to commemorate Silman.
Silman’s suicide took place before the demonstration called to mark the first anniversary of the “J14 movement”. In the run-up to the demo, smaller actions in Tel Aviv had seen violent clashes with the police, with over 85 protestors arrested.
The movement began as a protest against rocketing house prices, but has expanded its political perspective to take in opposition to ongoing privatisation and neo-liberal economic policies.
Its rhetorical edge echoes that of the Occupy movement’s “99% vs 1%”, with much made of opposition to the “eighteen families” said to control 60% of the equity in Israel.
It intersected with significant industrial disputes, including the February general strike aimed at winning the levelling-up of pay and conditions for sub-contracted employees in the public sector.
The movement’s most significant silence in its first incarnation was on the question of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, although it did raise in a muted way the treatment of Arabs and other national and ethnic minorities within Israel. But after months of racist attacks against African immigrants in Israel — tensions caused by the same divide-and-rule austerity economics the movement exists to protest — its political horizons must broaden again.
Establishment commentators and politicians in Israel are worried that the resurgent movement will be less “polite” than in 2011; certainly, the violent clashes with the police and the direct action taken against some of Tel Aviv’s banks, suggest that many protestors are through with attempting to appear “respectable”.
If they can combine that new attitude with a serious debate within the movement about racism and the occupation, and take a radical, internationalist, and anti-racist position on the occupation and state-sanctioned racism, the J14 movement’s potential is huge.