Homeless Man's Desperate Act Raises Social Justice Questions

Article Summary
A homeless protester set himself on fire in Tel Aviv last week, denouncing the inflexibility of the public system in Israel. While some say the state could not have helped him, Ben Caspit writes that the funding for public housing was simply squandered.

Moshe Silman, who set himself on fire during a demonstration for social justice, is living proof of what has happened to us, to the depths to which the Jewish state has sunk. Silman, as opposed to what a “professor” from Ariel College said yesterday, was not a parasite. He was not the archetype of the chronic indigent, the underprivileged, the one who feels that the country is obligated to feed, clothe and support him. Silman worked, he managed a small business, hired workers, bought trucks, paid income tax and National Insurance, tried to live the Israeli dream with all its might. Instead of a dream, he lived a nightmare. In his hardest moments, the state turned its cold back on him and pushed him toward the abyss.

First of all was the National Insurance Institute. How unbearably simple it is to confiscate. A country without a heart, without a head, without mercy. It was the very midst of the Intifada, a time that businesses had a hard time hanging on in any case, and Silman owed the National Insurance Institute $3,700. For that, they confiscated a truck from his active business (which owned a total of only four trucks).

Anyone who does such a thing is a true lowlife. Silman, in his letter explaining his act, distributed before the immolation to the demonstrators, called them “lowlifes” and he was correct. There is no better appellation. In the end, how will the idiots benefit from taking away a business truck? By causing a productive business that feeds and supports families to possibly close down? Those families will then be another millstone to be borne by the National Insurance Institute that will have to pay stipends far more than the $3,700 that Silman was in arrears. (It turned out that he only fell behind by $1,200 because he had an excess of advance payments of $2,500.)

If the details that were publicized on Sunday regarding Silman and the National Insurance Institute are accurate, an inquiry committee is certainly call for, a committee to decide which people in charge should be dismissed. Then those newly unemployed people should have to report to the National Insurance Institute clerks for benefits. But what are we talking about? In our country, no one ever gets fired.

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Back to the point: The State of Israel has no housing solutions today. No safety net. No functional tool box to support those who need help, whether because of unfortunate vicissitudes of life, tragedies or business mishaps such as what happened to Silman. And why not? Because of the housing fiasco.

Knesset Member Orly Levy-Abekasis Yisrael Beiteinu (the Right nationalist party formed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman), one of the most industrious and worthy of the Knesset members, tried to help Silman. She appealed to the authorities, she worked on the National Insurance Institute and the Housing Ministry, but to no avail. At a certain point, the officials told her to “choose one” when she presented several cases like Silman’s. “We can’t deal with all of them; choose the most urgent case and we will help him.” Shoddy treatment at its worst. They cast Orly Levy-Abekasis in Sophie’s Choice, whose plot centered around the tragic decision Sophie was forced to make: which of her children to save upon entering the concentration camp.

Shocking findings

But the issue itself is even more grave than it first appears: MK Levy-Abekasis obtained a study from the Knesset’s Research Center and was appalled at the findings. From 1999, the government embarked on large projects involving the selling of public-housing apartments to the tenants. MK Ron Cohen’s (leftist Meretz party) intentions were excellent: to allow tenants to acquire and be the owners of their homes. The low-income tenants would receive their apartments from the state at a discount, and this would help get them on their feet.

From then until today, almost 80,000 apartments were sold. So far, so good. But the story has a twist: In the same government decision that has remained unchanged to this very day, there is a clause stating that all monies received from the selling of the apartments would be dedicated toward building or buying new apartments for the benefit of public housing. Yes, in 1999 the MKs believed that the government of a modern state could not afford to remain without housing solutions for its weaker populations.

So what actually happened on the ground? A scandal. The money went to many different places, but not toward alternate housing solutions. Worst of all were the millions that were funneled to the Jewish Agency (the organization in charge of immigration and the absorption of Jews into Israel). Yes, yes — the Jewish Agency, to pay off debts abroad.

We will not bore you with the details. Other large sums went to all kinds of other projects, including building an access road to Maale Adumim (an Israeli settlement and city in the West Bank), renovations of public buildings, all kinds of projects. Some of the currency is still rattling around in the Treasury’s cashbox, and some in the Housing Ministry’s coffers. But only about 7% of the revenue from the selling of the apartments has been applied to housing solutions.

“In essence,” says MK Levy-Abekasis, “They turned these billions into the petty-cash box of the Treasury and Housing Ministries. They simply used the money to fill holes here and there, thus shamelessly violating a legal government decision.”

The result is that today, the government cannot meet the housing needs for the needy and disadvantaged. About 2,400 families are waiting in line for such housing, and there is nothing available. Instead, the government gives assistance in paying rent, and poor Silman fell through the cracks in this case because he is not elderly enough and he does not have a family. He is simply someone who failed, mainly because of the state, but the state was not there to assist him during his harshest hours.

The main thing is that Israel Today did their best to prop up the prime minister and the finance minister. Yes, Silman indicated the names of these office-holders in his farewell letter — the one he distributed on the street before he poured gasoline on himself and lit the match. But in the government’s free newspaper, there is no mention of the names Netanyahu or (Finance Minister) Steinitz. They didn’t omit the entire dramatic letter; instead, they publicized the letter but took special care to hide the names of the leaders. Korea’s Kim Jung-Il must be turning over in his grave. This is what we call falsification. Now try to tell us that Netanyahu and Steinitz are not the only guilty parties. After all, this sin has been going on for 13 years, and the blame has to be shared by all the intervening governments. The fakers in the free paper caused themselves and their backers more damage than benefit.

A barrel of explosives

Those who witnessed the angry demonstrations that erupted after Silman’s suicide report raging energies, a barrel of explosives threatening to detonate. Fewer people are coming to protest this summer, but they are much angrier. This is a dangerous situation. The fury of some of the people is justified. Israel is a country that abandons its weak elements, today more than ever. Another study of the Knesset’s Research Center shows that although the criteria for governmental housing assistance has been getting stiffer and tougher all the time, the demand still grows and the number of entitled candidates keeps growing. The state has no solutions, and now we know that it had resources that it squandered and used up.

Moshe Silman fell apart because of a debt of $1,200 to the National Insurance Institute. He became trapped in a vicious cycle of desperation that ultimately led him to immolate himself in the middle of the street. If this is the way things look now at the beginning of the fiery summer, the season may turn out to be even hotter than we anticipate.

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Found in: tabloid israel hayom, social justice, social inequality, self immolation, public housing, protest, poverty, pauperism, occupation, sheldon adelson, national insurance institute, moshe silman, israel
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