The tragic self-immolation of Moshe Silman at last weekend’s social justice demonstration in Tel Aviv has put the spotlight on Israel’s own financial crisis. While Israel’s economy is healthier than most, many individuals and families find themselves facing impossible situations of poverty, debt and homelessness. Why is this happening?
Moshe Silman’s story reads like the Book of Job. The owner of a small haulage company with four vehicles and tight margins, he could not pay the vehicle pound fine on one of his trucks and it was confiscated. He then suffered a stroke and was unable to manage his business, so it collapsed, leaving him in debt. He fought for and eventually received disability benefit, but this only covered his health insurance and medications. Unlike Job, it seems that Moshe did not have friends to turn to.
A veteran of the IDF with a service record in the Reserves, this proud man found that he did not qualify for housing. Desperate in his refusal to become homeless, he turned his body into a social protest by setting fire to himself during a demonstration in Tel Aviv. His story is not atypical of Israel’s failed entrepreneurs. While the media revels in Israel’s start-up successes, we tend to ignore those who fall by the wayside.
Having worked for 10 years helping individuals like Moshe, I can understand his plight and his terrible frustration. Israel’s welfare system is a tangled bureaucracy which is hard to navigate. People are often confused and ignorant about the benefits and support to which they are entitled.
When Moshe was bounced out of the various welfare offices that were meant to assist him, there was no one to pick him up and help him to find the right address. The system is compartmentalized rather than holistic; help does exist, but no one will tell you where to find it.
For example, had Moshe turned to Mekimi at any point in his story, we would have given him business advice and helped him to access loans and grants to tide him over, or to declare bankruptcy and minimize his debts. We would have advised him about the various benefits to which he was entitled, providing legal advice and access to a social worker.
Last year, Mekimi assisted over 260 individuals and families, including 100 in situations similar to Moshe Silman. Our assistance and encouragement, including accessing the wonderful social support networks that exist in Israel’s communities, has enabled them to put their lives back on track for a healthy economic future.
Moshe Silman did not fall because the state’s inability to deal with him, but because of his inability to get help. His dramatic and desperate cry for help should awaken all of us to the need to assist our brethren who are struggling in dire straits to reach a place of economic stability. During this period, described in the Book of Eichah (Lamentations) as ‘Bein HaMetzarim’, Jews everywhere recognize that we live in spiritual straits from which we need divine rescue. It is particularly appropriate in this season to reach out and rescue those who are struggling whenever it lies within our power to help them.