Moshe Silman’s public suicide attempt on Saturday may or may not have been in vain. Powerful forces and ideologies are arrayed against any reform whatsoever of Israel’s current economic system, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an expert at obfuscation, stonewalling, and the politics of hypocrisy. Nor can it be denied that the leadership of the protests has itself proven remarkably adept at letting him get away with it. But Silman did accomplish at least one thing: He forced a terrible truth, which we have long sought to deny, into the public arena. Simply put, Israel’s embrace of neoliberalism, perhaps once a necessary and positive reform, has now become an altar of human sacrifice.
Whoever is — or not — to blame for Silman’s act, its ultimate meaning should be clear enough: Israel has now reached a point at which a man’s worth has become solely determined by the amount of money and property in his possession. If he has none, he is simply tossed out like so much refuse, doomed to rot in homelessness and helplessness until he dies — or engineers his own exit from a world in which he is no longer a human being.
This issue goes beyond questions of capitalism or socialism, welfare or work — even of wealth and poverty. It cuts to the heart of our own reason for being, as individuals and as a people. What is the point, Silman has forced us to ask ourselves, of a Jewish state in which the Jews cannot afford to live? What is the point, in fact, of any society in which it has simply become — for some or for all of its members — impossible to live?
The answer, I am afraid, is not a pretty one. The point of such a society is to make money. For money to be made, a certain amount of human suffering is necessary. For some to be rich, others must be poor. For innovation and entrepreneurship to occur, those who lack the talent for it must be left behind. This is the cost, we are told, of prosperity — and one cannot avoid paying it.
The time has come to acknowledge that this is a lie of convenience. A fable we tell ourselves to justify a situation that can no longer be justified. Because, as Silman has demonstrated, it ends in death. The simple facts of it are easy enough to see, if we wish to: An economy that steadily erodes the purchasing power of its consumers through inequality eventually collapses. Lowering taxes on the rich and cutting services to others in order to pay for it is a transfer of wealth, consciously undertaken, from a productive majority to a non-productive minority. Low salaries and high prices end in penury.
In our mystification, however, we have consented to paying the price of microeconomic injustice in order to purchase macroeconomic prosperity. We have consented, in other words, to a religious idea. One in which the gods, from time to time, demand a sacrifice of human flesh. Silman, in the simple act of moving this altar to a public street, has forced us — perhaps only for a moment — to realize that this price, whether it was worth it or not in the past, has now become too high.
There is, we should realize, a silver lining to this horror. We have the chance now to reject the sophism of the priests of this particular cult of sacrifice. We have the chance to say that the choice is not between being wealthy and being Greece, between Benjamin Netanyahu and Dafni Leef, between an auto-cannibalistic capitalism and the nightmare of socialist totalitarianism. There are infinite gradations in between, and Israel is strong and smart enough to formulate its own, should it wish to. And we have a millenial legacy of thought on the subjects of justice and economic egalitarianism, should we decide to make use of it.
Years ago, when I was drunk on the utopias of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, a professor leveled a kind but solemn gaze at me and said, “There are a lot of people in Israel whose situation is not good. And that is your burden.” But it is the burden of all of us now, and it has taken the form of the scorched and shattered body of Moshe Silman. We have carried it a long time, hoping that it was worth it. We now know the answer to that question. Whether we will surrender to our illusions again and cast our eyes upward toward gods who do not exist, is up to us now. The alternatives, needless to say, are not pretty. It was the fire this time. Next time, it may be the inferno.