Seeking symbolism in the flames — in vain

Moshe Silman’s horrific act of self-immolation tells us very little about a society in which most people still do not self-immolate in the face of adversity. However, Silman’s decision to express the hopelessness and despair of his situation by setting himself on fire was undoubtedly a result of unimaginable darkness and despair.

Commenting on the incident in The Times of Israel, Benjamin Kerstein wrote:

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… Simply put, Israel’s embrace of neoliberalism, perhaps once a necessary and positive reform, has now become an altar of human sacrifice.

Kerstein tied Silman’s suicide into Netanyahu’s alleged hypocrisy and Israel’s neoliberalist policies. But why should we accept that one awful incident is an indication of a sick society?

Without delving into the numerous factors that drove Silman to end his life, it is obvious that many Israelis suffer.

Some argue that material factors alone – economic hardship or economic success – define one’s place in society, as claimed by Kerstein:

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.

But many Israelis, especially in Orthodox communities, live in relative poverty and would surely reject Kerstein’s assertion that a man’s value is determined by the amount of money in his possession. However, wealth and happiness do not always correlate and many – religious and secular – still view kindness and righteousness as virtues and the ultimate determinants of a man’s character.

Symbol of a revolution? Social justice protesters chant slogans as they hold up pictures of Moshe Silman, who set himself on fire during a social justice demonstration in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Symbol of a revolution? Social justice protesters chant slogans as they hold up pictures of Moshe Silman, who set himself on fire during a social justice demonstration in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The multifaceted and complicated reasons that lead to acts of self-immolation only tell us that it is impossible to find one all-encompassing denominator, or more importantly, one man (Netanyahu) to explain such incidents.

Before the liberal policies first enacted by Menachem Begin in the late ’70s, Israelis did not travel like they do today. Taxation on traveling was higher, social and economic mobility was difficult, and the level of personal freedom was significantly lower in terms of options that were available.

People were poorer, yet acts of self-immolation did not occur. Perhaps ignorance is bliss and not knowing how good things could be maintained certain cohesion. Perhaps the tangibility of success is the cause, together with a segment of the population willing to use desperation as fuel to advance its cause. A life in a free society can be challenging and oftentimes suffering is further induced by the sight of seemingly unreachable wealth.

Dissatisfaction coupled with anger can be an explosive combination. Seeing a neighbor suddenly afford a new car due to a new, better paying job might increase the sense of dissatisfaction. Seeing success all around while seeing no improvement in one’s condition is undeniably tough. Eric Hoffer wrote in his incisive book “True Believer” that “Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach. A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed […]. The intensity of discontent seems to be in inverse proportion to the distance from the object fervently desired.”

People in poverty-stricken countries do not self-immolate. Perhaps because, as Hoffer suggests, being slightly above absolute poverty and being able to see a better life is a heftier challenge than being completely immersed in total and irreversible poverty.

The reasons that led Silman to set himself on fire remain a mystery, and it is difficult to establish a clear causal relationship between his life and his final act. Otherwise more people would choose self-immolation as a remedy for their problems. Perhaps the act of self-immolation is not a symptom of societal decadence, but rather should be seen as a choice made by one individual.

The attacks against Netanyahu and the prevailing order following Silman’s suicide are telling about a mindset that, perhaps unintentionally, but vociferously attempts to draw far-reaching conclusions about a country that it so desperately wants to change. But sometimes a horrific act is just a horrific act — regardless of one’s desire to see it as a symbol of something greater.

About the Author
Dennis Mitzner is a writer living in Helsinki and Tel Aviv