Social protests become violent

Moshe Silman is a name that jumped into the news here in Israel when he poured gasoline over himself and set himself alight a few nights ago at a social protest in Tel Aviv. Apparently he had serious problems, having lost his job and was not given a rent subsidy because his wife’s apartment was in his name. He could not face the prospect of becoming homeless, so he set fire to himself. His injuries are so bad that he is not expected to live. His action has now galvanized the protest movement in Israel. In fact since then six other men have tried the same thing and the welfare office in Ramat Gan was set on fire, with his name spray painted on it. There was also fighting between demonstrators and police and some were arrested.

The welfare authorities in Israel have been accused of being callous. Since PM Netanyahu has been in power there has been a move away from the all-encompassing welfare state that Israel was under successive Labor Governments and towards a more market driven economy. This has had good results for Israel, the economy has been excellent and was one of the least affected in the world by the financial crisis now affecting Europe and the US. But, you can’t have it both ways, if you spend too much on welfare then the economy suffers and you could end up like Greece, where there is now even less welfare because of the need for austerity. But, anyone who has dealt with the Israeli government knows that the pakedim (clerks) are often an unfeeling bunch of bureaucrats.

There is reported to be a shortage of housing in Israel, yet there is building everywhere. The problem is that the housing is unaffordable to many in the lower economic strata and there is almost no public housing in Israel. Compared to most western European countries, public housing in Israel is about 100 times less. Yet, here the determination was to allow the market to determine the cost of housing. Clearly the Government has been remiss in not taking care of the less fortunate citizens, and has promised to increase public housing. Measures are being taken in response to the recommendations of the Trachtenberg Committee to ameliorate the situation. In future, every building project above a certain size will have to include a percentage of low-income housing. These policies need time to work, but since the demonstrations have become smaller and more violent, don’t expect them to stop any time soon (but let’s keep things in perspective, look what’s going on in Syria).

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.