Willful blindness: A response to Dennis Mitzner

Dennis Mitzner, a very fine writer and a friend of mine, has offered several objections to my recent article on Moshe Silman’s self-immolation. Mr. Silman of blessed memory has since sadly departed this world; so it is left to others to make sense of his act. More importantly, perhaps, it is left to others to make sure that we do not look away from it, hoping that by doing so we will be able to pretend it never happened; as I fear Mr. Mitzner would have us do.

I will deal with only a few points on which I believe Mr. Mitzner is quite wrong. He claims, first, that Mr. Silman’s act is meaningless because most people in Israel do not set themselves on fire. This is frankly bizarre. That the poor and the desperate of Israel do not regularly immolate themselves does not mean they are not poor and desperate.

“The reasons that led Silman to set himself on fire remain a mystery,” Mr. Mitzner writes, “and it is difficult to establish a clear causal relationship between his life and his final act.” This is, quite simply, willful blindness. Mr. Silman and his survivors told us exactly why he set himself on fire: He had been discarded. And we know from the facts that have come to our attention since that the forces which drove him to suicide were political and not personal ones. Mr. Silman had no personal problems that could not have been solved with proper assistance from a functioning social welfare system. A system that, in Israel, has been systematically gutted as a result of neoliberal policies. A system that, as a result of this government’s recent cuts, is now gutted still further.

Mr. Mitzner asks, “Why should we accept that one awful incident is an indication of a sick society?” I regret to point out that in the last few weeks several more Israelis have done the same as Mr. Silman, and I have no doubt that there will be more to follow. Nothing further, I think, need be said on that particular point.

I must also point out an error in Mr. Mitzner’s history. He claims that the path to neoliberalism was blazed by Menachem Begin. This is untrue. It began in earnest under the stewardship of the Peres-Shamir rotating government, following a banking and inflation crisis. Mr. Begin was, to his credit, the architect of some very important policies that aided some of Israel’s poorest cities and neighborhoods. I would note also both Mr. Begin and his mentor, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, were notable advocates of social justice; a fact which has been unfortunately forgotten by many of their successors.

One of those successors, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is indeed the “one man,” as Mr. Mitzner puts it, to whom we must assign much of the responsibility for our current impasse. He is neoliberalism’s most fervent advocate in Israeli politics, and he has made it into something of personal crusade. Were he not constrained by certain forces that hardly need mentioning, he would have already pushed us much further down that road than he already has.

In addition, Mr. Mitzner takes issue with my claims regarding the materialism of Israeli society. He notes that religious Israelis, for example, are not materialist. This is a decidedly strange statement, given how violently the most Orthodox among them fight to preserve their welfare benefits. Even if his statement were true, these non-materialist groups are fighting a losing battle against a world that is increasingly opposed to their values. They are quite happy to tell you this should you ask their opinion. Indeed, it is one of their most common talking points.

Mr. Mitzner quotes Eric Hoffer at great length, especially his claim that “discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable.” Mr. Hoffer is an incisive but shallow thinker, and his claim bears this out. It may be that abject poverty does not lead to the kind of discontent that a more moderate poverty does. It is also irrelevant. A situation of slightly less injustice is still injustice; and to ask people to be content with their lot because they are serfs and not slaves is both absurd and insulting.

“Sometimes a horrific act is just a horrific act,” Mr. Mitzner tells us. This may be true. But Mr. Silman’s act was a great deal more. Most importantly, it was a symptom. A symptom of a disease of materialism, indifference, and a nihilistic form of capitalism which is devouring Israel from within; and which I believe constitutes as great a threat to our existence as any nuclear weapon. A Jewish state in which the Jews cannot afford to live is, at best, a very bitter joke. And any state that cannot or will not ensure the welfare of its citizens has forfeited what political philosophers since the dawn of reason have considered its primary reason for existence. As any doctor will tell you, if you ignore a symptom for too long, the disease quite often becomes incurable. Thankfully, we are not there yet, and should we choose not to look away from the horrors before us, we never will be.

About the Author
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor who lives in Tel Aviv