Last year, on the 14th of July, a girl called Daphni Leef pitched a tent on Rothschild Boulevard in central Tel Aviv. She was protesting against the high living costs in Israel that had left her unable to pay her rent, and the lack of opportunities for young people that had driven a close friend of hers to suicide.
Within weeks, half a million people had joined her in what had turned into the biggest protest in Israel’s history. That was the beginning of a new social justice movement in the country called J14, its members demanding an end to the rule of the tycoons and for a return of the welfare state.
Yesterday, J14 celebrated its first birthday with another large-scale protest. The turnout wasn't as massive as last year's, but an estimated 10,000 people gathered on Rothschild Boulevard to march along Kaplan Street towards the financial district, shouting stuff like "Social justice for the people!" and, "The people are united in opposition!" as they went.
Daphni Leef (front left)
When the march reached its destination, it turned into a giant street party with music and chanting blasting from all directions.
But then, suddenly, flames leapt up from the ground at the edge of a large crowd. It wasn't a burning bin some kids had set on fire, as many had initially thought when they ran towards the scene to see what was going on. Instead, they were faced with the burning body of a man in his late forties named Moshe Silman.
Those standing right next to Silman when he'd set himself alight told us that he'd handed out several copies of a letter before pouring a bottle of liquid over his head and setting himself on fire. After an initial few seconds of panic, bystanders managed to extinguish the flames by dousing him in water before the rescue team arrived.
He was severely burnt but could still move and, before he was driven away in the ambulance, he sat on the pavement eating an ice lolly the paramedics had given him to help him cool down.
The letter he had distributed right before self-immolating was a suicide letter. It contained his name and his personal details and read as following (this is a translation from Hebrew):
"The State of Israel has stolen from me and robbed me, left me with nothing,
and the Tel Aviv District Court blocked me from getting justice.
The registrar at the Tel Aviv District court, broke the law, disrupted legal proceedings, out of condescension.
It won’t even assist me with my rental fees
Two committees from the Ministry of Housing have rejected me, despite the fact that I have undergone a stroke and was granted 100 percent work disability
Ask the manager of [state-owned housing company] Amidar, in Hafia, on Hanevi’im Street.
I blame the State of Israel
I blame Bibi Netanyahu
and [Minister of Finance] Yuval Steinitz
for the humiliation that disenfranchised citizens go through day in and day out, that take from the poor and give to the rich, and to public servants
those that serve the State of Israel
The National Health Insurance, especially the manager of their operations, and the manager of their claims department, on Lincoln Street in Tel Aviv, who illegally seized my work equipment for my truck.
The Haifa National Insurance Institute branch, who abused me for a year until I was granted disability
That I pay NIS 2300 per month in Health Insurance taxes and even more for my medicine
I have no money for medicine or rent. I can’t make the money after I have paid my millions in taxes I did the army, and until age 46 I did reserve duty
I refuse to be homeless, this is why I am protesting
Against all the injustices done to me by the State, me and others like me..."
Yesterday’s J14 protest was supposed to be a celebration of the social justice movement’s ignition, but, instead of ending with a big party, it was dispersed in gloom. Daphni Leef was seen leaving the protest in tears.
How Moshe Silman’s act of desperation will affect the movement is impossible to tell. It’s hard not to compare it to the self-immolation act of Tunisian fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi that kicked off the Arab Spring. It could strengthen the movement and add zeal to the protesters, or it could scare people from protesting in case anything similar happens again.
Only 50 people joined the vigil at the hospital and they were disgusted by how quickly the crowds had dispersed. One protester told me:
"It took less than an hour for the police to 'clear up the road for traffic', despite some activists' requests to let us stand there and absorb what had just happened. That life carries on as usual for those in power is not very surprising, but what surprises me is us; a protest movement that moves aside and lets the traffic flow.
"The geographical distance from [affluent street] Rothschild to [working class neighbourhood] Hatikva is very small, but today I felt, more than on any other day, the real distance between us and them, and how – despite all our efforts to bridge the gap – we have totally failed.
"Moshe Silman, the man who set himself on fire, is not 'crazy' or 'insane', he is an absolutely normal human being like you and me, who had fallen but had no one there to lend him a hand. It happens every day, at every hour, to many people with many different and varied stories – a refugee from Sudan, a Palestinian woman in Jaffa, a Bedouin in an unrecognised village or Moshe from Haifa."
It was just announced that there will be another demonstration today (Sunday, July 15th) at 8PM in front of the government offices on Kaplan street.