Protest for public housing, Jerusalem, Israel, 26.7.2012 Protesters shout slogans in front of the house of Housing Minister Ariel Atias in Jerusalem, during a protest for public housing on July 26, 2012. Photo by: JC/Activestills.org
Rabbi Idit Lev, looking back in a moment of reflection, following the death of Moshe Silman
“Let us never be ashamed” (from the prayer after meals – Birkat Hamazon)
Ever since the demonstration on 14/7 when Moshe Silman chose to set himself on fire and not to be homeless, I have been meeting people shocked by Moshe’s decision, people having difficulty in understanding him. I hasten to say – I cannot imagine how a man can decide to hurt himself, and that I believe in the sanctity of life and that we must not harm our souls. But, alongside this – I have been accompanying vulnerable members of the community for eight years now in their struggle against the authorities and I have seen how frustration can lead to this kind of extremism.
We started the Rights Centre of Rabbis for Human Rights in Hadera around the issue of the Wisconsin Plan, and after we managed to close down the programme, the Centre expanded the issues it deals with, and we assist all those citizens who have problems with the authorities. Over the years, I have worked with many people with different stories. I have built up so many stories in my memory that are difficult to live with.
Single mother with four-year old son, on a cold winter night I heard her coughing in her sleep and we talked a little about her son and I asked her if she put on the heating at night (I wanted to suggest that she put a pot of water on the heater) and her answer was: “I cannot put on the heating even when he comes home from kindergarten.” And I thought of a 4-year-old boy who comes home to a freezing house, and cannot play and grow like children should.
55-year-old woman on her own, who told me that in the winter she has to choose between putting on the boiler for hot water or the heating. So she does not put on the heating and dresses warmly.
Single mother of 2, told us that in spite of all her requests to Amidar, they had not repaired the windows of her apartment, and in winter the flat is flooded, and the three of them huddle in a corner of the one room that is dry.
Mother of mentally retarded daughter of 21, for whom the municipality refused to fund daily transportation to where she works, so she is with her mother all the time, and neither of them functions.
Single mother of 2, whose son was sent out of school in the middle of 12th grade. Even the social worker assigned to the case thought that the boy should return to school and take his Bagrut exams. But in the end this boy only has a certificate that he has completed 12 years’ of schooling.
Woman of 55 who suddenly received letter about a file on her in the bailiff’s office concerning a 14-year-old cheque from an account that had belonged to her and her ex-husband! She has not managed to obtain details from the bailiff’soffice or from the private lawyer dealing with the case, but she has received frightening threats from the same lawyer, and her bank account has been frozen.
There are many more instances. What is common to all of them is the feeling that if you are poor, you can be humiliated and your self-respect trampled on. You can be prevented from receiving disability benefits because all you have is three lines from a Kupat Holim doctor, and not a three-page letter costing several thousand shekels. This necessity of the authorities to crush you, not to let you raise your head – the lack of respect for the divine spark in you, is not clear to me. What is clear to me is the unwillingness of some of the poor to bow their heads lower and lower, and be beaten down again and again.
There are days when it is hard for me to return home, to my heated house, to food, electricity, to rates I am able to pay, to three children who go to hugim (after school activities) and get what they need. When my small daughter needed special food that cost us 1000 NIS a month, my first thought – when I was told the sum for the first time – was: What would that mother who comes to me at the rights centre and lives on an allowance of 2,400 NIS do, how would she buy this food for her children? And what would happen to the child who needs this food and doesn’t get it? And here is a question of accountancy: how much would it cost the state, afterwards?
It is very hard to be poor in Israel, very hard to work at the human rights centre when you have sitting in front of you people you know are hungry (perhaps), have no electricity at home, no water, because they have no money to pay the bills. When you hear such stories again and again, from different people – you understand how insufferable is the life they live. And no – they do not enjoy living on benefit, they did not choose it, the labour market chose to ignore them and they don’t have the ability to fight it. The state chooses not to help them enter the labour market, when it cuts back on the budget for professional training and on the budget for unemployment services.
So, when Moshe Silman’s unwillingness to be homeless brought him to commit this terrible act, I thought of all those other people I had met over the years. I thought of the tremendous strength they had to manage to survive from day to day. To obtain food from one source, money to pay bills from another, and to survive on an impossible allowance of 1339NISa month (guaranteed minimal income for one person).
I have said many times to the women who are members of our activity group (most of whom live on guaranteed minimal income) that I admire their ability to smile and to be happy in spite of their unending hardship. During this time I admire them more and more.
Dedicated with much love, to the workers at the Haifa Hazit (Front), and to the women’s activity group of RHR in Hadera.