WHATEVER IS happening to the Israeli social protest movement?
Good question. It is not only being asked abroad, but in Israel, too.
Last year the movement reached its peak in a giant demonstration. Hundreds of thousands marched in Tel Aviv.
The government did what governments do in such situations: it appointed a commission, headed by a respected professor named Manuel Trajtenberg. The commission made some good but limited recommendations, a tiny fraction of which were actually implemented.
In the meantime, the protest movement hibernated. For no good reason, it was somehow accepted that a protest movement should act only in summertime. (Personally, I much prefer winter demonstrations. Summers are really too damn hot.)
WHEN SUMMER 2012 came around -- and a specially hot summer it is -- the protest movement moved again.
Daphni Leef, who had started it all, called for a demonstration. She gathered around her some 10,000 people, a respectable number but far less than last year's multitudes. And for a good (or bad) reason: on the very same day and at the very same hour, less than a kilometer away, another demonstration was taking place. It was about army service (more about that later).
Last Saturday night, Daphni called for another protest, and again some 10,000 gathered. Why not more? Because on the very same day and at the very same hour another demonstration took place on Tel Aviv's seashore.
What was the difference between the two? None whatsoever. Both claimed to be the legitimate successor of last year's protest. They used the same slogans.
I don't generally subscribe to conspiracy theories. But this time it was hard not to suspect that some hidden hand was applying the old Roman maxim "divide et impera," divide and rule. (Seems that it was not really coined by the Romans, but by the French king Louis XIV, who said "diviser pour rÃ©gner.")
THE SUCCESS of Daphni's demonstration last Saturday was assured by an event nobody could have foreseen.
When the march reached the government quarter of Tel Aviv (the former village of Sarona, founded by German religious settlers in the mid 19th century) something shocking happened. One of the protesters, a middle-aged man from Haifa, set himself on fire and suffered terrible burns.
Jews are not Buddhist monks and nothing like this has ever happened here before. Desperate people commit suicide, but not publicly and not by fire. I think that since the days when converted Jews were burned by the Spanish inquisition, Jews have abhorred this kind of death.
The man, Moshe Silman, was a hard-luck story. Last year he was active in the protest movement. He was a small entrepreneur who twice failed in business, suffered a series of strokes and was left with nothing but large debts. He was about to be evicted from his small apartment. Rather than become homeless, he decided to take his life, after distributing a suicide note to people around him.
Most believers in the American way would probably say that his failure was his own fault, and that nobody had to help him. Jewish ethics are different and demand that a person in desperation, even if caused by his own failures, should be assured of a minimum existence compatible with human dignity.
Binyamin Netanyahu, an ardent admirer of the free market, published a statement dismissing the event as a "personal tragedy." The demonstrators answered with posters: "Bibi, you are our personal tragedy!"
Silman has become a national symbol. He has given a huge push to the protest movement, which has now resumed its place in public consciousness.