Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Silence Over Self-Immolation In Israel

A second Israeli has died from wounds resulting from self-immolation.  Akiva Mafi, 45, passed away today after setting himself alight and burning 70% of his body.  His death follows that of Moshe Silman, who set himself alight on July 14th.  Both men were disabled IDF veterans aligned with the J14 Israeli protest movement over housing prices.  

Surprisingly, the deaths - which are part of a spate of other non-fatal self-immolation attempts in Israel - have not received that much attention in the Israeli press.  Mainstream outlets such as Haaretz, Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post recognize the self-immolations as acts of the mentally ill.  However, this assessment contrasts sharply with other Western accounts that interpret these acts as indicative of deeply-rooted social problems in Israel.  The self-immolations (and their political implications) have also received considerable attention in the Arab press (see hereherehere, and here).

The somewhat morbid social phenomenon of copycat suicides identified in the Israeli press is certainly at play in this situation.  While the Israeli press is under-playing politics as a motivator, it's likely the Arab and European press are over-playing it.  However, such an important question deserves an objective look.  To what extent does politics play a role in self-immolation?  Why have the self-immolations generated relatively little political response from the Israeli public?

Both cases of fatal self-immolation clearly were political.  Mr. Mafi's suicide note referenced his economic woes, stating, "The State of Israel has robbed me," and accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu's government of "taking from the poor and giving to the rich."  Moshe Silman's suicide note was similarly political, stating "I blame the State of Israel.  I blame Bibi Netanyahu."  At the same time, the phenomenon of copycats seeking attention for their pain cannot be completely overlooked. But either way, the decision to self-immolate may very well be more rational (though obviously boundedly rational) than Israeli society is willing to admit at the moment.  A person's decision to self-immolate may be the result of a rational desire to shame the state or draw public attention to a political issue.  While those who self-immolate may be in extreme emotional distress, they need not necessarily be crazy.

Such rationality alludes to the second question of why the self-immolations have not prompted a greater response in Israeli society.  There are three reasons this may be the case. 

First, the self-immolations are associated with the J14 social protest movement.  This movement has lost steam, meaning that its current members are more mobilized (and radical) than the wide cross section of Israel which turned out to massive protest marches last summer.  While Israelis are certainly sympathetic on a human level to disabled IDF veterans who self-immolate, the political cause with which they align is postured too far outside the mainstream right now to gain political traction.  Shifts in the platform of the movement could change this lack of traction.

Second, there is a lack of desperation among the Israeli public.  While a certain number of Israelis are hurting from the high price of housing, Israel's economy has done relatively well in the global economic recession.  Israel hasn't fought a war since 2009, and major terrorist attacks have been few and far between.  When Mohammed Bouazizi self-immolated in Tunisia last year, his desperation struck a chord in Tunisian society.  It was this national sense of prolonged desperation that finally pushed Tunisians into the streets to protest.  In contrast, Israelis are not particularly desperate at the moment.  As a result, similar self-immolations likely have a lesser political effect in Israel.  

Finally, there are more salient political issues about which Israelis are concerned.  The expiration today of the Tal Law sets up further negotiations about the status of religious service in the IDF, an issue which has deep implications for the secular-religious divide affecting all Israelis.  The threat from Iranian nuclear weapons (and closer to home, Syrian chemical weapons) has important implications for how Israelis respond to a pervasive sense of danger to Israeli society.  In contrast, a small spate of self-immolations by desperate IDF veterans has lesser political appeal.  Again, this is not to say Israelis are indifferent on a personal level to IDF veterans who set themselves on fire.  However, the political implications of such self-immolations affect a much smaller subset of Israeli society than the other issues currently on the table.

Because Israel's self-immolations lack sufficient political salience, they are not likely to change the Israeli political landscape at the present time.  If the J14 movement regains steam or rebrands itself (or both), it may draw more attention to the issue.  However, the more likely scenario is that more cross-cutting political issues will hold the attention of the Israeli public in the months ahead.