Around ten thousand protesters marched in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening, marking the one-year anniversary of Israel’s social justice protests (while hundreds more marched in cities across the country).

Protest for social justice, Tel Aviv, Israel, 14.7.2012

Israelis fill Tel Aviv's streets, marking one year of social justice protests.

The protests, which continue to focus on social and economic inequalities within Israel, have also been infused with more political tones of late. However, tonight’s march was rather uneventful up until the march’s conclusion.

It was at that point a 52-year-old Israeli man, Moshe Silman, set himself on fire after handing out a letter to fellow protesters, part of which read:

The State of Israel has stolen from me and robbed me, left me with nothing…

Two committees from the Ministry of Housing have rejected me, despite the fact that I have undergone a stroke and was granted 100% work disability…

I blame the State of Israel.

I blame Bibi Netanyahu and [Minister of Finance] Yuval Steinitz, both scum, for the humiliation that disenfranchised citizens go through day in and day out, that take from the poor and give to the rich.

Protest for social justice, Tel Aviv, Israel, 14.7.2012

Protesters extinguish flames that engulfed Moshe Silman after he set himself on fire.

A crowd of social justice protesters gathered outside the hospital where Silman — whose condition is dire — was taken, and a march has already been planned for Sunday from his home to municipal offices in Haifa.

On Silman, Haaretz added this:

Ofer Barkan, a social protest activist from Haifa, said that the man was an activist in last year’s protests. “We met him last summer,” Barkan said, “he was a completely normative person who lived in Tel Aviv but then his business went under. He became a cab driver and suffered a stroke which left him unemployed. He moved from Tel Aviv to Haifa because he could not afford life in the city.” According to Barkan, he had threatened to light himself on fire multiple times. “We felt that he was close to do it, but we didn’t know,” he added.

Silman’s self-immolation has quickly become the central story in Israel, and its resonance is worth considering. Self-destructive protests, particularly those in which individuals intentionally harm themselves, reflect back to us the unspeakable desperation of the powerless such that we are unable to look away.

We can turn away from the homeless. From those barely able to survive in the shadows. But we cannot turn away from a hunger striker, growing emaciated in public, and we cannot avert our eyes from one who has set himself ablaze, no matter the mental state that may have led to such an act.

For their suffering not only becomes a painful metaphor for all that is wrong, it also becomes a shocking visual image, branded on the psyche, that symbolizes what must be repaired.

There is no question that Israel’s social justice protests have returned. And while questions remain as to how far they will spread and whether they will co-opt geopolitical issues (such as the occupation), the question that remains this evening is this: how much power and societal impact will Silman’s act of desperation have in the days and weeks ahead?

May he recover, and soon.

Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG

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