Monday, July 23, 2012

The Death of Moshe Silman: An Israeli Tragedy

A weekly protest for social justice taken July 7 2012
This last week a lot happened in Israel. From the tragic terrorist attack on Israelis in Bourgas Bulgaria, to Kadima’s pulling out of the government, the news channels have been filled with plenty of “headlines." These headlines also included the death of Moshe Silman, a protestor who was became known among the protesters in Haifa as someone dedicated the cause.  On July 14, at the weekly protests set at reigniting last year’s massive protests Moshe Silman set himself on fire as a last attempt to have the government recognize and address his difficult social situation.  The video itself of him setting himself was shocking to say the least, with ninety percent of his body receiving burns.  Once set on fire, the shocked crowds around him did everything possible to put out the flames, dowsing him with what little bottle water they had and hitting with any materials they had to extinguish the fire.  Once put out, Moshe managed to prop himself up and shout a few slogans calling for tsedek hevreti-social justice, then ate a popsicle which a policeman gave him, and finally was whisked away by an ambulance. On Friday, July 20, he died.  Since his case, other desperate people have set themselves on fire. 

I could go into details about Moshe’s story; however, I choose not to. For those who wish to read more about him (see link for one I suggest), there is plenty of news articles dedicated to his life and the daily struggles he faced to stay afloat, to work with pride, and to live in decent housing.  Moshe is the story of so many struggling Israelis.  On my last trip to Israel, and with every passing trip, I am always shocked at the deterioration of the Israel society. The gap between rich and poor is striking and the injustices can be seen with little effort. The Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had the nerve to say that Moshe Silman’s story was one of a personal tragedy.  What hutzpah! We should not and will not forget Moshe Silman, the one who dared to challenge the Israeli injustices, to stand face-to-face with the bureaucratic machine which even if it ends up providing social services does so only after a humiliating journey.   
Below is the translated letter left by Moshe Silman (published on the following blog entry which also provides a detailed and eyewitness account of the event including pictures, which I have chosen not to reproduce). It says it all; I will not comment:

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
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, 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..."

Friday, July 20, 2012

Hos Geldin Ramazan (Welcome the Holy Month of Ramadan): A Look into Recent Debates

People lining up before the iftar (break-fast) to buy the special
bread baked especially for Ramadan
 Living in Turkey off and on for over a decade, I have come to like the month of Ramadan, a change in routine is a nice break. Istanbul is a city way over populated and way over the top in many dimensions. Nothing really comes in small doses here.  However, during Ramadan, a month when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk (something quite difficult in the summer months) everything moves a bit slower, and nightlife considerably slows down. Just as many Jews fast on Yom Kippur but do nothing else throughout the year, many Turkish Muslims refrain from drinking during Ramadan (even though the consumption of alcohol is forbidden in Islam).

Last week, in the Eyup district of Istanbul, the annual Efes Pilsen One Love Rock festival took place.  For over 11 years, party goers and rock music lovers have met at Bilgi University to celebrate the event.  Sponsored by Efes Pilsen brewery many festival goers enjoy escaping the indoors to lie on the grass, listen to music, and drink beer to cool off from the Istanbul heat. However, this year the Eyup municipality pressured the university to ban alcohol from the event due to the fact that the Eyup Sultan Mosque is one of Turkey’s most religious historical sites (see the attached link which is a translation about the banning of alcohol at the event from Turkey’s Taraf newspaper) and the school gave in. While they managed to ban the drinking inside, local vendors brought shopping carts of beer to the event and people managed to drink quite a lot outside the concert grounds with some religious/political groups heckling in the background and signs in the area revealing the ills of alcohol. It is a pity that the university gave into pressures to ban the alcohol. By Turkish law, people 18 years and older can drink alcohol and it has never has been a source of problems in the past. Of course, this was not a violation of the religious site since the mosque is not in the immediate vicinity. Further, it should be noted that most people attending the concert would most likely fight to defend the sanctity of holy sites and the need to respect them.

Friday Prayer on the first day of Ramadan
With the debate at its height some in the Turkish media have been discussing the repercussions of such social pressure and how it might lead to a dangerous polarization during Ramadan. Mehmet Ali Birand (English link, Turkish link), wrote of his fear that those who don’t fast will be subjected to social pressures, or what he calls “neighborhood pressure (mahalle baskisi)," and asks “what if those who do not fast are oppressed? What if those who drink alcohol are beaten? What if entertainment venues are raided?.” He ends his commentary by stating that “Nobody should have a right to create such an atmosphere in this country. Let the citizen decide himself what he will do and what he will not do…” 

 A local simit seller making his daily bread during
Ramadan. He also stopped selling the bagel like snack
to join Friday prayer
The Turkish government should work to strengthen the middle ground between secular and religious people and to ensure the rights of all.  Baseless claims by conservative religious factions, as we saw at the One Love festival, only create unneeded tensions. Just as many secular people rightly supported the right of women to veil in universities, religious people should stand up and speak clearly about the right of secular people to live their life in respect.  This does not mean drinking alcohol on the steps of the mosque or provoking religious folk by marching in and eating publicly during the month of Ramadan. Finding the balance between secular and religious lifestyles has been and will continue to be a challenge, and usually one that Turkey has succeeded in achieving. It is what makes Turkey unique and I would argue why many Muslims find Turkey appealing.  Often I see Arab tourists walking through the streets full of bars on Istiklal and curiously admiring what they often do not have in their country: the choice to decide and the chance to be part of a multicultural society.

For now, I will continue to enjoy Ramadan, seeing the long lines for the iftar break-fast bread, hearing drummers pounding away to wake up people before the fast begins, and seeing tents feeding thousands of people celebrating the iftar (the break-fast) together.

On that note, I am happy to wish all my Muslim friends and happy and holy Ramadan. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Last Days of Bashar Assad?

July 17, 2012

The Syrian Uprising which started in March 2011 seem as it has at last reached its breaking point. After over 18,000 people killed, it seems that Bashar Assad days are numbered. Until now, Assad has succeeded in keeping the uprising on the periphery, far from the Damascus centre, and believed that he would be able to stamp out the winds of change through violent massacres of innocent civilians, bombarding numerous cities.  While the Syrian uprising was at first confined to peaceful protests over the last six months numerous opposition groups took up arms, causing fear that what we have is actually the beginnings of a full-fledged civil war. During the last days, Damascus has slowly become the center of the opposition assaults and today Assad has received his biggest hit to date, one that it is likely he will not be able to overcome. A daily meeting of Assad’s inner-circle and highest officials was targeted internally, when a bomb was set off killing the DefenseMinister Daud Rajiha, “the highest profile pro-Assad figure to be killed,” his long time family confidante and brother-n-law Asif Shawkat, former Defense Minister Hasan Turkmani, and seriously injuring the Chief of Intelligence Hisham Bekhtyar and the Minister of Interior Muhammad Shaar, among others.

It is clear that the opposition forces in Syria have shown that they do have the strength to bring down the Assad regime.  The fact that such a mission was completed under the noses of these high ranking officials just shows the cracks in the system, not to mention the growing numbers of officials choosing to flee for the surrounding countries of Jordan and Turkey.  For now, the UN will continue to work to secure an unanimous vote in the Security Council condemning the Assad regime, something that only can be one if Russia agrees. However, it seems that the Syrians will not, and have not, waited for the world to act since simply the world already abandoned the Syrians long ago. Lastly, while some analysts warn of a civil war following the ousting of Assad I would argue that this is unlikely. It seems that after today even the upper and middle classes of Damascus who supported the regime in the name of stability and fear of the unknown will submit themselves to the new order which will emerge.  Not like Egypt also, once Assad goes, so does the army officials, and there could be a real chance for reconciliation, also among the different sectarian groups.