Israelis, used to confronting the specter of terrorists killing themselves as they murder innocent civilians in crowded places, are now wrestling with another grisly form of self-destruction: self-immolation. No fewer than five Israelis have set themselves on fire in the past several days to protest economic conditions, especially rising prices and the denial of government aid–and the Israeli government is struggling to respond.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the first self-immolation “a great personal tragedy.” Yet that personal tragedy was also a profoundly political act–one that is being used by some to rally public outrage that has waned since last summer, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest growing inequality and to demand “social justice.” It remains to be seen whether the self-immolations have that effect.
The Arab Spring protests of 2011, which brought down several governments and may yet bring down the Syrian regime, began with the self-immolation of Tunisian merchant Mohamed Bouazizi. It remains to be seen whether similar protest has the same effect on Israelis. Thus far, it has not–largely because Israel’s government is democratic, and deeply sensitive, perhaps sometimes overly sensitive, to demonstrations and protests.
The Israeli economy is also among the strongest in the industrialized world. Its economy is growing at a rate of 3.3%, far higher than that of the United States; its unemployment rate is below six percent, falling to a 32-year low of 5.6% earlier this year. Its currency, the shekel, is relatively strong against the dollar and its government budgets, while tight, are nowhere near the debt disaster that has befallen Europe (and which awaits the U.S.).
Still, three factors have driven social unrest in Israel. One is rising prices, due in part to the oligarchic structure of many sectors of the Israeli economy. A second is the massive size of the Israeli welfare state, upon which many Israelis have come to rely for basic needs; budget restraint hits them hard. A third factor is the left-wing nature of Israeli politics, which endures despite the country’s entrepreneurial culture and military reality.
It remains to be seen whether the emergence of self-immolation as a protest tactic will achieve any meaningful political goals. But with the Israeli government already shaken by the departure of its largest coalition partner over the issue of military conscription for the religious community, and with a strong need for national unity in the face of active threats from Iran, Prime Minister Netanyahu is under unusual, and extreme, pressures.
Photo credit: Asaf Kilger, Jerusalem Post