The Fight For Life

My children used to complain that things weren’t fair. After countless responses to them that life is not fair, they got the message. They no longer complain and often turn to their own devices to solve their problems.

One of the lessons I have learned in business is to take advantage of my unfair advantages.

Each of us has strengths and weaknesses. It is when we are weakest, that our strengths are tested. Sometimes we have to do whatever it takes to survive, to live day to day. When life is not fair, we have to say “So What?!” and get on with the hard work that is life and draw upon our strengths and resources.

The social protests that started in Israel a year ago have made little headway. For some, these protests are a beacon of hope in a hopeless situation. In such a communal society as Israel, it is natural to turn to others for help. One such man who had become a social activist over the last year was so desperate after a series of misfortune that he set himself on fire at a protest in Tel Aviv.

Moshe Sillman had owned a messenger service business. As a result of the second Intifada, his business was hurt and he moved his office to his home, but the National Insurance (Israel’s equivalent of Social Security) bills continued going to his old address and he never received them. Consequently he amassed a debt and the government seized one of his four trucks. He tried to reclaim the truck by paying some of the debt. However, he never actually received his truck back because of a strike and this, he claimed, caused the collapse of his business. Sillman tried to file suit against the National Insurance Institute, but he could not afford the court fees. He appealed to waive the fee, but this was rejected and his case was never heard. This man never had his day in court.

The downward spiral continued over the next ten years. Sillman lost his home, worked as a taxi driver making little money. His bank account was seized and his savings and insurance money was used to pay debts. He lost his driver’s license due to his debts and he suffered a stroke. Due to his poor health, the National Insurance Institute paid him a disability allowance, but categorized him as only 50% disabled limiting his payments. He spent his days on line in bureaucracy at his HMO and struggling to get a housing subsidy. His four petitions to the Housing Ministry were rejected because he had once owned a house and had no children.

At 57, Moshe Sillman was desperate and his act of setting himself on fire at the social protest this month did not surprise those who knew him best.

One can not help but notice the irony that the same week of this desperate act, Ehud Olmert was acquitted of corruption charges and found guilty of only one minor crime of breach of trust. Olmert still faces sentencing, although jail time seems unlikely. He also still faces charges in the Holyland Affair in which he is charged with others in wrongdoings to advance real estate development in Jerusalem. Yet he continues to fight.

Olmert has always fought for survival. He has wavered from the extreme right to the left in politics. He has played the savvy and charismatic politician as well as the ignorant figurehead. But he has survived.

Olmert has learned to use the system to his advantage when it benefits him and to fight the system when it does not. One can not say he plays by the rules, even if that does not earn him a criminal verdict.

The charges against Olmert cover events that allegedly took place starting in 2002, the same year Moshe Sillman’s truck was seized. Eventually, Olmert was forced to resign as Prime Minister when he no longer had coalition support. Since that time, he has used his influence and his connections to put together an all-star legal team with discounted fees which is still said to have cost at least one million dollars.

One wonders what would have happened had Moshe Sillman had the court fees to file his claim against the National Insurance Institute.

In the aftermath of Olmert’s acquittal, editorials in the Israeli press have ranged from contempt for a legal system that is bankrupt to calls for a loud and clear apology to Olmert. Some columnists depicted Olmert as being rewarded for acting stupid and having deep pockets for lawyers while others felt it was a legal battle of equals with room for appeal if the verdict is unjust.

It is too early to tell if Olmert will reenter politics or if he will ultimately be found guilty of more than breach of trust, but one has to admire Olmert’s tenacity. Through it all, Olmert has kept his presence and expected the respect commanded of a former Prime Minister and a former Mayor of Jerusalem. While his public image may have been damaged, he has remain vigilant in retaining his status and dignity.

We are all made up of aspects of these two men. We expect the system to work and for the most part play by the rules, but when the situation is desperate enough, each person has their own measuring stick of how far they will go to survive. It is not something we know until we are tested. It is at moments like this that our true character shows itself. And it is on occasions such as that which brought Sillman and Olmert to the headlines in the same week when the character of our society is brought to light as well.

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