As the years of the Holocaust fade into the past, the number of Jewish survivors still alive dwindles. According to the non-profit Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, there are only some 180,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, two-thirds of them women. With their average age of 87 years, almost 40 of them pass away on an average day, and in another few years, there will remain no one with personal memories of their horrific suffering during the Nazi period.
Receiving aid from Israel’s Finance Ministry
The foundation also reports that about 45,000 have an income of fewer than 3,000 shekels ($760) per month, meaning that they are below the poverty line; thus, almost a quarter of survivors live in poverty. While many receive monthly pensions via the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the “Claims Conference”), which was financed by the Germany government, there are some 20,000 who settled in Israel after 1953 – the cutoff point for such ongoing financial assistance; those arriving after that date were supposed to receive aid from Israel’s Finance Ministry. Some of them are not aware of the benefits to which they are entitled.
Since the end of WWII, Germany has paid more than $78.4 billion in reparations and compensation for survivors of Nazi persecution; two-fifths of those funds were allocated to Israeli Holocaust survivors. But instead of being given directly to individual Holocaust survivors, the money has been primarily funneled through Israel’s Treasury and the Claims Conference.
Alzheimer’s disease or lingering psychological trauma
Six years ago, the Knesset plenum approved a private member’s bill initiated by then-finance minister Yair Lapid (whose late father Yosef Lapid, a longtime journalist and minister of justice in 2003 Yosef Lapid was a Holocaust survivor) increased financial assistance to survivors. The legislation ensured equal status for survivors who immigrated to Israel before October 1953 and those who came afterwards, so that the 18,000 more would receive a monthly stipend from the Treasury. The law also gave survivors eligibility for a 100 percent discount on medications included in the health basket and subsidized psychological treatment, “After the bill passes, our real test will be in its implementation,” said Lapid then. “The survivors, who are parting from us daily, do not have time to wait.”
Many cannot take care of themselves, as they have no children or other close relatives, and some suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or lingering psychological trauma. Although they deserve to live – and die – in dignity, tens of thousands of survivors still live in poverty.
An unacceptable financial situation
One prominent academic expert on welfare in Israel is Prof. John Gal, a former immigrant, in 1972, from Australia and chairman of the social welfare policy program and a principal researcher at the non-profit, non-partisan Taub Center for Social Policies in Israel for 15 years. He has taught at the Hebrew University’s acclaimed Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare in Jerusalem for 23 years and in the past was dean of the school. He has published many articles and books on social policies and social security here and around the world. Gal’s academic focus is primarily on comparative analysis and implementation of social policy and social security in Israel and around the world.
“Many Holocaust survivors are living in an unacceptable financial situation,” he said in an interview with Israel365. “Obviously, many have difficulty paying for medical treatment and other expenses and don’t have an acceptable standard of living. In the past, social work students from Baerwald initiated a public struggle on their behalf.”
“No one says survivors were treated adequately”
Still, “on the whole. Holocaust survivors probably have more access to resources than other Israeli elderly who are not survivors and lack pensions of their own,” continued Gal. “Elderly Israelis have less access to information on the Internet and are less able to fight for what they deserve. About five years ago, I headed a state subcommittee on social security and social welfare to raise the level of cash benefits – and they were raised – but allotments to the elderly are still lower than they should be. The National Insurance Institute does not distinguish between Holocaust survivors and those who are not. Things are better today than a decade ago, but basically, cash benefits for the elderly are very low in Israel. If they have no other sources of income, no pension, they will live just above or just below the poverty line,” Gal stated.
As for psychological treatment for trauma, continued Gal, “no one says survivors were treated adequately. Context should be taken into account. In the early years of the State of Israel, welfare services were just emerging and building up infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of new immigrants arrived not only from Nazi Europe but also from Africa and the Middle East. There were negligence and carelessness in too many cases.”
Health spending is far too low
Today’s national health insurance system, he declared, “is a good one. Every Israeli citizen is a member of one of four public health maintenance organizations and entitled to the national health basket. But the elderly, including Holocaust survivors, face major problems because government subsidies of health services have been declining steadily during the last two decades. There is too much privatization, and the poor can’t afford them. Those with the least money suffer the most. They can’t buy their way to the best services and can’t pay enough to get to the front of the line.”
The Taub Center, said Gal, “has shown that health spending is far too low compared to almost all the advanced OECD countries. Israel going in the wrong direction compared to Scandinavian countries and others that are spending more on health services.”
Third quarantine has just begun
Although one might think that Holocaust survivors have been suffering financially more than other Israelis from the COVID-19 pandemic, the social services researcher says that they have not, because “their incomes are primarily based on pensions that are fixed and have not been affected. Over the past year, it has been younger, working people with families who have put on leave without pay or lost their jobs completely or owners of small businesses.”
But the lockdowns – and the third quarantine has just begun – have caused devastating social and psychological damage to the elderly, especially to survivors, because they are lonely and can’t leave their homes. They have paid a big price. Even social workers couldn’t visit them and those in old-age homes haven’t been able to have visitors.”
Access to what they deserve
While politicians should be setting policy, said Gal, “they should listen to professionals in the various fields. The implementation of policies is sometimes influenced by political interests. In general, we need better policies for the elderly. We must ensure that they get access to what they deserve. If taxes are lowered on individuals with higher incomes, there won’t be enough funds for education and social welfare, for which Israel spends proportionately less than virtually every Western country, including the US.”
Israel hasn’t really made a real dent in poverty levels in the last 10 years,” said Gal. “There are better ways to deal with poverty. Hi-tech industry is very important and shouldn’t be undermined, but the government can do much more to spend tax income on the poor. Inequality is severe. If Israel wants to reduce poverty and meet the needs of most deprived,” Gal concludes, it “needs to spend more money. The government must seriously consider how we move ahead after the pandemic is over, how to get people back into the labor market with a living wage, and how to help the poor.