Wed., December 06, 2006 Kislev 15, 5767
For a handful of shattered people, little will do
By Eliahu Salpeter
The State of Israel was built on four foundations: the dream of the Zionist visionaries, the sweat of the pioneers, the courage of the fighters in the War of Independence and the pangs of guilt over the Holocaust felt by the world, which voted in favor of its establishment in the United Nations in 1947.
However there was also another foundation that the victims provided: reparations Germany paid for murdering six million European Jews. The sum of $750 million in the 1950s would today be the equivalent of several billion dollars; this sum financed a very sizable portion of the young state's economic infrastructure investments.
Among those who contributed to its establishment, Israel behaved most shamefully toward Holocaust survivors, the same handful of shattered people who chose to try to rebuild their lives in the Jewish state. It is perhaps possible to justify the fact that young people who had just stepped off the boat were sent directly to the front lines; it is possible, perhaps somewhat less justifiably, to argue that the Yishuv (pre-state leadership) was unable in the first few years to provide immigrants with more than a blanket, mattress, Jewish Agency standard issue bed and five liras.
However there is no justification for the fact that Israel, after nearly 60 years of existence, has refused to provide survivors with the few hundred shekels they need for medication and the tax on television, which in the last years of their lives is just about their only means of entertainment and connection with the world.
Forgetting the living
At the beginning of the month, the Finance Ministry announced it opposed a bill to grant benefits totaling NIS 65 million to survivors. It would be willing to transfer only NIS 7 million to them. Further discussion of the bill, which for the first time defines who is a survivor, has been put on hold as a result. "Israel is always dealing with the dead, but has forgotten about the living," Ze'ev Feiner, a spokesman for the Holocausts Survivors Welfare Fund, said earlier.
And indeed, who ever thought in the early 1950s that the state's greed for the property of landowners who died in the Holocaust, for Waqf and church properties and for the homes of Ikrit and Biram would haunt the elderly Holocaust survivors in the early 21st century? How has it happened that it is better today to be a Holocaust survivor in the United States or France, not to mention Germany, than to be one in Israel?
When considering the economic contribution to Israel, it is not just a matter of the reparations that Dr. Nahum Goldman and David Ben-Gurion obtained from Konrad Adenauer - tens of millions of dollars flowed into and through the Finance Ministry's coffers in Jerusalem. According to German data, Germany has so far paid over $60 billion to victims of the Nazi regime, some 85 percent of it to Jews.
Each year it continues to pay around one billion dollars or so. However there are no precise figures on the sums arriving, directly or indirectly to Israel, where around half of the survivors live. According to a cautious estimate of the total sum, Germany transfers around $450 million annually to Israel. Most of the money goes to those receiving compensation, pensions and the like, but some of it is transferred via public institutions and transmitted as payments and services to victims. The same NIS 65 million that the Finance Ministry was asked to add, which it claims is an expense it cannot handle, is less than 4 percent of the annual sum the state receives from payments from abroad.
As for the precise figures, there is a registry: Dovi Arbel, the executive director of the Holocaust Survivors Welfare Fund, estimates that of the 200,000 or so Holocaust survivors living in Israel, 20-30 percent are need of financial assistance, mainly for medical expenses. Other estimates refer to 20,000 Holocaust survivors living below the poverty line. Others, sometimes almost exactly the same sources at different times, refer to 280,000 Holocaust survivors, of whom some 80,000 live below the poverty line.
Image versus expense
The State of Israel, coincidentally or not, never legally defined who constituted "a Holocaust survivor." Is it someone who emerged alive from the German concentration camps? Someone who survived the forced labor camps and ghettos in countries either allied with, or occupied by, Nazi Germany? The Jews of North Africa and the Balkans who were under the rule of Fascist Italy?
What is the status of Jews who managed to hide or join the partisans in the forests? The conflicting figures are the result, among other things, of various parties with vested interests. On the one hand, some favor increasing the numbers to increase the dimension of the despair; on the other hand, others favor limiting the numbers to reduce the "fear" of expenditures. Moreover, there is an effort to estimate how many survivors will be alive in 2010, for example, 65 years after the end of the war.
The official "low" assessment refers to 167,000; the "high" estimate refers to 225,000. Some argue that with the aging of the survivors, health and welfare spending on them has increased (and therefore larger budgets are needed) and others respond that increasing numbers of survivors are dying each year (and therefore less money is needed for them).
However, assistance for the needy among them is not the only area in which Israel is treating Holocaust survivors disgracefully.
The mistreatment started with the 273 Tehran Children, who were forced to appeal to the courts because they did not receive the few thousand dollars the Finance Ministry allotted them from the German reparations.
The mistreatment continued with the millions of dollars the banks did not return to heirs of Holocaust victims - victims who before the war deposited some of their money in financial institutions in Palestine.
Bank Leumi recently announced it had set aside NIS 9.5 million for "adjusting" transfers that were too low, which it had at the time forwarded to the Custodian General. Tens of millions of shekels or dollars, depending on who you ask, is the value of the real estate purchased before the war by Jews who were killed in the Holocaust - money which to this day has not been handed over to their legal heirs.
Given the experience with Swiss banks and other countries where property of victims or Jewish institutions remains, it is not hard to imagine the kind of scandal that would erupt if another country were to act in the same manner and engage in property theft (or foot-dragging before returning it) as Israel has.
This is the same Israel, which provides a car allowance to clerks who do not have driver's licenses, pays hundreds of thousands of shekels for "appropriate" dress for the wife of the prime minister and allocates millions in field grants to thousands of officers who since their basic training haven't stepped foot outside their offices that are far from the front lines.
The calculation is simple: The survivors are older and do not have the strength to protest. The Jewish organizations hold, without justification, that it is more important not to damage Israel's good reputation in the world by airing the outcries of survivors, than it is to ensure a little improvement in their living conditions in their final years. Some 10 percent of survivors die each year and the pace is increasing. They will not be troubling us for much longer.