(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Social welfare groups and activists working on behalf of the elderly population welcomed the publication Monday of a 60-page document aimed at alleviating the economic hardships faced by more than a quarter of Israel's 260,000 Holocaust survivors.
The plan was compiled by an interministerial committee headed by Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog. It was created following a public outcry last month over the plight of survivors who receive no government benefits and live below the poverty line, forced to chose on a daily basis between medicine or food.
"The battle we have been fighting is finally drawing results," Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, chairman of social action party Tafnit and founding president of the Sderot Conference for Society, told The Jerusalem Post. "We have forced the government to take a serious look at the problem and draft a comprehensive plan on how to help."
Last month, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Dayan and hundreds of others participated in an alternative ceremony. They marched from the Knesset to Yad Vashem to raise awareness about survivors who still need help.
"There should not be first-class and second-class survivors," said Nathan Lavon, director of the pensioners' rights group Ken Lazaken. He said Herzog's plan broadened the definition of who is a Holocaust survivor, a subject that has fallen under much debate in recent years.
According to the law, survivor benefits are granted only to those who moved Israel prior to 1953. But over the past 20 years, some 170,000 survivors have immigrated from the former Soviet bloc.
"After all these years, there is no room to differentiate between the two," said Lavon.
The main thrust of Herzog's plan, which includes a budget of NIS 1.5 billion and permanent legislation, is to provide assistance to survivors who receive no benefits from either the Israeli government or reparations from Germany, Holland, Austria or Belgium.
According to the plan, anyone whose monthly income is less than NIS 3,221, or NIS 4,269 for a couple, will receive a supplement of up to NIS 1,040 per month, more health and welfare assistance, information services, rent subsidies and psychological counseling.
"This is one of the most correct battles in Israel today, but the real test now is whether the Finance Ministry will support it," said Dayan.
It was not a case of increasing the budget but of refocusing priorities, Welfare and Social Services Ministry director-general Nahum Itzkovich said.
"This is the correct thing to do and I am very optimistic that the government will show its support," he said. "I know we have the support of numerous government ministries and there are still funds coming in from Germany."
"I don't believe there is another population that has the same standing in society," Itzkovich said. "These people do not have much longer left with us, and there is no reason survivors should not get these benefits."
A Finance Ministry spokeswoman declined to say whether the Treasury would support the plan.
According to Lavon, "Only time will tell. There have been other promises in the past, but this time it will hopefully be different because we have the support of the prime minister and many other high-profile ministers and Knesset members."