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(photo credit: )
The statistics vary. According to some, there are 120,000 needy Holocaust survivors in this country - all, naturally, elderly. Other data puts the number of Holocaust survivors who depend exclusively on National Insurance Institute old-age allowances at no more than 60,000.
Either way, the inadequacy of the payments is intolerable and the imperative to help is urgent.
In that light, after much publicity and hype, it was recently decided to increase the NII payments, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announcing a few days ago that his government had now "repaired a thus-far ignored 60-year-old injustice."
"Holocaust survivors who live in Israel," said the PM, "deserve a life of dignity, without reaching a situation in which they cannot enjoy a hot meal." He vowed that the neglect displayed by previous administrations "will be no more" and stressed that "it is imperative to make sure that survivors get additional allowances, enabling them to exist with self-respect."
Rhetoric aside, the actual NII increases are minuscule - averaging a monthly NIS 83 per beneficiary at this stage and climbing to NIS 260 over the next four-and-a-half years.
Obviously, even a little is better than nothing for those barely subsisting. But there is a yawning gap between the bombast and the numbers that mocks the worthy cause of improving the lot of these most needy and deserving Israelis, left with no pensions or other income in their waning years.
Part of the problem relates to how one defines a Holocaust survivor. The NII's limited resources are spread particularly thin because the Holocaust-survivor claims are so numerous and their eligibility often vague. By contrast, domestic and international philanthropic assistance, and special funding from Germany, are generally earmarked more specifically.
The government, for instance, had decided to add to the Holocaust-survivor category tens of thousands of aged immigrants from the former USSR. Some may indeed be Holocaust survivors; others most definitely are not. But the notion of limiting eligibility strictly to those who spent WWII under Axis occupation is also unworkable, as that would per force include North Africans, a minority of whom may have felt the early stings of Final Solution persecution, but most of whom did not.
If the former Soviet citizens were left out, the availability of funds for residual claimants would significantly grow. But the problem is that the former Soviets make up the majority of Israel's elderly poor. Even the genuine Holocaust victims among them hadn't received any German compensation due to their residence behind the Iron Curtain. Having arrived here post-gainful employment age, they couldn't provide for a pension and had none from their previous home. Members of this group are often truly and tragically indigent and helpless.
Perhaps what is required is to address tangible need and remove the calculated misuse of the Holocaust-survivor category altogether. By focusing on the plight of Holocaust survivors, their proponents can utilize an emotive tactic that is almost irresistible in the Israeli context. It is next to impossible to dispute arguments that employ Holocaust associations, even if they are sometimes used disingenuously. On the plus side, the overt use of the Holocaust memory has helped draw attention to the plight of many Israeli elderly who are unable to keep body and soul together. On the minus side, the Holocaust invocation has often been abused.
The challenge is to ensure that truly disadvantaged senior Israelis are looked after adequately, regardless of how they endured WWII, without strumming cynically on Jewish sensitivities and impugning heartlessness to Israeli society. Old-age privation is often quite unconnected to the Holocaust, and specious links to it can, if anything, be counterproductive.
Moneys ought to be assigned straightforwardly to those most urgently in need. The most pressing obligation is to deal with the distress of many thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants who are struggling without any independent income. Prominent among them, in any case, are the bulk of Holocaust survivors who were unable to rehabilitate themselves economically.