Analyze This: The right way of doing right by Holocaust survivors

The issue should not have been used for political gain.

Holocaust survive 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Holocaust survive 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
"There was about a dozen of us there in the Knesset today, and they didn't let one of us speak, or ask questions," says one of the Holocaust-restitution activists who were present Monday when the Knesset State Control Committee announced that an official state commission of inquiry will be established to examine the government's treatment of survivors. Perhaps to make up for his earlier, involuntary silence, the activist (who prefers to remain anonymous) has plenty to say now about the matter - and it makes for a disturbing listen. "There is so much populism on this issue; everybody is talking about it, but nobody is really doing what is needed to move it forward," he says in frustration. "The problem is simple incompetence on the part of the government. There are good intentions here, on the part of the prime minister, of the Knesset. "But in a way it's just like the war the summer before last - the right groundwork hasn't been prepared, so survivors are dying without having been properly compensated. No one wants to see this happen to the survivors, just like no one want our soldiers to die needlessly in Lebanon, but it is happening nonetheless." Last year the government, recognizing that many elderly survivors were living in especially needy circumstances, and that it was getting late in the day to assist them, decided to start paying monthly assistance to an estimated 8,000 who were not receiving aid from other sources. Yet four months after the decision was approved, not one payment has been sent out; only after a recent media outcry did the Prime Minister's Office hastily announce over the weekend that it would try to start paying them later this month. This delay was the trigger for the State Control Committee's decision to establish a commission of inquiry. But the activist insists that this step is besides the point. "How is examining what was done in the past by this, or other governments, going to help solve the present situation?" he asks. "The fact is, the agreement made last year was a good one. The problem that is holding up the implementation is simply that no one at this stage really knows exactly who are those needy Holocaust survivors who are not currently getting any other aid." According to the activist, when he himself started to look into the issue, "I was shocked to find that this country has never conducted a basic survey of Holocaust survivors, as has even been done in some European countries. The Claims Conference says it knows about this 8,000, but it is extremely strange that the government wouldn't have this basic information. Without performing such a survey, how can we even set the proper criteria for who should get the initial payments?" Part of the problem, says the activist, beyond bureaucratic negligence, is the emotion that is driving this sensitive issue, including on the media's part. "Too much is being made of the claim that 40 survivors are dying every day in poverty, or that 4,000 have died without getting the aid since the agreement was signed. The 40-a-day figure was arrived at by the fact that survivors constitute 15 percent of the population - but who really knows how many of them qualify as needy? And how would a new set of teeth, or pair of glasses, have helped those who died in the past few months?" he says. Though it might sound odd coming from someone who has dedicated most of his recent life to seeing that survivors get their due, the activist insists that the only way to help genuinely needy survivors is a clear-headed, practical approach, rather than dealing in rhetoric and recriminations. "The decision to establish a commission of inquiry is based more on frustration, than on addressing the problem. There were Knesset members at the announcement today that I have almost never seen address this issue before. "The Knesset would do better just to keep on the government and to make sure it is implementing the current agreement, especially by properly determining who should really receive these payments," says the activist. The last thing the Olmert government needs now is another official inquiry into its workings, or the lack thereof. The prime minister acknowledged his concern Monday that the establishment of the commission had a political edge, when he told his Kadima faction that he hoped its task would be to examine "how past governments have dealt with this matter, and not just this one." Insuring that justice is done for Holocaust survivors is certainly not an issue that should be exploited for partisan advantage by any side. Nor should it be shunted aside once politicians decide they have little to personally gain by addressing the issue, as time runs out for the survivors. [email protected]