Knesset to debate Holocaust survivors funding

The Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs on Monday will hear the second and third readings of a bill granting additional reparations to Holocaust survivors in Israel, and MK Yuri Shtern (Israel Beitenu), who submitted the bill more than a year ago, told The Jerusalem Post Sunday that despite lack of support from the Finance Ministry, he is determined to bring the potential law to a Knesset vote as early as Tuesday. The bill - which passed its initial reading last December with the support of 66 MKs - calls for victims of the Nazis who rely solely on Israeli government assistance for their financial support to be allocated extra benefits, including an additional 10 percent in rental assistance from the Housing Ministry, up to a 75% discount on medicine and free public housing if they need a place to live. "It is the responsibility of the State of Israel to provide support for these people, especially in the final years of their lives," said a spokeswoman for Shtern. "Our goal is to get this through its last two readings and into the Knesset for a vote by Tuesday." In preparation for the bill, Shtern commissioned a survey by the JDC-Brookdale Institute into the living conditions of the country's Holocaust survivors. The findings suggested that just over 2000 people, most of them over the age of 85, would benefit from the bill's demands for additional benefits. A 2005 study by the Fund for the Welfare of Holocaust Survivors in Israel found that more than 40% of Israel's estimated 260,000 survivors live below the poverty line. "One third of Israel's Holocaust survivors live below the poverty line," commented retired Maj.-Gen. Uzi Dayan, chairman of the Sderot Conference for Social Affairs and activist for the rights of Holocaust survivors in Israel. Dayan said that he had met in recent weeks with representatives from the Finance Ministry to persuade them to increase the 2007 budget allocation for the survivors, however the budget passed its initial reading last week with no financial modifications. "These people suffered for being Jews; they came to the State of Israel and are suffering again," said Dayan, adding that several organization's active with Holocaust survivors planned to demonstrate outside the Knesset on Wednesday. According to Dayan, the current allocation for survivors is NIS 20 million from the Finance Ministry and $35m. from the Claims Conference (the conference on material claims against Germany), with some extra funds coming from German reparations and other international organizations. However, some Holocaust survivors who arrived in Israel over the past 15 years from the former Soviet Union receive less compensation. Dayan called on the ministry to raise its contribution to NIS 50m. a year for the next five years and the Claims Conference to increase its share to $85m. "We are only asking for the minimum to make their lives bearable," he continued. "This is another sign that the country's leaders are not dealing with their basic responsibilities." Holocaust psychologist Nathan Durst of Amcha, which provides a variety of services to survivors, said Monday he was doubtful Shtern's bill would "have much success." However, he said, he saw the attempt as a positive one following so many years when granting rights and benefits to Holocaust survivors had not been addressed in a public forum. "The topic is finally being brought up, though it might be a little too late," commented Durst. "The question is whether the Israeli government will take responsibility as it should." Durst said he believed, however, that the government would point to the financial contributions it is already making to survivors and that debate would raise the question: Who is a survivor? "There are many different ways to look at who is a Holocaust survivor," he explained. "Is it only those who suffered directly under the Nazi regime or is it everybody who managed to flee or hide from the Nazi regime but whose lives were completely changed?" "It is impossible to make such a distinction," continued Durst, whose organization runs support groups and services in more than 15 locations countrywide. What is clear, he added, is that many survivors lack the basics to live a dignified life in Israel. MK Colette Avital (Labor) plans to address the financial contribution of the Claims Conference to Israel's Holocaust survivors in a meeting of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs on Monday, January 8.