Holocaust survivors, weeping amid a sea of thousands of protesters, marched to the Prime Minister's Office on Sunday, prompting lawmakers to hold an emergency meeting to try and meet the survivors' demands. Officials from the Welfare and Social Services and Finance ministries and MKs now intend to draft a new plan by Wednesday to help the survivors, who are demanding that the government implement the recommendations of an interministerial committee it established and grant them an additional stipend of NIS 1,000 per month instead of the NIS 83 that is currently budgeted for 2008. More than 2,000 people marched from the Knesset's Wohl Rose Garden to the nearby Prime Minister's Office to demand better conditions for Holocaust survivors. More than 240,000 survivors live in Israel and many lack money for medicines, psychological treatment and, in some cases, food.
'Why should we live in shame?'
Sneh's blog: Seeking justice for the survivors
"I am here today a broken man. They have broken me," said Nachum Hagrodovitch, one of several dozen Holocaust survivors who attended the protest. Hagrodovitch was sent to a work camp when the Nazis caught him stealing food for his family.
"When I survived I came to Israel. I did not think I would have to go through the shame of begging and stealing for food again. But now the government has put me in this place of shame," he said.
Hagrodovitch, who said he had to borrow money to make the trip from his apartment in Haifa to Jerusalem, broke down crying as he recounted his impoverished circumstances to a number of lawmakers who gathered around him.
"I want to die with dignity. I wore this yellow star today not because of the media or to get attention. I never thought that I would wear a yellow star again. I wore this star to remind the government that I still carry the Holocaust with me," said Hagrodovitch.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert commented on the use of yellow stars during the regular weekly cabinet meeting earlier Sunday.
"Those who send to the newspapers a picture of a woman in pajamas wearing a yellow star drag the discussion down to an unacceptable level, and these pictures will not dictate the government's action on the issue," said Olmert.
Although few survivors wore the stars, the images were enough to force the government to reconsider the issue.
Representatives from Ken L'Zaken, The Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, joined other Holocaust survivor groups to argue for larger stipends.
Each group has a different plan that they hope the government will adopt, lending further confusion over what course of action officials should take. The government needs to proceed carefully and with patience to avoid alienating any of the groups, said President Shimon Peres, one of several national leaders to weigh in on the issue.
Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog of Labor and Pensioners Minister Rafi Eitan of Gil also promised that the government would find a "better solution" and asked that the survivors be patient.
Prior to the march, Eitan proposed a solution to the dispute that would divide the survivors into two groups. One, made up of those who survived the Holocaust, would receive monthly stipends ranging from NIS 1,000 to NIS 6,000 per month, while the second group, composed of refugees who fled the Nazis, would receive stipends of NIS 300 to NIS 750.
The proposals seek to quell the growing tension between Holocaust survivors and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who usually receive a lower pension if any. The survivors have claimed that the inclusion of FSU immigrants in the government's plan led to the budget being stretched past its original intention.
MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz), who attended the protest, said she was sponsoring legislation drafted by Ken L'Zaken that would force the government to grant more funds to the survivors and create a stricter definition of who qualified as a survivor. She promised to enlist the support of the entire Knesset, beginning with MKs who attended Sunday's protest, including Colette Avital (Labor), Reuven Rivlin (Likud), Zevulun Orlev (National Union-National Religious Party), David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), Gal-On and Ran Cohen (Meretz).
Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu said the government already had the tools to release more funds to the survivors in the form of the budget he created while finance minister.
"The state's economic situation allows us to assist those who need help," said Netanyahu. "Many of the elderly Holocaust survivors deserve that the state allow them to lead dignified lives."
The call for a "dignified life" was heard often during the protest from the survivors and their families.
"My mother was so ashamed that she could not come today, so I came for her," said Shoshi Foltin. "She receives NIS 1,200 [per month] from the National Insurance Institute and that is her entire income. She hates having to rely on her children, but that is the situation that she has been forced into."
Foltin said her mother had looked forward to the cabinet's decision to grant her an additional stipend as a way for her to finally support herself.
"Coming to Israel meant that my mother would, for the first time, have a life with dignity. For as long as she could remember, she lived under the shame and humiliation of the Nazis," said Foltin. "Now she is in shame again, a shame created by a Jewish government."
Shmuel Reiner, who spoke at the end of the protest, said he was proud of the large number of youths and family members who attended.
"Every day that the solution to the problem is delayed, 35 people disappear, and thus the problem is 'solved.' This is not a solution, it is a disgrace," he said.