Knesset panel considers gov't pensions for needy refuseniks

Knesset panel considers

The Knesset Absorption Committee on Tuesday called on the government to establish a professional committee to examine the welfare needs of some 33,000 aging Soviet-era refuseniks. The refuseniks are former Jewish activists who during the 1960s, '70s and '80s defied the restrictions on Jewish activism in areas under Soviet rule and demanded the right to leave the Soviet Union and move to Israel. While there is no data available on the economic condition of the refuseniks living in Israel today, many are believed to be living in poverty. "We're mainly concerned about their pensions," explained Likud MK Ze'ev Elkin. "Those who were involved in Zionist activities [in the Soviet Union] usually lost their work because of it. When they arrived in Israel as adults who hadn't worked in their professions for many years, they often had trouble finding work here. So we know that this is a group that because of its Zionist activism has not had a chance to earn a pension for their old age," Elkin said. Several MKs who had immigrated from former Soviet Union (FSU) countries, including Elkin, Kadima MK Marina Solodkin and coalition chairwoman MK Lia Shemtov of Israel Beitenu, spoke of the debt owed by the Jewish world and Israel to the refuseniks. "This is a group of activists that lost their jobs because they tried to tell Russian and Soviet Jews to have pride in themselves and that they have a homeland of their own," said Solodkin. The committee issued a statement on Tuesday calling on the government to establish within two months a professional inter-ministerial committee that would "locate and map out the refusenik population" and would "initiate legislation that will enable this population to live in dignity in their old age." Elkin, who serves as coalition chairman for the current government, promised to advance a bill together with Shemtov and other committee members "that would recognize the years of anti-Soviet activism for the purposes of some kind of state pension." According to Nativ, the government aliya agency that once served as the Israeli intelligence arm that kept in touch with the activists behind the Iron Curtain, there are currently some 33,500 refuseniks living in Israel. "We're talking about a relatively small group of people that can be mapped out using Nativ data," said Elkin. "These are people who sacrificed their career, endangered their freedom and sometimes their lives, in order to struggle for their right, and the right of others, to make aliya. Partly because of their activism, we succeeded in mobilizing the west and bringing down that regime," he added.