Coming home is hardest hurdle for Hagana veteran

Dahan, who was a POW in Jordan for 9 months, now faces rising medical bills that insurance won't cover.

hagana veteran 298.88 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
hagana veteran 298.88
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
Joseph Menahem Dahan gazes out the window of his eighth floor downtown Jerusalem apartment. Suffering from multiple sclerosis for the past 30 years, it is difficult for him to join the hustle and bustle below, so he prefers to just watch. "I was born here and I want to die here," says the gray-haired Dahan, 78, who has spent the last 20 years living in Melbourne, Australia and finally returned "home" four months ago. "For me, every stone is important; I fought for this city in 1948 and I always wanted to return," he says as he begins to recount his youth in the Hagana, the nine months he spent in a Jordanian prisoner-of-war camp and his 20 years of service in the Prime Minister's Office before getting sick with MS. Proudly he points to a black and white photo of him fighting in the Old City and shows off a recently-received, government-issued certificate thanking him for his work in the PMO. The certificate, however, is the only recognition Dahan has received for his services since returning to Israel. Rather, he is being penalized for ever having left because of a long-running health insurance law that says citizens who leave for more than two years and then return to live here are not entitled to start receiving health benefits immediately. "He should be rewarded for what he has done for this country, not punished," says Dahan's wife Sandra, herself a new immigrant. "The shaliach (emissary) in Australia did not mention anything to us about this law. She told us we could sort it out when we got here." It was only upon arrival that the Dahans realized Joseph would have to pay for his constant medication and regular doctors' visits. Sandra estimates the couple spends roughly NIS 900 a week on health costs, not to mention ambulances and a recent trip to the emergency room in which they were slapped with a NIS 30,000 bill. "I can't understand it. This man is a hero, he draws a pension from the Prime Minister's Office, yet he can't get health care," says Sandra. "As a new immigrant, I am fine - I get health coverage for free - but he nearly lost his life for this country, paid his health insurance until he was 65 and now he gets nothing for eight months. It's not right." The Dahans have even had to turn to their former community in Melbourne to help pay for the growing medical bills. To date, the Adass synagogue has helped to raise close to $5,000 for the Dahans. "This is a well-known issue," said Tamar Abramovitz, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. "We have managed to get the law changed from what it was. Now every returning Israeli pays only a NIS 10,000 health debt instead of NIS 54,000. We also managed to shorten the waiting period before the rights kick in." She adds that the ministry had been working hard to let all returning citizens know that they could start paying the NIS 10,000 before they return, which helps cuts down the waiting period. While the law seemed unfair, it was in place to prevent Israelis who live abroad from returning to Israel just to receive free medical treatment here, she explained. At the National Insurance Institute, a spokeswoman showed no surprise or remorse for the law that has left the Dahans struggling. "I am sorry," said the spokeswoman, "but that is the law." "We are just going to have to wait it out," sighs Sandra. "It is really unfair and should be decided on a case-by-case basis. A person in his condition should not have to suffer like this." Even though the official ministries have been not been forthcoming, the Dahans say the city's social workers and charitable organizations, such as Yad Sarah, have offered them assistance. Jerusalem city social worker Nicky Creger has helped to make sure the Dahans are aware of their rights. She offered them support, advice and linked them up with the Joint Distribution Committee and Eshel's Supportive Community Program, which offers services such as a free ambulance and a panic button. "The law is there in black and white," she said. "It is just a shame the emissary in Australia did not mention it to them before they came." Despite all the difficulties she has encountered over the past six months, Sandra remains pragmatic. "People say that he is lucky to have me, but I feel lucky to have him. He is a beautiful, spiritual person," she says. "Since we've been back he has been in a good place within himself." Dahan, who was the subject of A Will To Survive, a book about the War of Independence, finishes by saying, "I love my country, it is like my mother. My cemetery plot is already paid for, so whatever happens I can die here in peace."