Metro Views: Did the state rob Holocaust survivors?

In the 1950s the idea of individual reparation was seen as blood money.

Holocaust survivor 224 (photo credit: AP)
Holocaust survivor 224
(photo credit: AP)
It is another season of finger-pointing about the failure to care for Nazi victims. In the last year, there was Isaac Herzog's plan for the Social Welfare Ministry to redress the mistakes of the Finance Ministry; the Lindenstrauss report; Knesset members' complaints about the Claims Conference; and now the Dorner Commission. Does any of this serve any useful purpose? Yes, the State of Israel deserves a lot of criticism, but by now it must be immune to it. Certainly this is not the government's most pressing, or embarrassing, issue. For those who cry about survivors' needs, it is worth recalling that grievances about survivors' care are not new, and little ever changed. Interest in survivors seems episodic and ephemeral. Survivors as a group were poorly served before and they remain poorly served, in part because no one persisted in holding the government accountable. Under the terms of the German-Israeli compensation agreements (Shilumim), the survivors who arrived in Israel before 1953 were not eligible for direct compensation from Germany, but were to get financial aid from the government. Survivors went to the High Court in 1995, claiming bias because they received less, paid by the Israeli government, than did many survivors who settled elsewhere. "The state has robbed Holocaust survivors," Dov Shilansky, a Holocaust survivor and former speaker of the Knesset, said in 1995. Did it, indeed? It may seem so in hindsight, but the idea of individual compensation was anathema to many in the 1950s; it was seen as blood money. Israel's claim against Germany was a deliberately cold mathematical calculation based on the costs of resettling refugees. It was the only way to stomach a deal with Germany - an important one that built the port, phone and power systems. The idea was that if the destitute state of 1953 could build its infrastructure, everyone would benefit. NONETHELESS, 40 years later, led by Avraham Hirschson, then a Likud MK and now the discredited former finance minister, many survivors went to court believing the state should provide parity in compensation payments. This all seems vulgar - arguing over who got more compensation for persecution and suffering. Yes, there should be parity, but inequities are the Faustian bargain of all reparations. Just as Nazi Germany determined which Jews would be targets of extermination, West Germany drove tragically hard bargains negotiating over which Nazi victims would be eligible for what compensation. Although Germany has paid impressive amounts in 55 years, individual payments have been parceled out in such a way that there are privileged, underprivileged and neglected groups of victims. All three groups are in Israel. To which group a survivor belongs depends on where he or she lived before the Nazi era, what persecution he endured and when the survivor immigrated. Did the Israelis, financially, fare badly? Compared to Holocaust survivors who remained in Central and Eastern Europe, the Israelis were fortunate. Those in Central and Eastern Europe, the double victims of Nazism and communism, were denied German compensation until 1998. Israeli survivors, however, do not want to be compared to those in Budapest and Minsk, but to those in Brooklyn and Miami. And by those standards, survivors in Israel have not benefited as much. It seems that the state that ennobles Yad Vashem demeans or ignores its survivors at every opportunity. This is, after all, the government that last year thought it could "correct" a decades-old injustice by giving survivors a monthly grant of NIS 83. In 1993, when the Claims Conference began to recover unclaimed and heirless Jewish properties in the former East Germany, Israel wanted the money - but not for survivors. "The Israeli government feels that this property, and compensation received for it, should be used mainly for financing the absorption of newly arrived Jews and other important social goals," then Finance Minister Avraham Shohat told the Conference in 1993. Instead, the Conference used the funds for medical care, sheltered housing and other services for Nazi victims in Israel, a number of whom had been warehoused in unspeakably primitive psychiatric facilities. None of this undignified treatment is a secret. The High Court knows, the Knesset knows, the Treasury knows. Survivors' organizations in Israel, those who know best, have been fairly mute in asserting their rights. Who can blame them? Despite the stunning role of survivors - such as Shevach Weiss, Moshe Sanbar, Moshe Bejski, Aharon Barak, Tommy Lapid, Yisrael Meir Lau - in Israeli political, judicial, economic and religious life, survivors knew society and the government were ill at ease with them. How else can one explain why it took until this year for Yad Vashem to mount an exhibition on the contribution of survivors to the State of Israel? WE CAN KEEP REPEATING that Israel has failed Nazi victims until the last survivor draws his last breath, or we can thank Justice Dalia Dorner for taking on this very repetitive task of chronicling failures, and then do something radical: Leave the finger-pointing to the historians. Forget survivors. I mean them no disrespect, but let's acknowledge that most people have already forgotten them, except as pawns at the tips of the finger-pointing. It is more than 60 years after the Holocaust. The drumbeat of reminders that survivors have been betrayed, cheated and disregarded is simply cruel. It does not produce meaningful tangible aid and rachmanut for survivors. Quite the opposite; it reveals that people and parties often try to score political points by traumatizing and angering the victims anew. We need to inject some dignity, and dignity cannot be reserved for Nazi victims alone. The focus on Holocaust survivors excludes the refugees from Arab countries, who have always lacked an advocate and an address for compassion and compensation for their persecution and losses. And it excludes the Israeli-born who endured the back-breaking austerity years, also fought the wars, and never had any material aid akin to the German money, however paltry those amounts may seem. It is time to refocus from the needs of the survivors to the needs of the vulnerable elderly population, of which the survivors are a substantial - but not the only - part. This is the urgent choice MKs and ministers have to make: Do you want to care for Israel's aged or argue over who had failed whom? If you choose the latter, let's fervently hope that you each enter your twilight years in the best of health and with pockets deep enough to buy all that the government has knowingly declined to provide. Otherwise, birthday wishes of "till 120" may seem as much a curse as a blessing.