The meaning of Yom Hashoah

Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel says some 70,000 survivors live in poverty.

survivors march 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
survivors march 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, opens the chance to reflect on the systematic murder of six million European Jews, the modern paradigm of man's inhumanity to man. But this year in particular, and in Israel in particular, two lessons demand a special urgency. The first relates to Holocaust survivors living here. Yad Vashem has dedicated this year's Yom Hashoah to "Holocaust Survivors in Israel: 60 Years Since the Establishment of the State." The museum's recently opened exhibition focuses on the contributions of Holocaust survivors to building the state. So it is an especially apt moment to call attention to the shameful failure of Israel to fulfill its obligation to survivors here. More than 250,000 Holocaust survivors reside in Israel. According to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, which provides home nursing care and emergency grants, some 70,000 of them live in poverty. Survivors who arrived in Israel before 1953, the year Israel signed its reparations agreement with West Germany, receive a tiny monthly pension, typically NIS 1,040. Others receive reparations directly from Germany. But a survivor who lives in Germany, France, or Austria, for example, receives on average more financial aid than a survivor living in Israel. This despite the fact, as MK Colette Avital notes, that the Israeli government continues to get $200 million a year from Germany. Much of this money, however, never reaches its proper recipients. The government pledged to allocate $7.7 million in 2007 to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, for instance. But it seems that only $3.8 million was received. Last year, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss published a special report which concluded that mismanagement in the Finance Ministry caused the delay and cancellation of financial support for institutions that assist survivors, and the misdirection of funds designated for survivors. Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry on the Location and Restitution of Assets of Holocaust Victims in Israel, which presented its findings to the Knesset four years ago, found that the state had in effect appropriated money and property from thousands of European Jews. An overwhelming majority of the accounts of Holocaust victims in Israeli banks were transferred to the Administrator-General in the Ministry of Justice until the mid-1960s, where due to improper appraisal they were eroded and erased. Those claiming rights to accounts were turned away at the doors of Israeli banks. The results of that commission have been salutary. According to a report issued Tuesday, NIS 60 million ($17.3 million) has so far been transferred directly into Holocaust survivors' bank accounts. However, this represents only the beginnings of what must be done. Over the last month, yet another commission, led by retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner (who presided in 1987-1988 over the case of John Demjanjuk), has been meeting to address the scale of the problem. We can only hope that the Dorner Commission succeeds in dramatically eliminating the bureaucracy and insensitivity with which survivors continue to be greeted in this country. A SECOND, and much broader lesson also presents a keen challenge today. It is an irony of history that delegitimization of Israel and Jewish nationalism in the name of a progressive "universalism" now finds fertile ground in the very European soil that hosted the genocide of the Jews. Many Europeans took from the ravages of the twentieth century a lesson concerning the dangers of unbridled nationalism. Jews, however, who suffered not a little from that century, derived the opposite conclusion: had they possessed a state with which to defend themselves, had they not been thrown on the benevolence of other nations, the Holocaust would not have raged so destructively. Jews learned that universal human rights are meaningless unless rooted in a state capable of enforcing them; that a sense of national belonging can offer not only physical survival, but also cultural regeneration; that the national Jewish mission, far from denying the universal human mission, can do much to encourage it - and since the days of the biblical prophets in fact has. That is the meaning, for us, of Yom Hashoah.