As the siren is heard across Israel on Holocaust Memorial Day, a nation comes to a standstill in an eloquent gesture of remembrance. Hearing the same sound – some standing, some unable to – are thousands of impoverished Holocaust victims, many of whom live lives stripped of dignity – in the Jewish homeland.
It’s a spectacle that painfully exposes the dissonance of a caring people who honour and sanctify those who perished while among them some 25 per cent of the survivor community in Israel suffer the sting of indifference.
Like a fever that breaks out on cue every year on Yom Hashoah, the impoverished survivor surfaces in the nation’s conscience. For a day or two, there is much hand-wringing by the nation’s leaders, and the media portray the situation in excruciating detail. For instance, the Jerusalem Post reported May 3 that “according to data provided by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust survivors, there are in Israel today 189,000 survivors, of whom about 45,000 are living under the poverty line. One-fifth [of those living under the poverty line] skip meals because they do not have enough money to buy food.”
Israelis shake their head in concern and embarrassment. And then everyone moves on.
Nothing better illustrates this point than when on Aug. 20, 2007, at a special session of the Knesset, the speaker at the time, Dalia Itzik, declared, “Israel demanded reparations from Germany, but did not allocate them in a just and logical manner to those who needed them. We are here to rectify the situation [of the plight of survivors] so that we may be able to look in the survivors’ eyes and tell them on behalf of Israeli society, we apologize.”
Another official apology was forthcoming nine years later, this time from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on May 4. Addressing the survivors, he again apologized and then offered an observation staggering in its import, “I came here today to ask each one of you for forgiveness. We did not understand, we did not want to understand, and we have not done enough.”
What was it that Israelis “did not want to understand?” What is it that unconsciously saps the nation’s will to deal with impoverished Nazi victims in a manner befitting their status?
It truly is a riddle. The lackadaisical attitude of successive governments was exposed yet again on May 3, when Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz revealed that about 400 million shekels ($135 million Cdn) that had been earmarked for Holocaust survivors by the State of Israel over the decades was never used and remained in the vault at the treasury. He plans to make sure this money reaches those who need it. And, we dare say, he apologized.
To reiterate, we are speaking of a caring nation. The humanitarian impulse did not come to Israel to die. Israel is recognized the world over as a first responder to natural disasters wherever they occur. Its hospitals are open to even avowed enemies. It treats wounded combatants from Syria and sets up field hospitals for refugees in Europe. Volunteer support groups proliferate. The list is long. All this, of course, is being done alongside the historic absorption of millions of immigrants and, in many cases, their rescue from areas of acute danger. Yet, when it comes to Holocaust victims living in poverty, where the same forthright action is needed, the nation fumbles and frets, fighting demons of inertia.
In Deuteronomy, we read that the poor will never cease to be in the Land. That’s not true, however, for this unique group of elderly impoverished Jews. They will soon cease to be, leaving us no one to apologize to.
Dov Harris, now retired, is the former director of financial resource development in regional communities for United Israel Appeal – Canada.