When the government fails survivors
Eliezer is a Holocaust survivor. Together with his parents and two siblings, he fled Nazi-occupied Poland to Russia, where it was believed they would be able to find safety and freedom. Instead, they spent the rest of the war in a Siberian camp, bitterly struggling just to survive.
After arriving in Israel, “nobody would call me a ‘dirty Jew’” again, Eliezer said in a 2018 interview, his voice choked with emotion. “I live in Israel as a Jew with overflowing pride.” And yet, like many other survivors in Israel, sometimes it is a struggle for Eliezer to feel that pride and sense of fundamental dignity in his day to day life.
For many, this is simply a function of age. According to data collected in 2010, two out of every three survivors are over the age of 80 (pg. i). And as many know intimately, retirement is very, very expensive — especially for survivors, most of whom came to Israel with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Even a lifetime of working often isn’t enough to build the kind of savings necessary for a dignified and comfortable retirement.
As a result, it is estimated that of the 215,000 recognized survivors living in Israel today, 45,000 live below the poverty line. For these low- or no-income elderly survivors, the greatest threat is often the loss of independence. By 2025, the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute believes that 25 percent of survivors in Israel will be largely or entirely dependent on the care of others (pg. ii).
Some survivors, as they lose some aspects of their independence, are able to turn to the social networks they have built up over their lives for support in their times of need. This has its own attendant costs, though. Researchers have noted that when survivors’ social connections are so instrumentalized, they can cease to provide the kinds of emotional nourishment that are so important for dignified human living (pg. iv).
The instrumentalization of the social connections of the elderly is not a problem that is necessarily specific to survivors. Anytime a person suddenly has to begin relying more on the support of others in their social network for the fulfillment of their basic needs, this phenomenon can appear to one degree or another. However, it can be particularly accentuated in the case of survivors and their social relations because of how difficult it can be for them to receive the assistance they are due, by right, from the state.
For example, when the children of survivors have already dutifully taken their parents three or four times to the National Insurance office to help them sort out their benefits, it may be harder to feel that inclination to also pay their parents just a social visit on the weekend. But it is precisely those social visits that would help alleviate the feelings of loneliness that about 40 percent of survivors report (pg. iii).
On the topic of National Insurance, it is worth pausing a moment to honor the many ways in which survivors have exemplified the meaning of citizenship in Israeli society. Professor Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University estimates that every third combat soldier in the Independence War was likely a survivor (pg. 82). The legal aid department of the Ministry of Justice, speaking with a kind of simple majesty, credits survivors with having “played an important part in the revival of the State.”
And yet, circling back, it is common for survivors who are due government allowances and benefits by statute to never claim them. This underutilization, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies states, is due to the many hardships most survivors can expect to face when trying to claim their just benefits. Even professional social workers have testified to researchers that they regularly experience difficulties applying for necessary services for survivors — services such as dental care, hearing aids, and eyeglasses (pg. iv).
Even in the wake of the enactment of Deputy Health Minister Litzman’s dental care reform package, underutilization is likely to continue. Although these welcome reforms do make dental care services more financially accessible for the elderly — all the elderly, not just survivors — the problem is often physical accessibility. With oftentimes only limited independent mobility and already stressed social networks, it can be difficult for the elderly, survivors included, to reach what would-be their dental care provider. This is not so easily addressed by government intervention.
What in the end fills this gap between what survivors have and what they receive from the state and what is actually necessary for them to maintain a dignified existence are Israel’s many humanitarian organizations. Each does what it can given the resources it has. Latet’s Aid for Life program, for example, has helped 1,761 survivors sustain a life of dignity since the it began in 2007. Particularly important to this work is the emergency fund, which allows survivors to directly access services they otherwise would not have access to — such as dental care and home repairs — gratis. This summer in particular, the organization is raising funds to provide medical care to hundreds of Holocaust survivors by calling to the large public to contribute to their ancestors’ welfare.
Starkly put, even as the community of survivors in Israel is tragically shrinking — with some estimates saying that 35 survivors in Israel pass away each day — the needs of those still with us are actually growing (pg. i). Perhaps for a generation that never came by anything easily, it should not have been surprise that even serenity in their sunset years would have to be hard-fought for. But surprising or not, the question is now put to us. Will we step forward to lighten their load? — all of us together and each of us alone.