Meir Cohen.
Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen. Removing children from their home should be a last resort. Photo by Moti Milrod
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Living separately is one of the hallmarks of Israeli society. Jews and Arabs are not to meet; the rich are not to mix with the poor; there is a wall between the center of the country and the outlying regions. Encounters between different kinds of people hardly ever take place. People stay with others like themselves, and unity in the ranks is not to be spoiled. The seclusion of people who are mentally disabled is one of the most severe types of separation: Thousands live in closed institutions, far from the public eye.

About three years ago, then Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog convened an international panel of experts to recommend a policy for residential arrangements of people with developmental disabilities. It emerged that the number of such people living in institutions in Israel is three to four times greater than in the United States or Western Europe. According to the Social Affairs Ministry, most wards of the state live outside their homes - some 5,800 people with mental disabilities live in institutions with more than 60 residents. In contrast, only 8 percent - less than 800 - live in small apartments with up to six residents. It is only natural that support for the individual is greater in the smaller frameworks. The basic right of all human beings to live in such a way has been taken away from thousands of people with mental disability. Shutting them away in closed institutions also makes it more difficult to increase tolerance for the group.

The panel of experts submitted its recommendations in October 2011. The main recommendation was that, within 10 years, all residential institutions in which more than four to six mentally disabled individuals live should be shut down. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities - to which Israel is a signatory - as well as cumulative experience worldwide in recent decades, has led to the position, in principle, that all people with developmental disabilities can live in the community as long as there are appropriate services. Everyone has this right, including people with "challenging behavior."

The transition from a model based on large institutions - quite often located far from the center of the country, in areas that are socially or economically weak - to a model based on small apartments, in residential neighborhoods, is not obvious. But the panel's recommendations call on Israel to "join the rest of the Western countries and change its policy."

The Social Affairs Ministry has not yet officially adopted the report or fully applied its recommendations. Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen has said that, in principle, he supports integrating people with developmental disabilities into the community. Now he must take the practical steps to implement this necessary change.