Aid to Survivors / The 83rd Blow

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a dramatic decision of historic importance yesterday, a decision that embodies Jewish generosity and moral greatness: Some 120,000 elderly Holocaust survivors will receive a monthly grant of NIS 83 per person starting next year, on top of what they receive from the National Insurance Institute. Eighty-three shekels a month.

In honor of this decision, the Prime Minister's Office published a festive announcement that succeeded in doing the almost impossible: bringing Olmert's cynicism to new heights. "We are hereby correcting a 60-year-old injustice that has never, to date, been solved," Olmert declared. "Holocaust survivors living in Israel are entitled to live lives of dignity, and not to reach a situation in which they cannot even enjoy a hot meal. I know that for years, nothing was done to deal with this situation, but the neglect that characterized so many governments will no longer continue. After 60 years of neglect, it is important to ensure that Holocaust survivors receive these additions to their allowances so that they can live here with dignity."

It would be interesting to know when Olmert last ate a hot meal that cost NIS 83. This "unprecedented decision," as the announcement terms it - twice - is formulated in round numbers: NIS 120 million in 2008, NIS 240 million in 2009 and ultimately over NIS 300 million in 2011, or another four and a half years. Thus any Holocaust survivors still living then will receive a monthly grant of NIS 520 "per couple," as the announcement says. That looks better than NIS 260 per person.

Mickey Goldman, who later became the Israeli police officer Michael Gilad, is a Holocaust survivor. One day, the commander of the concentration camp where he was imprisoned hit him with a whip - 80 times. The young Mickey Goldman barely survived. When he came to Israel and told this story, people did not believe him: They thought he was exaggerating. That was "the 81st blow," which has become a common term for describing the trauma that awaited Holocaust survivors in their new home. The government's decision yesterday could be termed the 83rd blow.

In his announcement, Olmert said the decision was his, but he was not alone in the room. There with him to share the shame were Finance Minister Roni Bar-On, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, Pensioners Minister Rafi Eitan, Health Minister Yacov Ben Yizri, numerous officials and aides, and also Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog. According to the announcement, the decision was "based" on the recommendations of a committee appointed by Herzog and chaired by his ministry's director general, Nachum Itzkowitz.

The truth is that the Itzkowitz Committee recommended giving each survivor a little over NIS 1,000 per month. But in a conversation with Haaretz yesterday, Herzog warmly defended Olmert's decision. "This was a brave decision," the loyal minister said, and vehemently denied the implication of the statement issued by Olmert's office: The grant will not be NIS 83, but "a reasonable sum, based on a reasonable model." How much? The minister declined to say: "A very suitable package," he stated. He added that it is still impossible to know how much, because this is still under discussion. In any case, he will not decide alone: "There are professionals, there are officials."

Among other issues, the Itzkowitz Committee addressed the difficulty of defining who is a Holocaust survivor, which survivors need special assistance and what the most effective way of helping them is. There was no argument that some survivors live in terrible conditions. They can be seen on television at least once a year, in advance of Holocaust Remembrance Day: This one can only eat porridge, because he has no false teeth, that one cannot read because he has no glasses. Together, they are Israeli society's yellow star.

The Knesset recently enacted several laws aimed at improving the situation of various groups of survivors. In addition, Olmert's statement says that on top of the special grant, the government will allocate an extra NIS 10 million to a special welfare fund for Holocaust survivors, in order to finance various types of medical treatment. An additional "hundreds of millions of shekels" will come from "nongovernmental sources." Herzog listed several such sources, including "the Jewish people" - and "Germany."