Hundreds of Diaspora Jews who have volunteered to serve in the Israeli army and were recently discharged have stopped receiving their basic veteran stipends. The reason, as many discovered following lengthy inquiries: With no functioning government in Israel, the Defense Ministry is not authorized to transfer the money to them.
This loss of a key form of financial support for many of these so-called lone soldiers comes just as the army has unveiled a grand plan to increase assistance to them. As reported in Haaretz last week, the IDF intends to inaugurate a new support center for lone soldiers at the end of February at its Tel Hashomer base outside Tel Aviv.
This new center is meant to tend to all the needs of lone soldiers before, during and immediately after their service. The move comes after a Haaretz investigation revealed serious failings in the lone soldier program. It reflects the army’s seeming resolve to take full responsibility for the plight of these recruits rather than outsource their care to private organizations that rely primarily on donors.
Lone soldiers are eligible for a monthly government stipend of up to 1,000 shekels ($290) for one year following their discharge from the army. The money is meant to help finance the cost of apartment rentals and is paid out in two installments of 6,000 shekels each. The discharged lone soldiers are required to produce copies of their rental contracts in order to qualify for the payment. Unlike most other Israeli army veterans, the lone soldiers do not have parents living in Israel and, therefore, often do not have a choice but to rent an apartment after their discharge.
“We have heard reports from dozens of soldiers who haven’t received this stipend and are consequently facing serious hardships,” said Tzvika Graiver, the co-founder and chairman of Keep Olim, an organization that advocates on behalf of immigrants to Israel. “We know of cases of former lone soldiers who can’t afford to pay their rent now, others who were forced to take second jobs and one who had to cancel a visit to his family in the U.S. because he couldn’t afford it.”
The payments are transferred automatically to the bank accounts of the discharged lone soldiers. But since April, when the first election of this year was held, many started noticing that the payments weren’t coming through.
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Both the election in April and the election in September ended in stalemates, with neither one of the two major parties – Likud or Kachol Lavan – able to form a government. According to Graiver, many of the former lone soldiers who tried to find out why the money hadn’t been transferred were initially told it was because some paperwork was missing.
“At the beginning, they didn’t want to say that it was because there’s no budget for this anymore,” said Graiver. “Only in recent weeks have the lone soldiers been told that because there’s no government, there’s no money.”
Ari Cohen, a former lone soldier from New York, said he has been waiting for his stipend since August and after numerous inquiries was finally told last week that the money wouldn’t be transferred.
“Not receiving the money has made things very difficult,” said Cohen who served in the intelligence division of the army and was discharged in November 2018. “There were a few months where I had to choose whether or not I wanted to eat or pay my bills because I couldn’t afford to do both.”
The former lone soldier supports himself by working as a private English teacher and musician. “Because I do not get a steady paycheck, my bank account came dangerously close to being in severe minuses multiple times because of this enormous bureaucratic blunder,” he said.
Shoshana Guterman, also originally from New York, said that when she first inquired why the money hadn’t been transferred into her account, she was told to “be patient.”
“Only recently did they let me know that it was because there was no government and, therefore, no budget,” she said. Guterman, who served as a guide in the IDF history museum during her service, was also discharged in November 2018 and is now a student at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
“This money is very important to me,” she said. “Last month, I went into overdraft because I hadn’t received it.”
Asked for comment, the Defense Ministry issued the following response: “We do our utmost to help and facilitate in the transition of lone soldiers to civilian life. We were in touch with the Knesset Finance Committee this week to get a special budget approved for these lone soldiers, and the rent stipends will be transferred to them at the earliest possible date.”