Israel Promises Holocaust Survivors Unprecedented Amount of Aid, but Forgets to Put Up the Money

Ministry promised 'unlimited' aid, but local welfare agencies were not told about the plan; the budget, when it was finally allocated, was just $1.4 million

Nir Kafri

Israel's Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry launched an advertising campaign last week that seemed to promise to Holocaust survivors as much aid as they needed. But because it failed to allocate funds to city welfare departments, or even inform them of the program, dozens of individuals who applied for assistance in the wake of the campaign were sent away empty-handed.

The campaign, which included radio and newspaper advertisements, began early last week. It made survivors an unprecedented promise — aid with no cap and no eligibility tests.

But the local social services offices that implement such programs were not given funding for the plan, and weren’t even informed of its components, aside from one very general statement issued two days before the campaign launched.

Thus over the past week and a half, dozens of Holocaust survivors who saw or heard the ads and called either the ministry’s hotline or their local welfare departments did not receive a cent, because the people who answered the phones had never heard of the new program and in any case had no funds to implement it.

After receiving numerous complaints from city welfare departments, Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry director general Avigdor Kaplan suspended the new program and the ministry apologized to the municipal departments.

It was not until a few days ago, over a week after the campaign was launched and in the wake of a public uproar, did the ministry finally transfer to local government 5 million shekels ($1.4 million) for the program.

But in a letter to the departments, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, senior ministry officials stressed that contrary to what the ads promised, the aid will not be unlimited and won’t be given for any purpose. Rather, it will be given for only a few defined purposes; the grants will be capped; and the usual eligibility tests will apply. Given the program’s limited budget, the letter said, “it’s clear that all applicants for aid won’t be able to receive it.”

The letter stipulated that aid can be given for only three purposes: dental care, capped at 5,000 shekels; hearing aids, capped at 2,000 shekels; and glasses or other vision aids, capped at 2,000 shekels.

The ministry’s original press statement about the program had promised that the aid could be used for a large variety of goods and services, including air conditioners, refrigerators, stoves, furniture and even municipal tax or utility bills, as well as “any other essential payment they can’t afford, with no eligibility tests and no limitations.” It also said the ministry had budgeted 7 million shekels for the program and quoted Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Haim Katz as urging survivors to apply, because “we won’t accept a situation in which survivors must choose between food and buying medicine or dental care.”

“It was terrible,” one social worker from central Israel said. “More and more survivors called, and we had no way to help them. The campaign’s goal was good, but you can’t do this without preparation and a budget. Moreover, you can’t not allocate funds while also promising survivors unlimited aid without eligibility tests. It created an insane mess.”

Usually, social workers grant aid only after examining the applicant’s financial circumstances, and only in limited amounts for clearly defined purposes.

This isn’t the first time the ministry has launched a completely unfunded campaign to benefit survivors. In March 2016, Katz ordered that all survivors be included in a program that provides the elderly with a panic button, nighttime medical services, minor home repairs and more for a nominal fee of 25 shekels. But no budget was allocated for additional staff to deal with the flood of new program members. Thus in an unusual move, the social workers’ union ordered social workers nationwide last December to stop accepting survivors into the program, because “despite its good intentions, the minister’s order will hurt the elderly rather than help them.”

The ministry told Haaretz on Tuesday that it had allocated 7 million shekels this year to help survivors fill special needs “such as heating and home protection, essential furniture, hearing aids, vision aids and others,” more than double last year’s budget of 3 million shekels. “This information was sent to all municipal welfare departments and also brought to the public’s attention through an advertising campaign,” it added.

Tzafra Dweck, chairwoman of the social workers’ union, said, “Aid to Holocaust survivors who don’t need welfare shouldn’t be given through the welfare services, especially when we’re talking about monetary grants without discretion. Opening a welfare case file means artificially creating eligibility for [welfare] services and an obligation on the social worker to provide care, without adding more positions for social workers, which means they won’t even have the capacity to perform an initial visit. I don’t understand why these grants aren’t being implemented through the National Insurance Institute.”