It’s that time of year again. The time when we commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, honor the six million Jews who perished, pause as the sirens blare across the country, watch the official state ceremony with its torch-lighting and tributes and stories of triumph and tragedy, heroism and heartbreak, and listen to our leaders perfunctorily implore us to remember the historic calamity that befell the Jewish people to ensure that it never happens again.
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It’s the time of year when I recall my years at a New York Jewish high school. I was one of the few children of a Holocaust survivor in my grade, and I would sit and cry during the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, while most of my classmates would catch some shut-eye, fidget in their seats or sit stunned as we listened to survivors tell their stories, looked at stark images of piles of corpses and heard victims’ names read over the loudspeaker. Yet over the years, and particularly in the five years since I moved to Israel, that sadness has hardened into anger – blood-boiling, vein-popping anger.
Why? Because every year around Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli news outlets are awash with stories lamenting the daily hardships of Holocaust survivors who are being neglected by the government, studies about survivors living near or below the poverty line and reports about politicians’ efforts to increase funding for survivors’ benefits and care. This coverage invariably quotes Israeli leaders or officials from any one of the many agencies that assist Holocaust survivors, saying it is our duty to ensure that the remaining survivors live their final days and years “in dignity.” Yet every year, like clockwork, we hear about the indignities that survivors in Israel continue to endure.
Just last week, the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel published a report that includes some disheartening figures: 67 percent of survivors are dissatisfied with the way Israeli governments have handled their needs; 37 percent say their financial situation is not good and only 6 percent say they are well-off financially. One in every five survivors has skipped a meal at least once over the past year for financial reasons, and 5 percent say they have skipped meals often for that reason.
This is the same foundation that newly appointed Finance Minister Yair Lapid, in his first order of business, allotted NIS 50 million after it announced it would have to cut services to survivors because of a budget shortfall. Lapid could have taken the opportunity to ask his famous question: Where’s the money? Well, a quick check shows that Israel’s budget for assisting Holocaust survivors stands at about NIS 3 billion annually. The Claims Conference, which negotiates with Germany for reparations, has allocated more than NIS 376 million in funding toward social services for survivors in Israel alone for 2013.
And this year, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried violence against survivors and vowed there would never be another Holocaust. He also announced that he and Lapid plan to allocate NIS 400 million to survivors over the next four years.
So if money isn’t the problem, what is? Part of it is the convoluted maze of bureaucracy that survivors encounter. Their benefits are calculated based on their level of disability and, in some cases, their experience during the war. Then there’s the fact that multiple organizations and agencies assist survivors, with at least 50 of them represented by the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, an umbrella group. Survivors often don’t know which way to turn, how to file claims or if they are qualified for assistance. They end up lost in a flurry of paperwork and phone calls. An opinion piece in Haaretz last year, for example, detailed one survivor’s agonizing attempt to seek reimbursement of NIS 400 for a washing machine he and his survivor wife had bought – the man died before the bureaucratic saga had been resolved.
Last year, during his speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Netanyahu drew a direct line between the Holocaust and the Iranian nuclear threat – something he has done time and again. "To cower from speaking the uncomfortable truth – that today like then, there are those who want to destroy millions of Jewish people – that is to belittle the Holocaust…," Netanyahu said. "Not only does the prime minister of Israel have the right, when speaking of these existential dangers, to invoke the memory of a third of our nation, which was annihilated. It is his duty.”
To be sure, Israel faces threats from outside its borders and has its fair share of problems within them as well. However, if the prime minister is going to invoke the Jews’ annihilation as a trump card for political purposes, isn’t it also his duty to care for those who actually managed to survive it? What message does the Jewish state send when it focuses more on a potential second Holocaust than on the unfinished business from the first one? What message does it send when it fails to adequately care for the very Jews who have suffered the most?
The Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims' report notes that there are 192,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel – and that 37 of them die each day, or about 1,000 each month. Do the math: If Israel doesn’t get its act together and help its remaining survivors now, in a little more than 14 years it won’t have to worry about them at all. But – at least once a year – it will have to remember how it treated them.