The Price of Populism

Sometimes it happens that a person who tries to be a big populist becomes the biggest villain of all. This is exactly what has happened to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the affair of the Holocaust survivors.

Sometimes it happens that a person who tries to be a big populist becomes the biggest villain of all. This is exactly what has happened to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the affair of the Holocaust survivors.

He tried to be good to everyone. Instead of dealing with real Holocaust survivors - from the death camps, the ghettoes, the forests and the hiding places - who have found themselves in a difficult economic situation that does not allow them to live with dignity and receive decent medical care, he tried to give everyone a handout.

The prime minister tried to win points from the largest possible audience of voters, and thus expanded the definition of "Holocaust survivors," including in it thousands of "hitchhikers." Because the number swelled and the budget is limited, Olmert produced an absurd result. He has affixed a price tag to the Holocaust, which pegs the terrible suffering that survivors experienced as being worth NIS 83 a month. Is there any wonder that there arose such a huge public outcry?

This is the fate of a populist who does not have the courage to tell the public the truth, and who looks for a solution that will satisfy everyone.

The affair began when Olmert agreed to the appointment of an inter-ministerial committee to recommend ways to ease the distress of Holocaust survivors who are in financial difficulties. In this context, generalizations must be avoided. The situation of most Holocaust survivors is good. They came to this country as young people and built their homes here, and also the country. Some of them are receiving reparations from Germany, or "Nazi victim" stipends from the state as well as old-age stipends. They invested in the education of their children, who are now engineers, doctors, economists and lawyers. They must not be transformed, in the twilight of their days, into a group that is trying to extort money from the state. They are not like that. The opposite is the case.

The committee headed by Nahum Itzkovitz, director general of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, chose a broad definition of the term "Holocaust survivors." According to the committee, anyone who was present in the areas of the Nazi occupation during the war, or even lived in a country whose government collaborated with Germany, is a "Holocaust survivor." According to the committee, there are 256,000 people in this category.

The committee did not look into who among them is in economic distress and who is not, but rather determined that the bulk of the aid should go to survivors who were in concentration camps, ghettoes, labor camps and hiding places - that is to say, to 55,000 of those who were included on the list. To those the committee proposed paying NIS 1,040 monthly, for a total of NIS 700 million annually.

But then Olmert intervened. He decided to increase the number of beneficiaries to 120,000, among whom are tens of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. These might perhaps be defined as refugees, like many of the immigrants of the 1950s, including those who came from the Arab countries. However, they are not Holocaust survivors.

Since the prime minister is grappling with severe budgetary limitations and many needs, he cut the sum of the aid for Holocaust survivors to NIS 120,000 in 2008. This produced the absurdity of NIS 83 a month per survivor - a price tag for the Holocaust that has turned Olmert into the worst villain of all.

If Olmert had any political courage, he would not have entered the trap. He should have approached the problem from an entirely different direction. He should have told the survivors' organizations that he was establishing a special fund of NIS 1 billion that will be at the disposal of survivors who are in economic distress. Each of them would be able to apply to the fund and receive aid in full, without question and without bureaucracy. Because it is known that the economic situation of most Holocaust survivors is good and that they would not even dream of asking for help, only a few thousand would apply to the fund.

Various estimates talk about approximately 7,000 needy survivors. They must be helped immediately, with any sum that is required. But there is no need to hand out hundreds of millions of shekels to people who are not in need, or to those who are not entitled to the money.

Now Olmert is angry at the whole world. He says that there has to be a limit even to cynicism, and that it is a shame and a disgrace that they are going out to demonstrate against him in Jerusalem with yellow patches. The prime minister should blame only himself. By wanting so badly to be Santa Claus, he has with his own hands brought the humiliation on himself.