The Survivors' Protest / March of Pennies

During the Knesset debate on the reparations agreement with Germany in 1952, MK Elimelech Rimalt, whose parents were killed in the Holocaust, related: "My young son is asking me: How much we will get for Grandpa and Grandma?"

That question also accompanied the thousands of demonstrators who congregated opposite the Prime Minister's Office yesterday, and jeered whenever Ehud Olmert's name was mentioned. These protesters once again proved the Holocaust's centrality to Israeli identity.

The legions of foreign correspondents, including German television crews and Al Jazeera, did not find elderly people limping on crutches; most of the demonstrators were young people who described themselves as the "third generation." Many came with their parents, members of the second generation. Many of that generation - people in their sixties - are now coping with their survivor-parents' wretched old age. Many of them do not need Ehud Olmert's gifts and could manage just fine without his ministry's march of pennies. What brought them to Jerusalem was not just the money, but anger over the terrible humiliation that so many Holocaust survivors have suffered here for years. That wound has never healed; it has been transmitted from generation to generation. And Olmert has now opened it anew.

Some of the speakers touched the raw nerves of Israeliness itself. Ze'ev Factor, 82, who chairs the Holocaust Survivors Welfare Fund, complained about the very term used for survivors in Hebrew: nitzolim, which means "the rescued." Yet in truth, he pointed out, nobody tried to rescue them. That is an echo of the terrible question that survivors asked when they reached Israel, and that has hovered over Israeli society ever since: Why did you not come to save us?

Survivor Miriam Yahav challenged one of the ideological foundations of Israeliness: "Who gave you the right to be our heirs?" Israel, of course, justifies its existence, in part, on being the heir of the six million who perished.

The prime minister responded huffily: What do the survivors want of him, why are they demonstrating beneath his windows? The report that he is offering them only NIS 83 per month is "fraudulent," he said. Yet this information came directly from an official statement put out by his office: NIS 120 million for 120,000 survivors is NIS 1,000 per year, or NIS 83 per month.

It now appears that this report was indeed fraudulent: There are not 120,000 survivors, but Olmert also wanted to give money to those whom Noah Klieger, an 81-year-old survivor, described in Yedioth Ahronoth as "hitchhikers." Klieger told the demonstrators yesterday that there are only 40,000 to 50,000 survivors in Israel, most of whom already receive assistance from either Israel or Germany, and from various welfare funds. There are perhaps another 60,000 people who spent World War II in what was then the Soviet Union, including some who fought in the Red Army. Now they are in Israel, potential voters for Olmert and his coalition partner, Avigdor Lieberman. But they are no more Holocaust survivors than the people who spent World War II in the U.S. Army.

There are perhaps 6,000 to 8,000 survivors in genuine distress who need immediate and substantial assistance. But the Olmert government's interest in them begins and ends with NIS 83 a month.