TACOMA, Washington — Israel is considered to be one of the most developed countries in Asia. However, it also has one of the highest poverty rates among member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). A report by the National Insurance Institute notes that 1.8 million people, around 20% of Israel’s population, live below the poverty line. Approximately half of this 1.8 million are children, which ranks Israel’s child poverty rates second last of the OECD countries. Poverty rates have also been increasing among children and the elderly from 2017 to 2018, and impoverished families have averaged income 32% below the poverty line, up from 27% in 2017.
According to John Gal, Israeli Holocaust survivors across the country also face high rates of poverty compared to the rest of Israel’s population. Approximately 25% of Holocaust survivors in Israel live in poverty, meaning living off a monthly income of NIS 3,600 ($1,040) for people living independently and NIS 5,750 ($1,664) for couples. Many policies have been enacted to protect Holocaust survivors but a significant number have either been discontinued or limited only to certain groups of people. Other policies that have been proposed to improve these poverty rates have yet to be enacted.
“Because of political turmoil, the government really hasn’t been making any policies at all on poverty,” Gal told The Borgen Project. “Over the last year and a half, the government has been mainly engaged in basically political issues and the elections.”
Israeli Holocaust Survivors Significantly Impacted by Poverty
According to Gal, about a quarter of Israel’s 200,000 Holocaust survivors live in poverty, which is slightly higher than the 20% poverty rate for the elderly. Gal and colleague Haim Bleikh reported that while Israel succeeded in reducing the number of elderly living in poverty to approximately 20% in 2017, other OECD countries reduced their rate on average to just 13%.
Holocaust survivors—many of whom came to Israel from the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s—only receive a NIS 4,000 ($1116) stipend per year from the government. Germany also pays retribution to survivors, but only if they moved to Israel prior to 1953, which means that many survivors receive no retribution payment. As a result, Gal states that Holocaust survivors are “basically living off the government old-age benefit, which is which is not enough to live above the poverty line.”
Upon coming to Israel, many Holocaust survivors were unable to find employment due to psychological problems, and many others received little guidance in filling out paperwork to gain benefits. In 2016, Israel’s welfare minister, Haim Katz, found that more than 20,000 survivors in Israel had never received the government assistance owed to them, amounting to more than $30 million. While Holocaust survivors are entitled to free medicine, as of 2017 only around 67,000 survivors in Israel received monthly governmental financial aid and free medical care
According to the Holocaust Survivor Rights Authority in Israel’s Finance Ministry, the government allocated 5.5 billion shekels ($1.6 billion) to survivors of persecution in 2019, nearly double the allocation in 2012. Yet with a small annual grant, limited disability payments and lack of information for many survivors, the poverty rate remains high for survivors. As such, survivors living along the poverty line have limited access to medication, transportation and technology.
“In principle, if a Holocaust survivor has no other source of income besides the government’s Social Security benefit and is getting some sort financial support from the government because they’re Holocaust survivors, they are presumably living either just along on the poverty line or just above the poverty line,” explained Gal.
Assisting Holocaust Survivors Living Below the Poverty Line
Although the number of Israeli Holocaust survivors drops each year, the Israeli government has enacted programs over the last decade that improve the quality of life for survivors, ranging from cash benefits to better access to health services. The Taub Center reports that from 2016 to 2017, spending on Holocaust survivors accounted for approximately 0.9% of total government expenditure and around 5% of social security spending. According to Gal, over the last few years “there has been an effort to do better with needs and to ensure that there is better take up, so people are not only eligible for benefits or services but they’re actually getting them, which is always problematic in every welfare state.”
Yet, the burden of receiving these benefits lies almost entirely on the survivors. An organization called Aviv for Holocaust Survivors has worked since 2007 to disseminate information for survivors and their families concerning financial opportunities, which has led to a significant improvement in survivors’ financial statuses. The organization has so far helped more than 60,000 survivors receive more than 350 million NIS ($100 million) due to its Israeli and German institutions.
In 2014, the Committee for the War against Poverty in Israel formed to enhance poverty reduction efforts, including welfare and social security, vocational training, public subsidies for dental care and an increased education budget. According to Gal, about half of these poverty reduction recommendations were enacted, and about half of the requested funds have been spent so far on these recommendations.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put Holocaust survivors at extreme risk, as many are above 90 years old, yet organizations like Dor L’Dor have tried to help survivors connect virtually with other survivors and volunteers. Their smartphone app, Help on the Way, has connected thousands of survivors and volunteers to keep spirits up during the pandemic. Additionally, Shimon Sabag, the CEO of the Haifa-based Yad Ezer L’Chaver organization, opened a home for Holocaust survivors in Haifa, which houses 100 survivors from different backgrounds as of April 2020.
Latet: Standing with Holocaust Survivors
Israeli organization Latet, which works to combat poverty in Israel, created Aid for Life to ease the medical, physical and emotional needs of Israeli Holocaust survivors living in poverty. The program has assisted more than 1,000 Holocaust survivors through nutritional security, an emergency fund with medical necessities, social support and small home repairs and restorations.
As of this summer, 1,120 Holocaust survivors in need, ranging from severe financial need to isolation, joined the program, and 1,500 so far have received aid since the start of the program. The program has an annual budget of $1,638,000 to help alleviate the financial burden placed on many survivors and includes 1,300 volunteers who have assisted survivors. Latet has partnered with health funds and local social welfare departments to provide holistic aid to survivors. Data from Latet’s website reveals that 89% of participants felt that the program’s comprehensive aid has significantly helped them to live with dignity, while 92% felt that they established a strong connection with volunteers. Additionally, 97% believed that home renovations drastically improved their everyday comfort.
During this time of crisis, it is essential to provide holistic support to vulnerable communities. Holocaust survivors must also receive the retribution that is due to them. To achieve this, government committees and humanitarian organizations must continue to reduce poverty and provide assistance to Holocaust survivors living in poverty.