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Israel's Private Shame

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. And the worst place now for Holocaust survivors, argues Time’s former Jerusalem bureau chief, Matt Beynon Rees, might be Israel.

04.21.09 5:56 AM ET

At Abarbanel Mental Health Center in Bat Yam, Israel, Yoram Barak, the chief of psychogeriatrics walks me into a cheaply spackled cinderblock hut, where a thin old woman lies on the floor, her nylon smock riding up over her blue-gray legs. “There’s no air-conditioning,” explains Barak. “The floor is cold. This is how they cool down.”

Patients perch on the edges of their beds, as though they’re yet to settle in, despite the fact that most of the eight in this hut, one of six splayed around a little courtyard, have been here decades. All of them are Holocaust survivors, lingering in ill-funded state hospitals for as long as 50 years before any doctor even treated them for their traumas. So long that it’s inconceivable they’ll ever be cured or released.

Israel is quick to laud those who fought the Nazis, no matter how futilely, over those who went powerless to their deaths. The Knesset even timed Holocaust Remembrance Day in part to coincide on the Hebrew calendar with the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Those who simply survived don’t neatly fit the national ethos.

Ever security-minded, Israel is quick to laud those who fought the Nazis, no matter how futilely, over those who went powerless to their deaths. The Knesset, which in 1951 formally established Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorated today, even timed it in part to coincide on the Hebrew calendar with the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Those who simply survived, however, don’t neatly fit the national ethos, and the government's policies have long reflected this. The worst place in the developed world to be Holocaust survivor, in terms of support both medical and financial, just might be Israel.

“The Holocaust is a central element of Israeli identity, but the survivors are seen as somehow shameful,” says Tom Segev, author of The Seventh Million: the Israelis and the Holocaust. “They reflect weakness and humiliation, which we Israelis don’t want to be reminded about.”

Of 240,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, 20,000 receive compensation from Germany, and 40,000 get an Israeli stipend of less than $300 a month. The rest—largely refugees from the Soviet Union who avoided the camps—have nothing but their scarred memories. About 80,000 survivors live below the poverty line. "I'd rather die than beg for a piece of bread," recalls Leopold Rozen, a 86-year-old survivor from Poland who hid in the forests for three years after his family was slain by the Gestapo, in Remember Me, a movie about Israeli survivors that previewed this week before a weeping audience in a Jerusalem synagogue. He needs oxygen 24 hours a day plus other medicines, but must often choose between that and food.

The system that confronts Holocaust survivors here has changed little since the days of David Ben-Gurion. Israel’s first prime minister needed cash to fund his new state, which led him to strike a controversial deal for a one-time payment of $715 million from West Germany in 1953. That didn’t go to Holocaust survivors. Akin to U.S. states that recently used one-time settlements from tobacco companies to cover budget shortfalls rather than long-term health liabilities, Israel used the money for roads and armies and general needs.

The restitution spent elsewhere, bureaucrats paid out as little as possible to the survivors who ought to have benefited. Before the mid-1990s, the first official that survivors met when they went to claim state benefits were former police investigators employed by the finance ministry to sniff out cheats. Slowly, in the 1990s, the Labor Party’s dominance declined, loosening its grip of patronage on health and social services, and leaving a gap for a few reform-minded parliamentarians.

Only in 1996 did the finance ministry publish the benefits to which Holocaust survivors had been entitled since the 1950s, Rafi Pinto, who heads the finance ministry's department overseeing payments to Holocaust survivors, tells me from his office in a modern Tel Aviv office tower, sandwiched between two highways. As a result, applications went up fourfold. So unwelcoming and labyrinthine was the process that survivors usually hired lawyers to file simple claims. As a result, survivors pay $5 million in commissions to these attorneys each year.

Pinto’s predecessor told him his job was “to save the government’s money.” In 1998, a Likud Knesset member pushed through a law that forced the government to pay Holocaust survivors the same amount as those who were entitled to receive their compensation from Germany. (Survivors who arrived before 1953 were covered by Ben-Gurion's agreement with West Germany and thus remain Israel's obligation, while Germany still pays survivors who arrived after that date.) Pinto had to increase the average payment to the older survivors by 24%. But then the finance ministry clawed back much of the increase by subtracting a survivor’s social security entitlement from the Holocaust compensation payment.

A state commmittee headed by a former Supreme Court justice recommended last summer that Israel should increase the amount of the stipend. Since paying both the social security and the full amount of the German compensation is resisted by the finance ministry, the report said, at least pay them 75 percent of what the Germans pay, clawback-free, as though survivors were expected to haggle over the value of their suffering, like customers in a Middle Eastern bazaar.

With the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the last 15 years, Israel received thousands of people who had fled the Nazis but were never incarcerated in concentration camps. Despite Israel’s mythologizing of those who hid out in the frozen forests of Eastern Europe, only in 2007 did the government even acknowledge that these Jews were Holocaust survivors.

“Most survivors did quite well in Israel,” says Dan Michman, chief historian at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Authority. “But the survivors who came from what was the Soviet Union aren’t covered by any reparation agreements with Germany. They’re a problem.” In 2007 Prime Minister Ehud Olmert caused a furor when he announced they’d all receive a government stipend—of $20 a month.

It’s the same story at the government office which holds property owned by Jews in pre-state Palestine. A massive binder at the custodian-general’s office contains long lists in Hebrew of people killed by the Nazis. No one has tried to find heirs to the $35 million in property and bank accounts listed beside those names.

In fact, presumptive heirs aren’t welcomed. I visited a dignified old man in Caesarea who was trying to claim a bank deposit made in Palestine by his Romanian uncle, who was gassed in Auschwitz. In one of many letters from the government, a lawyer demanded proof from Gabriel Weiss that his uncle died after his aunt—if it had been the other way around the aunt’s relatives might be entitled to some of the money in the account, she wrote. Not that the account necessarily exists, mind you, the lawyer added. After a correspondence stretching over an entire decade, Weiss settled for a fifth of what he believed was in the account, just to be done with it.

Back at the Abarbanel hospital, it’s also a numbers game. Specifically, about one-third of Israel’s aged population survived the Holocaust, but when Barak took over psychogeriatrics in 1996, he noticed that two-thirds of his patients were survivors. They had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, mostly when they arrived in Israel in the early years of the state. They received all the voguish treatments for schizophrenia—cold-water showers, electroconvulsive therapy, lithium. Nothing worked.

No one had ever thought to treat them for trauma. By doings so, Barak discovered that their condition improved. Over the years, this form of treatment spread through the Israeli mental-health system. Too late, senior psychiatrists acknowledge, for most mentally ill survivors, harmed by a system that should have been their biggest advocate.

Matt Beynon Rees is an award-winning journalist and former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine, who has been based out of the Middle East since 1996. He is the author of Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East, a nonfiction account of Israeli and Palestinian society. He is also the author of a the Omar Yussef series of Palestinian crime novels, including The Collaborator of Bethlehem and The Samaritan’s Secret, which was published in February.