Friday, August 3, 2007

The Populists and the Level Headed

The very top item on the front page of Haaretz this morning tells that Olmert is caving in to the public demand and will raise the pensions of Holocaust survivors. And indeed, the sums decided upon earlier this week were worse than nothing: they were insulting (as Tom Segev and I agreed).

On the other hand, the entire issue reeks of cynicism and populism from all sides, as Sever Plocker carefully documents in Yediot Acharonot (unfortunately, his article seems to be online only in its Hebrew original, not in English). The funds transferred from Germany to Israel as restitution payments have long since been spent, most of them wisely, so that whatever payments offered now come from Israel's own budget. One might ask - were it not politically incorrect - why needy Holocaust survivors should be supported with greater largesse than all the other needy elderly Israelis. In addition, the current criteria defining Holocaust survivors are very broad, probably too broad, and encompass hundreds of thousands of people who were not threatened by the Nazis in any immediate way such as Jews deep in the Soviet Union.

The present depiction of the Holocaust survivors as a group of destitute and defeated people does them no justice. As my colleague Prof. Hannah Yablonka has shown, the reality was more likely the opposite. In the first years after the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of truly destitute and lonely survivors found themselves in the beleaguered State of Israel, and by and large they purposefully went about the task of rebuilding lives for themselves without waiting for assistance from the state. Most of them were very successful, against all odds, and deserve to be recognized as the resourceful people they were, not as a group that needs our pity.

I expect that were we to examine the data, we'd find that many of the present needy survivors are elderly immigrants who arrived over the past 15 years. I am all for Israel ensuring that they live in dignity - as people too old to help themselves, irrespective of their biographies.

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