Israel Pulse

Dignity for Israel's disabled, Holocaust survivors

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Article Summary
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and others shamefully abandoned the disabled and Holocaust survivors.

On Sept. 30, the end of Yom Kippur, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued one of the most cynical messages he has ever posted on Facebook. In it, he said he wanted to bless the “agreements reached with the organizations of the disabled” and noted that this is a “historic agreement that will bring about a dramatic improvement in the situation of the handicapped in Israel.” He made sure, of course, to take credit and also praised Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and the Knesset members who worked on formulating the agreement, which is supposed to correct a 15-year-long wrong in providing pensions for the disabled in Israel. 

Netanyahu has no reason to feel proud. As finance minister in 2003, he led in terminating the policy linking pensions for the disabled to the average market wage within the framework of economic austerity measures he imposed on recipients of government welfare as part of his economic plan to stabilize the market. The determined finance minister hurt not only the disabled, but also the elderly, Holocaust survivors and, in cutting child allowances, the ultra-Orthodox. 

With time, the pensions for the disabled have further eroded. Netanyahu gave in to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox in 2009 when he returned to the prime minister’s office and revoked the cuts to child allowances. The disabled, on the other hand, were ignored, abandoned and without political power or a lobby to advocate for them.

As prime minister for almost a solid decade, Netanyahu has had so many opportunities to right this wrong. But under his leadership, the situation for the disabled has only gotten worse. Thus, Netanyahu is the last person who should be congratulating himself or seeking political rewards for the agreement on the disabled. It isn’t, after all, a peace agreement with the Palestinians, an attack on the Iranian nuclear program or a pact healing the rifts between the left and the right that are tearing the nation apart. Rather, it is a proper act of leadership, backed by consensus, that the prime minister should have done long ago.

In January 2015, during the lead up to elections in March that year, the disabled renewed their political struggle. Their maximum monthly pension — that is, for those receiving 100% disability — stood at 2,300 NIS ($650), about half the minimum wage at the time. Through the effective use of social media, the disabled jump-started an organized campaign that slowly penetrated the public's consciousness and moved hearts and minds. Nonetheless, two and a half more years of obduracy on the part of Netanyahu’s fourth government passed before the breakthrough on Yom Kippur.

For the last two months, the disabled knew that the two committees created by the current Netanyahu government to find a solution to their situation were pointless, because their recommendations remained secret and were not adopted by government agencies. They therefore doubled down in their struggle, organizing demonstrations like blocking roads to disrupt traffic. It was hard to remain unmoved by images of disabled people on wheelchairs being manhandled by police. For the duration of the campaign, citizens showed empathy and relative patience with the traffic disruptions. Some volunteered to pay the fines levied against some of the demonstrators. 

The Knesset ultimately decided to hold an emergency debate, led by the opposition. In the home stretch, Avi Nisenkoren, chair of the Histadrut, joined the struggle and threatened a general strike. Only then, with its back to the wall, did the government hold marathon negotiations with the disabled, at the end of which the parties signed an agreement. While not ideal, the terms will allow the disabled to live with dignity.

Netanyahu is not the only one lacking in cause for taking pride. Kahlon should have championed the disabled’s fight, worked as an advocate for them in the government and put his considerable political weight toward the issue. He did not. As a politician who heads a socially minded party and frequently takes pride in his heart being in the right place, Kahlon should have sought a solution much sooner. The struggle of the disabled to live with dignity is much more significant and socially just than the fight Kahlon had with Netanyahu this past April in opposing the shuttering of the public broadcasting corporation, which almost led to the dissolution of the government. 

Like Kahlon, Aryeh Deri, interior minister and chair of the ultra-Orthodox Shas, also played a role in the neglect of the disabled. After all, in the last election he campaigned on behalf of the “transparent” people, the powerless segments of society. Also to blame are the Likud ministers who ingratiate themselves to the settlers and inflame rifts between Jews and Arabs, conduct culture wars, plot to undercut the authority of the High Court and advance with all their might the "political jobs" bill, which would allow former politicians to be appointed to public management positions.

The struggle of the disabled was seen by many as not electorally worthwhile and lacking media appeal, although it stands at the heart of the principal common values of a society supposedly created on the basis of mutual support and compassion. The result was that Netanyahu’s fourth government, which has professed to be the most socially conscious ever, not only took two and a half years to end the humiliation of the disabled, but its leaders also turned a blind eye to the shameful neglect of the needy elderly and Holocaust survivors

On Oct. 1, the state comptroller published a grave report on home care for elderly invalids. The report points to neglect, the government’s shirking and passing on its responsibility, and notes that 20% of elderly invalids have been harmed by home care. According to the comptroller, there is a national crisis, and the forecast for the future is grim, as no national plan of action exists despite the elderly population having grown as a result of longer life expectancies. 

As noted, Holocaust survivors are another population that after years of struggle still suffers from poverty and neglect. According to data published in April by umbrella organizations of Holocaust survivors, a third of them live below the poverty line. Over the course of the last decade, budgets were allocated for the survivors, but some have still fallen through the cracks. Despite unsettling sights that pop up in the media and on social networks of elderly people who survived the Nazi atrocities and now live in substandard conditions, Israel's “socially minded” government has either turned a blind eye or has not fought enough for them. 

During the seven days of Sukkot, Jews hold celebrations in booths (tabernacles) to acknowledge the fragility of dwellings and life's uncertainties. Oct. 4, Sukkot eve, was an opportunity to recall the importance of a proper roof over one’s head and the moral responsibility of the state to make sure that all who live among us have that basic right. In a government whose members include ultra-Orthodox parties, and ministers who identify as religious or traditional, this should go without saying.

Found in: disability, holocaust, moshe kahlon, aryeh deri, benjamin netanyahu, elderly

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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