Can Israel Weather Its Own Storms?
OpinionGuest Column

Can Israel Weather Its Own Storms?

Protests erupt as individuals with disabilities and holocaust survivors are denied necessary benefits.

Rabbi David Geffen

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

Photo courtesy of JDC
The Jewish Distribution Committee-established Center for Independent Living in Be’er Sheva, part of the JDC’s Israel Unlimited partnership with the Israeli government and the Ruderman Family Foundation, helps young adults with disabilities learn, grow and socialize with their peers as they prepare for adulthood.
Photo courtesy of JDC The Jewish Distribution Committee-established Center for Independent Living in Be’er Sheva, part of the JDC’s Israel Unlimited partnership with the Israeli government and the Ruderman Family Foundation, helps young adults with disabilities learn, grow and socialize with their peers as they prepare for adulthood.

As I write this, it is Monday night, Sept. 18, only a couple of days before Rosh Hashanah. The spirit of the new year, especially focusing on renewal, is nowhere to be seen in Israel.

Before and after a specially called Knesset session, those present did nothing for the disabled. People in this category get approximately $600 a month, with which they are supposed to live, buy food, pay bills. For months they have begged for their entitlement to be raised to the minimum wage of about $1,600 a month.

People in their wheelchairs have sought to teach the citizenry, Knesset members and the Israeli government a tough lesson. The only action they can take is to blockade the roads. One driver got so angry with the blockaders that he jumped out of his car and beat up an elderly man in a wheelchair.

The blockade Sept. 18 was on the street leading to the Knesset. After the anguishing session, the people in wheelchairs blocked the road out of the Knesset. Only two days before Rosh Hashanah, the Knesset would not authorize these people’s current benefits coming early.

The story of the people with disabilities is not a pretty one. The world press has picked it up to show how heartless Israelis are. The government of Israel has, for a long time, been afraid to raise this group’s allotments because it knows that there would then be a spiral in all the benefits Israel’s National Insurance provides.

So those who have the least and for whom the benefits mean everything seem to suffer interminably.

They rallied to their own cause in their wheelchairs. Blocking roads, they assumed, would be the best way to call attention to their suffering. The country backs them, but the government and the Knesset do not. And this was two days before Rosh Hashanah; who are the heartless people ruling here?

The Holocaust survivors are the second group of sufferers. Israel has received millions, maybe billions, to assist these individuals, whose real lives, sadly, were taken from them. This is not to say that all Holocaust sufferers fall into the category of those who lack the funds to live almost properly. Some have done well, but those who have not are really auf tsouris (in big trouble).

These people are too broken to demonstrate. Sometimes their complaints are heard; most of the time, they are not.

What Israel has done to protect their money, whatever the amount may be, is to make rules about which survivors receive funds and which do not. If you are a survivor and made aliyah to Israel after a certain date, you receive either no benefits or such a minimal amount that it is a joke.

Israel stuffed these survivors into public housing, in which the conditions are horrible. Every so often the television will run an exposé on an elderly survivor in an apartment where the water barely runs, the walls are cracked, and the window frames have openings where the air blows through.

The morning after the exposé, the public housing company has a new apartment for the individual. If he needs other assistance, that too is made available.

Why in the world is Israel treating survivors so badly?

One reason is that they are dying off; soon they will be gone. Second, the claim is that the funds received to support them are not sufficient. I do not believe there has been a public accounting of these funds.

Yad Vashem deals with documents, history and the teaching of the Holocaust, and there is a public body called Amcha that tries to help survivors. I am not sure what success Amcha has.

As we sit in shul or not, the spirit of Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom reaches us: Will the lines about who will live and who will die touch us?

The greatest tragedy was the beating of Haredim who were demonstrating when police officers lost their cool. All Israel and the world could see the confrontation on television Sept. 17. Even when you know that the Haredim have captured the cities of Arad and Sderot with their religious demands, you can’t help being angered when the police beat the Haredim mercilessly.

I do believe that the Haredim assaulted police as well, but then the beatings got totally out of hand. Seeing those religious demonstrators being dragged through the streets of Jerusalem and being beaten was just a little too much.

Police are trained to resist using force until an incident gets out of hand. The manner in which they acted indicates that they have not been trained as well as the police chief and the minister of internal affairs claim.

In the past few months I have written about the Haredim. One article made it into The Jerusalem Post with a picture showing how ridiculous the Haredim were — beating a woman as she crossed through their crowd. Sadly, some of them are like wild animals. On Sept. 17, the police became wild animals too.

The demonstrators are only the face of the problem. The Haredim need housing because of all the children they have. Israel has towns and cities with apartments available for purchase or rent. The Haredim are organized so that when they want to move somewhere, a large group moves, usually with a rebbe or one of his assistants.

The two cities reeling from the demands of the Haredim are Arad and Sderot. I cannot tell you what happened in Arad. However, the Haredim and the other citizens fought each other. Now they are showing the rest of the citizens of Sderot. Highlighted on TV, the Haredim pushed for and received in the Kupat Cholim Kelali, a health care organization, TVs that cannot be played in the halls while people are waiting because the commercials contain licentious material. Short dresses are among the items being advertised.

Who knows what will happen? Many Israelis in the right-wing camp are delighted this is going on.

In fact, the government must decide whether soccer can be played on Shabbat. On the other side of the political spectrum is an anger about what is transpiring. But those activists are not doing enough to halt this religious slide.

I am religious, but I am not sure I want a Jewish theocratic state.

Atlanta native Rabbi David Geffen lives in Jerusalem.

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