JERUSALEM — The government of Israel — a nation founded as a refuge for Holocaust survivors — is facing rising complaints that it neglects tens of thousands of those survivors as they grow poor and sick in old age.
Outraged at a recent government offer of a new $20 monthly stipend to Holocaust survivors, hundreds of demonstrators marched outside of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office yesterday demanding greater benefits.
The stipend is in addition to other benefits, including social security and reparations that some survivors receive from the German government. There were reports late yesterday that government officials were working out a more generous aid package.
Yesterday's march was one of the largest protests ever staged by Holocaust survivors, who tried to leverage their unique moral authority among the Israeli public to embarrass the government.
Protesters wore the yellow Star of David used by the Nazis to identify Jews in wartime Europe, and carried signs saying, "We've already honored the dead. Why don't we respect the living?"
The government sponsors programs to memorialize the 6 million Jews who died under the Nazis during World War II, and has helped send droves of high school-aged youths to visit the concentration camps in Poland.
But until recently, few Israelis realized so many survivors were living in economic and medical distress after being neglected by successive governments.
"This is tearing at the core of the Israeli society, which is about unifying around the Holocaust survivors," said Roni Lottner, a 41-year old school principal and a grandson of Holocaust victims.
"It"s a shame for the government to offer survivors such a small amount. Israelis are embarrassed by a prime minister who smokes cigars that are more expensive."
For all the ridicule, Mr. Olmert is the first prime minister to try to address the problem. He accused some rally organizers of having political motives.
"This is a sensitive and explosive issue," he said. "Overblowing the situation is inappropriate."
As of 2002, there were 279,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, comprising about 40 percent of the country's senior citizens. About 60,000 survivors are thought to live below the poverty line, lacking money for medical aid, psychological treatment and in some cases, food.
"The government of Israel denies the Holocaust," charged Yosef Charni, an 82-year-old native of Poland who came to Israel after several years at the Nazi concentration camp of Treblinka. "The government got billions of dollars in reparations, but they don't care about us."
Critics maintain that more of the nearly $80 billion in reparations that Israel has received in compensation from Germany should have gone to the survivors. A large percentage of the money, which was paid beginning in the 1950s as Israelis struggled to build their fledgling state, went to the military and for infrastructure.
Many of the sick survivors suffer from physical and psychological damage that can be directly traced to their ordeals during World War II.
"A state cannot be called a Jewish state if this is the way it treats its survivors," parliament member Rabbi Michael Melchior said at yesterday's protest. "We can't compensate, but we can help soothe them."