Focus on Issues: Ex-prisoners of Zion Fighting for Pensions and Their Dignity

When Vladimir Slepak languished in a Soviet prison between 1978 and 1982 for being involved in Zionist activities, he never imagined that someday he would have to fight for dignity against the Israeli government.

But today, Slepak, 71, lives with his wife in Israel on a meager pension of about $670 a month, including about $400 from the Jewish Agency for Israel, for the years he spent in prison.

About 900 people — including ex-prisoners of Zion and former activists from such countries as Iraq, Syria and Hungary — are facing economic hardship, and they are angry and insulted by a new law that will take effect Jan. 1.

The law was designed to improve their situation, but the former activists say it will only make matters worse for them.

Having received no help from the government or Knesset, they are now looking for support from the U.S. Jewish community.

“Israel used us when they needed us, and now they don’t need us,” said Slepak, explaining why he thinks their plight has been ignored.

“We think it’s only fair to count our years of activism in the Soviet Union as work for the State of Israel and the people of Israel.”

During the 1970s and 1980s, many of these immigrants now fighting for improved pension benefits were household names in American Jewish communities, which were at the forefront of their fight for freedom.

Today, many live in poverty.

“But money is only part of the issue,” said Ida Nudel, 67, who was imprisoned for 16 years. “This is about our dignity and the dignity of the Jewish people.”

“Not so many years ago, our stories were in the headlines of the Jewish press,” she added. “The same people who are running the country were proud of us, they celebrated our birthdays and demonstrated on our behalf. And suddenly we became a nuisance — people of the past, people whose stories you cannot use now.”

For Nudel, Slepak and many others who arrived in Israel late in their lives, the problem is particularly pressing.

Slepak arrived in Israel in 1987, three days before he turned 60. He had no way of working the requisite 10 years to accrue a pension before retirement.

Under the old system, the Jewish Agency for Israel administered pensions for needy former prisoners of Zion according to a formula based on how many years a retiree had been jailed.

Slepak, for example, received about $400 a month. The Slepaks also received another $270 a month from the National Insurance Institute, which administers Israel’s social security program, which pays out a sum to all elderly people who have no fixed pension.

In 1994, the ex-prisoners tried to get a new law adopted that would transfer their pensions from the Jewish Agency to the state budget. They were afraid that budget cuts at the Jewish Agency threatened their security.

The original draft law was designed to boost their pensions by including payment for the years they worked as Zionist activists — even when they were not imprisoned. Several lawmakers objected, fearing this could open the door to a flood of new applicants.

The ex-prisoners insist they put themselves in extreme danger as activists. In addition, many had to forgo academic studies or pursuit of a profession when they went underground to elude the Soviet KGB.

Slepak estimates the law, as originally proposed, would cost the government about $4 million a year.

But instead, a watered-down version was adopted this summer. Not only does the law ignore their years as Zionist activists, but it eliminates several additional benefits — such as reductions on municipal housing taxes and medical fees.

Under the new law, Slepak will receive about $100 more than before, but he says the loss of the extra benefits actually leaves him worse off.

Ironically, the law was passed in a Knesset that has more Russian immigrant legislators than ever before.

The Yisrael Ba’Aliyah immigrants-rights party boasts seven Knesset members and is led by Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, arguably the most famous former prisoner of Zion.

The ex-prisoners accuse Sharansky of being too busy with affairs of state to address their situation.

“I am astonished” at Sharansky, said Yosef Mendelevitch, who spent 11 years in prison after hijacking a Soviet airplane in 1970. “I would have expected him to make sure that the law would grant a respectable status for former prisoners of Zion.”

Mendelevitch, 51, is today an Orthodox rabbi and president of the Zionist Forum, an apolitical umbrella group for Russian immigrants. He arrived in Israel in 1981 and has worked long enough to get a pension, so the law does not personally apply to him.

But like Nudel, he says this struggle is not just about money.

“For many years, prisoners of Zion have said not only is the money not sufficient, but the status we are given is degrading,” said Mendelevitch.

He added that under the new law the pensions will be handled by the National Insurance Institute, which distributes welfare payments.

“Prisoners of Zion are simply not recognized as people who have done something important for the Jewish people. Rather, they are looked at as a welfare case. This is the root of the problem,” he said.

Immigrant Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein, also of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, rejects the criticism.

“The idea of having a special law for prisoners of Zion is 30 years old,” said Edelstein, who himself was imprisoned for three years in Russia between 1984 and 1987. “It took Yisrael Ba’Aliyah in the Knesset to get it pushed through.”

Edelstein is aware of the flaws in the final version of the approved law, and says he is working to change it.

Yet he says the current situation is still better than when the former prisoners were handled by the Jewish Agency.

“It is an illusion to think the Jewish Agency could continue to pay these pensions,” he said.

Bobby Brown, the prime minister’s adviser on Diaspora affairs, is also sympathetic, but does not offer concrete solutions.

“Their problem is legitimate and deserves a hearing,” said Brown. “Those heroes of the Jewish people that were imprisoned or fought for Jewish rights should be guaranteed a certain minimum sustenance in their old age.”

As a last resort, frustrated prisoners of Zion have turned to their friends in the U.S. Jewish community who supported their struggle in the 1970s and 1980s.

Some, such as Shoshana Cardin, past chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, have sent letters to the government on behalf of the former prisoners.

Saying the ex-prisoners “put their lives on the line” for Israel, Cardin said she feels that “those who were unable to be employed in the former Soviet Union because of their activities should have benefits” in Israel for the years that they were denied employment.

Despite such statements of support, Slepak is not optimistic. Alluding to what he considers a tedious Israeli legislative process, he thinks it could take 10 years before any improvement is made to the law.

“But that will be too late,” he said. “We might be dead then.”

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