There was a time when we asked for your help in the struggle against the Soviet government. Now we ask you to help us in our struggle for survival with the authorities of Israel and the Jewish Agency (Sokhnut). Your influence, the influence of Jews in America and Europe with the Sokhnut is decisive – the Sokhnut exists on money donated by you.”

From a letter by my friend Volodya Slepak,
who spent 3 years in Siberian exile,
10 years as a refusenik.

Soldiers in the Israeli army get credit against a retirement pension for the time they serve. The bureaucrats in the Soviet Jewry departments got credit for the time they shuffled papers. Soviet Jews who fought all alone, not knowing what tomorrow would bring, who feared a knock on the door, who met with tourists and smuggled out information and received books and Stars of David and vitamins for the prisoners – they get no credit for the time they spent fighting. There are close to a million former Soviet Jews in Israel today. They have talent, education, energy. They have transformed the Israeli economy in the last decade. They have made Israel more viable, more productive, stronger. These Israelis wouldn’t be there if it were not for the handful of Soviet Jewish activists who energized Jews in the West and in Israel, who fought and won so that Jews could leave a country that oppressed them.

Israel owes them a lot. But now we find that an unwillingness to pay its debt.

Soviet Jewish activists energized the West. They were the reason for demonstrations, letter writing campaigns, political pressure on Washington – and Tel Aviv – the Jackson Amendment, and eventually, victory.

They paid a price. Some went to the gulags and prisons to serve long sentences. Others were exiled to places where foreigners couldn’t go. Still others were refused emigration visas for three, five, ten years, waiting while thousands of others were let out. Their names became household words: Slepak, Nudel, Sharansky, Kazakov, Zalmanson, Levich, Polsky, Dymshits, Penson, Panov, and hundreds more.

In time, the Soviet empire collapsed. In time, the Prisoners of Zion and the refuseniks were let out. In time, most came to Israel to be met as heroes, celebrated, praised, thanked, interviewed. They got a lot of praise and adulation, very little of anything else.

And then an ugly thing happened. According to Israeli law one must work for at least ten years in order to be eligible for the minimum retirement pension. Most of the activists who came to Israel were too old to be able to work for ten years straight before retiring. And so, while the people who kept quiet, those whom the activists went to jail for had come to Israel earlier and earned the right to a retirement pension, those who were refused, imprisoned, exiled – did not.

At this time a former Prisoner of Zion is entitled, after reaching retirement age, to $77 monthly for each year served in a Soviet prison and to $13 for each year in Siberian exile. Prisoners of Zion who have no other income can get $175 monthly in addition to the minimum old age pension. This leaves most of them at poverty level, many others below it.

A grateful nation?

About a year ago, the so-called Zisman Amendment was introduced in the Knesset. It was meant to provide a more reasonable recompense for the heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement. The increases were modest at best, but they were an improvement.

The Zisman Amendment was in turn amended and amended again before it finally came to a vote in October 1998. It is hard to believe but it is true: the final version actually reduces the miserable pittance the activists are receiving now. Oh, they were given an option: they could refuse this subsidy and stay with what they were getting now, it was up to them, they were told.

This law comes into effect on January 1, 2000, but as of January 1, 1999, the current subsidy will be cut in half. The reason? This subsidy comes from the budget of the Jewish Agency, not the governmental budget, and the agency has no money. Sorry!

Let me remind us all. The price of just one F-15 fighter could permit all of the activists to live luxuriously for three decades. The cost of maintaining an army regiment for two years could cover the cost of living for 3,000 activists for a decade. The salary of a Knesset member is about 5 times greater than what they are willing to allocate to someone who spent five years in the gulag.

These activists have done more for Israel than an F-15 fighter or a regiment of soldiers. They have certainly done more than most Knesset members. They deserve better, and yes, I am bitterly disappointed by the cabinet ministers who share the same background – Sharansky and Edelshtein – who were heroes in their day, but who seem to have abandoned their comrades-in-arms. I am also disappointed by the silence and acquiescence of the “Russian” Knesset members. Most of all I am disappointed by the lack of reaction from the great mass of Russian immigrants in Israel. Apparently they have no sense of gratitude or understanding that if it weren’t for people like Slepak or Nudel, they too would have been stuck in the former USSR along with all those Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, and all those other non-Jews who still can’t emigrate.

It is a shame. It is an abomination. It is an embarrassment. I call upon the government of Israel to do what is right. I call upon those in the U.S. and elsewhere who followed the call of the activists when they needed help, to help them now. We cannot abandon those who faced insurmountable odds and won this victory for all of us.

What to do? Get in touch with your congregation, your organization, your friends. Start writing to Natan Sharansky, fax: (+972-2) 624-3738 or mail at Rechov Agron 30, Jerusalem 94190 and Yuli Edelshtein at the Knesset, Jerusalem. Or fax PM Benjamin Netanyahu at (+972-2) 566-4838 and tell him how you feel.