Israel forgot us, say Soviet refuseniks
AS ISRAEL marks 40 years since the launch of the campaign for Soviet Jewry, former refuseniks have accused the state of abandoning them to a life of poverty.
Now 80, Vladimir Slepak was once known as “the father of the refuseniks” and spent 18 years waiting to emigrate, five of them in exile in Siberia.
For most of these years, Mr Slepak was not allowed to work and devoted his time to organising aliyah efforts in Moscow and other parts of Russia.
But the Israeli government refuses to recognise the years he and his wife, Masha, spent as full-time aliyah activists as official employment. They now subsist on an old-age monthly benefit of NIS 2,700 (£330).
Finally allowed to make aliyah in October 1987, he spent six-and-a-half years working at Tel Aviv University, three-and-a-half years short of the period needed to be eligible for a pension.
Even those refuseniks who have been officially recognised as Prisoners of Zion receive just an additional 800 NIS (£95) special benefit.
An exhibition titled “Jews of Struggle” at the Diaspora Museum in Ramat Aviv, which marks the fortieth anniversary of the campaign, features a film of Mr Slepak describing how he smuggled the details of Jews who had applied to leave Russia to the West — inside Matrushka dolls.
Mr Slepak lives in nearby Kfar Saba but has not been to visit the museum.
“I didn’t go to the exhibition because I can barely move,” he told the JC.
Mr Slepak has spinal problems and his right arm is virtually immobile.
“We asked the National Insurance for some kind of daycare allowance but they turned me down saying that I can still move around my flat.”
“These people were representatives of the State of Israel for every purpose,” former minister and Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky told the JC, “endangering their lives and freedom. If they had been the most junior employees of the Jewish Agency or Nativ [the clandestine agency that worked with Soviet Jewry], they would be getting three or four times that amount. It simply made me want to blow up, seeing how they’re feted at the anniversary but the rest of the time no-one cares.” Mr Sharansky has set up a foundation in his mother’s memory to try to help these former refuseniks.
Enid Wurtman campaigned in the 1960s for Soviet Jews in her native Philadelphia and now, living in Israel, continues helping impoverished refuseniks. “None of them chose when to come to Israel so they hadn’t the opportunity to get a proper pension. They were unofficial shlichim [emissaries] who made an unbelievable contribution to the Jewish people and the aliyah movement. Now they’re no longer needed and don’t get anything.”
Getting one government department to take responsibility for the plight of former refuseniks is proving impossible. The Ministry of Immigration Absorption, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Jewish Agency and Nativ insist that eligibility for pensions is not their business.
“We tried to get a law passed on this,” recalls Mr Sharansky, referring to his now defunct Yisrael B’aliya party, “but the Treasury were dead against and none of the other parties were willing to give us much support.”
Happier times: Vladimir Slepak ( far right) in talks with former US president Ronald Reagan after his 1987 release