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

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