Jerusalem — Yosef Begun, one of the more high-profile Soviet refuseniks of a decade ago, shook his head and whispered, “We’re forgotten heroes.”
Begun, a former electrical engineer who spent 17 years as a refusenik — 10 in prison and in exile — now lives here at the age of 66 on 2,600 shekels ($650) a month. The poverty level in Israel is 2,500 shekels.
“They’ve turned their backs on us,” Begun said of Israel’s treatment of the estimated 100 older refuseniks who immigrated here in the late 1980s. They became eligible for a pension after reaching 65.
Begun explained that Israel bases its pension system on the number of years a person was employed — with a minimum of 10 years necessary to accrue a pension. For the average Israeli who worked a lifetime, that means a pension equal to about 70 percent of his or her salary, he said.
But the pension system has refused to credit refuseniks for their activism outside of Israel, in which they publicly demonstrated for the right to immigrate here.
“We were Jewish activists and prisoners; our work was praised,” he said. “We spent 20 years fighting for aliyah, for a Hebrew education and for Zionist work. For this we were punished by the Soviet regime.”
Begun was arrested in 1982 and sentenced to 12 years in prison for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. He was released after 4 1/2 years and emigrated in January 1988. He had first applied for a visa to Israel in March 1971.
“When I came here, I was 56,” he said. “When I came here, I was free. I got work. But when it became close to the time when I would get my pension, I realized I had a problem. I realized that I and other Prisoners of Zion had no right to a pension because we did not work [long enough] in this state. And Russia was not going to give us a pension.”
For such individuals without at least a 10-year work record in Israel, the Jewish Agency had until Dec. 31 provided some compensation — 6 percent of an average salary for every year spent in prison. Thus, someone who spent five years in prison would receive a pension equal to 30 percent of the average salary, which is 5,500 shekels, or $1,300, a month, said Begun. The Jewish Agency also pays just 1 percent for each year spent in exile.
But at the behest of the former refuseniks — who feared that budget cuts at the Jewish Agency would diminish their compensation — a law was passed by the Knesset last year that effective Jan. 1 assumed the obligations of the Jewish Agency. But the refuseniks are upset that the new law still does not give them credit for their years of Zionist activity and eliminates several benefits they had enjoyed, such as tax reductions.
“We demand that the government pay us for our work [as refuseniks],” Begun said as he sat in a hotel room in Jerusalem. “It is the duty of the Jewish state. It’s not charity.”
And recently refuseniks have turned to American Jews who demonstrated for their release from the Soviet Union during the 1970s and ’80s. Shoshana Cardin, past chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said she has sent letters to the Israeli government on behalf of the former refuseniks.
Begun said the case of another prominent refusenik, Vladimir Slepak, points out the inequity of the system. He said Slepak receives a pension of just $670 a month despite his long years as a refusenik. On the other hand, an American who recently made aliyah after having worked 10 years in behalf of Slepak and other refuseniks was credited for that work by the pension system.
“But not Slepak and not Begun,” Begun said bitterly.
Bobby Brown, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s diaspora affairs adviser, said he was aware of the problem and said the Prisoners of Zion should not be forgotten. He promised to review the matter and see what could be done to help them.
Israel’s Minister of Trade and Industry, Natan Sharansky, himself a former Soviet refusenik, said he was “fighting” to correct the problem.
He said the financial assistance refuseniks were receiving came largely from UJA-Federation of New York, which channeled the money through the Jewish Agency. Sharansky said he was instrumental in working out that arrangement in the mid-1980s.
Sharansky said his party, Israel B’Aliyah, has proposed a law that would provide increased government pensions to all so-called Prisoners of Zion and other activists.
Israel B’Aliyah was formed to give political voice to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
“Our party has been the only one fighting day and night for its implementation,” Sharansky said. “But there has been resistance from the Finance Ministry.”
Its concern, he said, is that if strict restrictions are not imposed to determine who would qualify as a Prisoner of Zion, it could cost the state a significant amount of money. But he said it is “unfair that people in the Soviet Union who for 10 or 15 years were a bridge between Israel and hundreds of thousands of Jews” in the rest of the world should not be financially supported.
And such support cannot be restricted to only those from the former Soviet Union, Sharansky argued, saying it should apply also to those who worked the underground in Iraq and were Jewish activists in other countries.
To help all of those people, it would cost the state “hundreds of millions of shekels, but the Finance Ministry is talking in terms of tens of millions.”
Sharansky added that it is a “disgrace that people like Begun and Slepak — great men — should not be receiving [sufficient] financial support. So we will keep fighting.”
At a recent press conference here to highlight their plight, another well-known former refusenik, Ida Nudel, 67, said she is living on a monthly pension that amounts to only $250. It is based solely on the four years she spent in Siberian exile for agitating in behalf of Jewish refuseniks. She said she has received no credit for the other 13 years she spent as an activist.
“Thousands went around with our names engraved on their wrists, but as soon as we reached Israel, we became people of the past,” she said. “I gave up everything to work in the underground.”
Nudel said she understood that the meager benefits provided by the Jewish Agency were about to be cut. Begun said he and the other former refuseniks are campaigning for legislation that would entitle them to full pensions.