Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Disability activist in Israel continues fight to raise disability allowances

From Haaretz in Israel:

Around 10 years ago, Yoav Kreim (pictured) and his partners leading the Disabled Rights Campaign achieved something new in Israel. Not only did they increase allowances and expand the rights of the disabled, they changed public opinion.

If in the past the disabled had to stay in their homes humiliated and ostracized, their struggle created a new image. Kreim's buoyant personality became a trademark of disabled people who see themselves as an integral part of society.

Today, Kreim serves as director general and spokesman for the organization. He's about to spend some time in front of the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem in the battle to raise disability allowances to minimum-wage levels.

Yoav Kreim, aren't you exhausted?

Yes, sometimes, but when you see dozens of disabled a day, every day, disabled people who are dealing with acute poverty, you understand that the fact you're exhausted is a luxury you can't afford.

But still, you're an old war horse - how optimistic are you this time? Not particularly. We gave the government two weeks to talk to us from the time we declared we were going into battle. Nobody has spoken to us with the exception of the social affairs minister, who tried to connect us with the Prime Minister's Office, but he didn't succeed either. I understand that the Israeli government has chosen hardheartedness ... so the question of whether we'll succeed depends only on our own determination. I hope our public will be determined, and even more that Israeli society will give them enough backing to let them remain determined.

Can that happen in the current social and political climate? You see the Shalit family humiliated in the protest tent, and even though the nation took to the streets there's no change in their situation. I assume the flag of Vicky Knafo [a single mother who led a protest against poverty] is also fluttering somewhere up there. Maybe a social struggle no longer has any chance?

I'm trying to remain optimistic. I can say confidently that we won't fold. We're willing to sacrifice and sit there for days on end. We sat there for 77 days, both in 2001 and 2002. I hope it won't happen, but if it does, we'll stay.

There's a common denominator to the struggles you mentioned and the protest tents Jerusalem is often blessed with. The common denominator is an absence of social solidarity and a feeling that it's not really important to the country's leaders what the rank-and-file citizen is going through.

Does the success of the struggle depend on the persona? Does it make any difference which finance minister you have to deal with, or is this a government's political agenda? In other words, do you miss Finance Minister Avraham (Beiga ) Shochat, against whom the successful struggle was waged in 1999?

It was also hard with Beiga, but he was a decent person. I don't know [Finance Minister Yuval] Steinitz and don't want to cast aspersions. I only know that he had two weeks to talk to us and he decided not to do so.

Is he showing disdain for you?

I don't know, maybe he has less belief in our ability to stay there; maybe he thinks we'll go home with our tails between our legs. If that's what's guiding his trend of thought he's in for a surprise.

You're threatening surprises - what can you surprise a country that's seen everything? Mainly with the amount of time we're willing to invest there. If necessary, we'll also spend Hanukkah and Passover there.

Until you get what?

An allowance that lets people with disabilities live decently, an allowance equivalent to the minimum wage, and at the same time an increase in the special-services allowance that is now 50 percent of the cost of employing a labor immigrant. We're also trying to preserve their rights and pay them a decent salary according to the law.

In this battle you'll miss Aryeh Zudkevitch, a key figure in the struggles of the disabled, who died four years ago. Are succession battles going on?

Aryeh Zudkevitch, my teacher and mentor, is no longer with us, and I miss him every day, but much more now. I miss him mainly because he would now say "Follow me," and everyone would come. Aryeh had special qualities, and I hope that one of us will be able to step into his shoes.

Aren't you afraid that an achievement in a struggle like this will undermine what you've already achieved? After all, the government won't suddenly decide to cut back on defense spending in favor of the disabled. If you receive benefits they'll probably be cut from another sector that is being shortchanged, or even from other items related to the disabled.

It would be typical of the Netanyahu government to do such a thing, but we'll be on guard. If they really want to solve the problem they have to give more. To place us in the proper order of priorities means that the government has to invest more money now, and not at the expense of starving the people alive today. If you mortgage the future at the expense of the present you harm a large number of people. And if you mortgage the present in favor of the future, then we're really cruel.

Only recently were the decisions by the Laron Committee - which was established thanks to your struggle - implemented. As a result, the disabled can work without their allowance being affected, the National Insurance Institute recognizes more types of disabilities, and the access law has been expanded. There are also many other achievements in the right direction, but some that will probably serve the treasury in its claim that you've already received quite a lot. Are you preparing for arguments about the "short blanket effect"?

The treasury has to understand that social solidarity is a component of security, because only a unified society feels that it has something to fight for. Only a unified society can make tough decisions either way, not to mention peace. Social solidarity is an important component of Israel's security, and the whole society must treat it as such. Our struggle is of significance for every citizen in the State of Israel.