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Life for Israelis with disabilities is a well-kept secret

For-profit institutions and government neglect have led to brutal abuse and exploitation.

Disabled veteran Israel Defense Forces soldiers and their assistants protest outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on March 29, 2016. Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90.
Disabled veteran Israel Defense Forces soldiers and their assistants protest outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on March 29, 2016. Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90.
Frimet Roth. Photo: Courtesy.
Frimet Roth

Much has been written about the new Israeli government’s proposed changes to Israel’s immigration laws. This principally concerns the Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship to anyone with one Jewish grandparent.

But less attention has been given to another change in aliyah requirements. It affects potential immigrants with disabilities.

Until now, olim with disabilities must physically arrive in Israel before applying for recognition of their disabilities, a demanding and time-consuming procedure. Only after this process will they be eligible to receive government disability benefits.

Under the new procedures, they will be able to apply for such recognition before actual immigration.  With their legal rights ensured beforehand, it is anticipated that their assimilation into society will be easier.

This change will almost certainly be enacted, but we do not know whether crucial information will be shared with potential olim during this new process. Will they be alerted to what awaits disabled people in Israel? Will they be warned that Israel still warehouses many of its disabled in large, closed and isolated institutions? Will they be informed that the situation with which they are likely familiar in their home countries is a far cry from Israel’s situation?

In short, will they arrive here with their eyes wide open? There are some statistics they would surely like to ponder:

  • 88% of Israeli citizens with cognitive impairment who live outside their own homes are institutionalized.
  • 17,000 people live in 491 housing facilities for people with disabilities and special needs. This includes institutions that serve the cognitively impaired, emotionally impaired, autistic and those requiring special rehabilitation.
  • Most Israelis with cognitive impairment and autism live in closed institutions remote from the community, where they are denied the right to autonomy and privacy, and where frequent and severe neglect takes place.
  • Some 50% of these closed institutions are operated by approximately 70 different private for-profit companies. The same number of operators are NGOs. Only nine institutions are government-owned.
  • Thousands of citizens with disabilities who live within the community do so in difficult conditions of loneliness and without basic services.

These are disheartening numbers that need not be Israel’s reality.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the State of Israel ratified in 2012, declares that the state must ensure that people with disabilities live equally in the community and freely choose their lifestyle.

In June 2022, the Knesset passed a law that anchored the right of disabled people to an independent and autonomous life in the community.  This law will remain dormant until the relevant regulations are drafted, with 2024 set as the target date for its implementation. So, there will be no significant change to the status quo for some time.

This is an under-reported topic. As a result, few know that every couple of months, incidents of severe abuse and occasionally death are inflicted on disabled residents of Israeli institutions. When Hebrew news outlets do briefly cover these stories, they tend not to appear on English-language sites.

Over the past six months, four disabled residents have died, three in one institution due to food poisoning and the fourth in a brutal attack. Another incident of physical abuse was caught on a security camera this month. The perpetrator of the assault, a nurse, has been arrested.

Unfortunately, police investigations are rarely launched and can drag on interminably. Many are closed without any indictments due to “lack of evidence” or “unreliability of witnesses.” When cases are tried, sentences are rarely more than a slap on the wrist.

Why are these institutions given free rein?

One theory is that the profits they provide are simply too enticing. Greedy operators intensively lobby politicians to keep these institutions open. Naama Lerner of the grass-roots organization Hatnuah L’atzmaut (The Movement for Independence), explains, “Since the advent of privatization, operators of institutions receive between 13,000-20,000 shekels/month per resident and are thus highly motivated to retain them. They hire one carer for ten residents so they spend less than 1,000 shekels/month per resident.”

The Movement for Independence is determined to change that. Comprised of activists with and without disabilities, family members, experts and laypersons, the group promotes independent living with personal assistance for every disabled Israeli.

However, it is facing government apathy and operators’ determination to continue profiting off disabled people.

An Israel-based non-profit called MDF represents these institutions. It was registered in 2009, but its records at the Ministry of Justice appear not to show any activity. The organization has filed only one annual financial report, in 2012. Its registration document indicates that a former member of Knesset, Yoel Hasson, functions as the director of its lobbying efforts.

In Dec. 2022, MDF organized a protest outside the Jerusalem head office of the Ministry of Welfare to demand increased funding for the operators of privately owned and operated residential care institutions for people with disabilities.

Naama Lerner, who co-founded and today heads the Movement for Independence, staged a one-woman counter-demonstration to criticize the owner/operators.

She said, “Death is the really most extreme case. There are many, many, many problems faced by people in institutions. Let’s start with the ‘soft’ items. The ‘soft’ items are that a person is deprived entirely of his privacy. He doesn’t determine who will sleep with him in his room. He will never have a private room. People who are 20, 30, 40 years old who need a private room, personal closet, personal clothing, a moment to be alone. What do the institutions do to prevent this? They shackle them to beds, isolate them in rooms, tie them to restraint chairs, place splints on their arms so they can’t move their arms. All these things are also prohibited by law.”

She went on, “A supported housing program is a very important program, and without a doubt, it is the program that every person with a disability will have in the future. Everyone will have an independence-supporter who will accompany them to an independent life, help them build their personal plan and implement it. But unfortunately, today, with the program’s current budget and the severe limitations it places, it really suits but a few, and particularly those who can manage on their own.”

Another organization fighting for deinstitutionalization is Bizchut, founded by the late, legendary social activist Shulamit Aloni. It also believes in the right of every person with a disability to live in the community in a small and intimate setting granting them a life of equality and respect, personal autonomy and full integration.

Bizchut further maintains that, in institutions and hostels, where dozens and sometimes even hundreds of people with disabilities live together, the ability to maintain these basic rights is not possible.

Neither of the above organizations has voiced support for the change in aliyah procedures affecting immigrants with disabilities.

One of the bodies responsible for the change is the Jewish Agency, headed by Doron Almog. Almog is also, ironically, the chairman of two large, closed institutions—Adi Negev and Adi Jerusalem.

Almog claims to care about the rights of people with disabilities, to which his many speeches and articles on the topic attest. Here is but one example: “The way in which we relate to the most vulnerable among us, those with disabilities and multiple challenges, constitutes the greatest test of our society. It is only when our societies are able to make the care, development and inclusion of everyone part and parcel of our daily lives that we will truly live up to our own ideals.”

But as we know, talk is cheap and it is actions that matter. Almog’s actions consistently contradict his words. For decades, he has championed and helped raise millions of dollars in contributions for the two institutions he chairs. Together they keep 233 citizens, from babies to young adults, locked up and isolated from society.

So, will Almog and the Jewish Agency provide disabled applicants with the information they need before aliyah, such as the contact details of the organizations that endeavor to help people with disabilities live independent lives with government assistance?

Given the disheartening status quo, it is likely that some prospective olim will postpone aliyah until the 2022 legislation has gone into effect or until the advent of a more inviting scenario.

The alternative is an influx of shocked and unhappy new citizens. Would Israel welcome that?

I am the mother of a fragile 27-year-old Israeli woman who suffers from severe physical and cognitive disabilities, including epilepsy and blindness. Keeping her at home where she enjoys loving care from me and my husband is a struggle. But I have no doubt that had we succumbed to the pressure of her teachers and social workers, and institutionalized her, she would no longer be alive.

Now is the perfect time to publicize the ugly truth about Israel’s treatment of its disabled citizens. The secret has been kept for far too long.

Frimet Roth is a Jerusalem-based freelance writer and commentator on the challenges facing people with special needs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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