Olmert immigration 224.8.
(photo credit: Pool/Yediot Aharonot)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert kicked off the country's biggest state-sponsored conference examining immigration and absorption in Ashdod Tuesday in the presence of Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'akov Edri and Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) chairman Ze'ev Bielski, as well as more than 700 politicians, civil servants and community group leaders.
"There is no country in the world prouder of its immigrants than the State of Israel," said Olmert.
"There is no direct translation of the Hebrew word for aliya. It is a deep and complicated issue and everyone in this country is involved in it. Every citizen of Israel must do all they can to assist those arriving here."
Olmert used the conference stage to make reference to Monday's prisoner exchange with Hizbullah, in which the body of Gavriel Daweet was returned to Israel. He also told the crowd that not a day goes by without him making an effort to secure the release of Israel's kidnapped soldiers.
The conference, organized jointly by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Ashdod Municipality and Bar Ilan University, included sessions on "New Immigrants and Israeli Politics," "The Hebrew Language as a Lever or an Obstacle" to integration and "Dilemmas of the Law of Return," and featured a wide range of expert and political commentators.
"The oxygen of this country is immigration," said Bielski following his initial speech. He told The Jerusalem Post that there was no real answer as to why a country built on aliya and absorption had taken nearly 60 years to put together such an important event.
"We should just welcome such a conference," he said, adding that Ashdod had been selected to host the happening because it constituted an excellent example of an Israeli city that had succeeded in absorbing and integrating more than 80,000 immigrants in recent years. One-third of the city's 225,000 residents are olim from the Former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, France and other nations.
"In Israel's 60 years, the country has taken in millions of immigrants from across the globe," said Olmert in his speech. "No other country in the world has increased its population ten fold in such a short time."
"Aliya and immigration is clearly on Olmert's agenda," said Minister of Immigrant Absorption Ya'akov Edri, highlighting the Prime Minister's willingness to reverse the projected budget cuts to his ministry, which had been threatened just after he took office in July.
Edri said that racism against new immigrants and employment were central issues to the absorption process. He also said that the ministry was already making attempts to ease taxes on new immigrants who wish to continue running their businesses overseas and was working hard to help former Israeli citizens living abroad to return.
"We want to make it as easy as possible for them to come back, in the past there were technical problems that stopped them from returning," he said, referring to the NIS 10,000 many returning Israelis must pay in order to receive health insurance and adding that in the next few weeks a campaign aimed at ex-Israelis would be launched in the Diaspora.
When questioned why the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption was dealing with promoting aliya when its responsibility is to assist new immigrants upon their arrival here, a spokeswoman for the ministry explained that no other body, including the Jewish Agency, had taken responsibility for ex-pat Israelis who want to return.
"It is about time we put this issue on the agenda," she said.