Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver gets angry only once during an hour-long interview in her office in Jerusalem, but when she does, she gets very, very angry.
The usually self-composed Landver, herself an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, tears into the widespread belief among veteran Israelis that while new immigrants are vital to this country, immigration causes a rise in crime and youth alcoholism. In a recent survey, Israelis were asked which sector of the population they would most like to have as neighbors. The results gave veteran Israelis the top grade, followed by new immigrants from the US, immigrants from France, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and lastly immigrants from Ethiopia. The same results were found when people were asked which population group they would be happy to have their children go to school with, and also which people they would like their children to marry.
"We are racist. Israel is a very racist society. I know what olim have gone through over the past 20 years. Our nation does not know how to receive new immigrants," Landver says in a wide-ranging interview ahead of next week's Ashdod Conference on Immigration and Absorption. The main topics to be discussed during the event will be "Racism in Israeli Society," "The Immigrant Youth Crisis" and "Absorption Economics - Government Policies Versus Implementation."
"Veteran Israelis say that if our parents or grandparents suffered, anyone who gets to the country now should suffer too. But why? Why do olim have to go through this? Our society needs to change," Landver says.
The immigrant absorption minister is also facing heat from immigrants, many of whom feel the game is rigged against them, that they will never fully integrate and that they face daily a tough, exhausting and sometimes infuriating absorption process. The problems often cited include access to services, housing, employment, integration, conversion, and many others.
When it comes to the thorny issue of strict conversion rules which leave many Russian olim feeling isolated by their new state, Landver recalls the line drawn in the sand by her party boss, Israel Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman, that unless a solution is found to the civil union issue within 15 months of the government's establishment, the party will leave the coalition.
"We plan to do what we threatened to do in the beginning. We said that if there was not a solution to the civil union dilemma, we would carry out our threat," she says, but adds that the solution might be that civil union legislation could happen gradually, in stages.
AT THE beginning of the current government, Landver's ministry dropped the ball on the issue of professional retraining for immigrants when it withdrew funding for some 4,500 retraining vouchers, leaving thousands of olim without a means to effectively enter the job market. Many immigrants simply showed up at their retraining institutions only to be told that there was no funding for their participation.
The problem, according to Landver, was the government-wide budget cuts instituted early on in the Netanyahu administration.
"We were guaranteed an annual budget of NIS 1.5 billion. Israel Beiteinu accepted the cutbacks, but then we were cut by 4 percent. About NIS 170m. was cut from our budget. This created a coalition crisis, and eventually the cuts were retracted. All the vouchers have now been reinstated," Landver says.
About NIS 400m. of the ministry's budget goes to pay for rental assistance for new immigrants in the low-income bracket.
"This is a waste of money; I believe the state should build public housing," says Landver.
The ministry maintains statistics which indicate that only a quarter of needy, elderly new immigrants receive public housing, a situation which Landver calls "a catastrophe."
"Right now we have carried out a survey and found that the number of elderly people who have no housing options is very high. There are tens of thousands of them. They end up living well below the poverty line," she says.
The government has not built new public housing for the past 25 years, and many of the buildings that exist need to be renovated. The eligibility requirements for such housing are also very strict, and in most cases they are only given to large families. All immigrants with only one or two children are often ineligible. There isn't much Landver can do about this, but she is in talks with Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias, who is facing pressure from his Shas constituents to build more affordable housing.
The few public housing options available for Landver's ministry are in Haifa's bayside suburbs, Afula, Dimona and Sderot. "But the apartments are in slums, and their condition is horrific. The situation is catastrophic. We started a campaign, and within one month received 12,000 requests for public housing, and we only have 500 apartments," she says.
Those numbers tell the story of just how desperate some immigrants are for housing assistance. The numbers are vastly higher when one factors in low-income immigrants who have lived here for more than 10 years and are no longer eligible for Immigrant Absorption Ministry housing assistance. They now fall under Housing Ministry criteria, which are much stricter.
"For many of these people there is no future in this country. The Housing Ministry only starts giving you assistance if you have over a certain number of children. Most immigrant families are relatively small," Landver says.
Hebrew-language ulpanim are another problem area, with several well-known ones closing down recently and the fate of many others uncertain. The problem, as always, is money and politics. The Absorption Ministry wants the ulpanim under its wing, but doesn't have the money. The Education Ministry, which is responsible for ulpanim, don't place adequate focus on them, preferring instead to allocate its meager funds elsewhere.
"It is clear that there is a problem here. When a new immigrant finishes ulpan without an adequate vocabulary, we know that there needs to be a change," says Landver, adding that her ministry is working on a solution, without revealing what it is.
Landver believes that the way a country treats new immigrants in their first few years very much determines their attitude to the country and colors their integration. No wonder the issue of bureaucracy keeps coming up. Regular readers of The Jerusalem Post
will have noticed a steady stream of stories about the maddening bureaucracy that often makes immigrants wish they could take back that kiss on the Ben-Gurion Airport tarmac and get back on the plane to "a country that works."
"There is no bureaucracy here. We provide service with a smile,"
Landver says of her ministry, and its various branches countrywide. "I
would like to believe that today there is not one oleh who does not
receive service from us with a smile or does not get the answer he
needs. If someone makes aliya and does not contact us, eventually we
track him down and offer our services. We speak all languages in the
Absorption Ministry; if someone turns to us, he gets an answer in any
language he wants."
On the issue of Anglo olim, Landver says that while she sees no
difference among any new immigrants, "we do recognize that English
speakers come from stronger countries. They come with pensions and
savings and maybe they feel that they need us less."
"When I first arrived to Israel I was also a new immigrant," she says.
"I know how difficult it can be and how hard it is to fit in. Moving
from place to place can be very difficult for a person until he learns
the language and the culture. I hate bureaucracy and hate when people
don't give direct or immediate answers. I hate it."
"We want immigrants to get five-star service," she concludes.