After a stormy start to the Knesset’s winter session, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued taking jabs at what he has branded the “bitter” opposition, when MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) challenged him at an event in the Knesset auditorium to celebrate Aliya Day.
A national holiday celebrating immigration, Aliya Day will be marked across the country on Friday. The Knesset event drew hundreds of guests hailing from a variety of countries.
Svetlova, herself an immigrant from Russia, interrupted Netanyahu at the event on Tuesday, after he touted an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure pension funds for former Soviet Jews in Israel.
“Aliya has continued since [our forefather] Avraham Avinu, sometimes with thin and sometimes with very flowing streams, and since the establishment of Zionism, has been a priority for realizing the dream of the return to Zion,” the prime minister told the audience.
“One cannot imagine the blooming of the country without aliya. Our enemies constantly tried to prevent aliya, and despite the struggles over the subject with the Arabs and the British, we won. Despite the hardships of absorption and life in Israel in its early years and mistakes that were made, a wonderful enterprise was made here,” he exulted.
“The country continued to fight for Jewish communities in need and succeeded in opening gates, from the Soviet Union and from Ethiopia,” he continued, pointing to an interministerial committee for the integration of Ethiopian immigrants and the agreement with Russia on pensions, which he hailed as an achievement.
“What was achieved?” Svetlova asked, making a reference to meager amounts received by immigrants to supplement low pensions.
Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs chairman Avraham Neguise intervened, saying, “This is a festive day,” to which Svetlova responded that MKs must also “know to respond to tough questions.”
Netanyahu responded with more “sour” gibes, including telling Svetlova to “be sour with grace.”
“Instead of answering difficult questions and finding solutions, after eight years in a row in his position, he talks to us about pickles,” Svetlova wrote on her Facebook page, following the exchange.
“Pickles” is the meaning of the Hebrew word that Netanyahu has used to describe the opposition and media, which also means “sour.”
Following Monday’s opening Knesset session, when Netanyahu first began using this wordplay, he posted a picture of himself on Twitter with a giant jar of pickles along with the words, “We have a wonderful nation that likes to eat pickles, but which is not sour!”
“So I’m sour and proud,” said Svetlova. “I reminded the prime minister that 150,000 elderly people are living below the poverty line while their old-age pensions are pitiable.
And when he talks about getting additional pension funds, it is only NIS 30 [per month]. 400,000 young people cannot get married in their country and 25,000 immigrants are waiting in line for public housing.”
But a spokeswoman for the Aliya and Integration Ministry told The Jerusalem Post
that only a small number of people received such low amounts, and that those payments would be doubled as of January 2018. Different people get different amounts, she said, adding that it was incremental.
She also noted that this had nothing to do with the agreement with Russia, but was the result of pension reform passed last year. “It’s true that it was an achievement,” the spokeswoman said of the treaty, which enables immigrants previously employed in Russia or the former Soviet Union to receive pension payments according to the salary they received there.
Svetlova also tackled the subject of discrimination against Russian immigrants, showing the audience a copy of Tuesday’s Yediot Aharono
t, with a headline reading “Russians don’t work here,” followed by an article about a young Russian immigrant who was refused work at a restaurant based on the claim that her employment would result in the negation of the eatery’s kashrut certificate. “Today, on this ‘festival,’ we wake up to headlines like this which show us that there is a lot of work left,” Svetlova lamented.
Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog also raised outstanding issues facing olim, despite pleas by committee chairman Neguise to focus on the festive nature of the day.
“Aliya reflects the entire Zionist dream, out of difficulties and threats and hardships in absorption,” Herzog said. “Aliya is unique to the State of Israel, in an unparalleled story all over the world, which is expressed in prayer three times a day, [when we say] ‘May our eyes behold your return to Zion.’” Herzog highlighted the obligation of the state to ensure that elderly olim have a respectable income, and to find a solution to issues of personal status with regard to conversions and marriages of non-Jewish immigrants.
In raising the latter issue, he attacked the government’s failure to stand up to the Chief Rabbinate.Criticism did not come solely from members of the opposition. Kulanu MK Eli Alalouf, a Moroccan immigrant, spoke of the thousands of Ethiopian Jews who have been waiting for years to make aliya. “There are another 12,000 Jews waiting for us. I repeat, Jews,” he said, adding “let’s stop splitting and sorting Jews in one way or another.” Alalouf was one of four MKs, including Ethiopian immigrant Neguise, who visited Gondar and Addis Ababa in March and who have been pressuring the government to implement the aliya of 9,000 Ethiopian Jews.
According to the two latest cabinet decision on the issue, the first made in November 2015 and the second in August 2016, some 9,000 Falash Mura may be brought to Israel by the end of 2020, starting with 1,300 – who have been coming in groups – by the end of 2017.