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New Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Boim wants to see 60,000 new olim arrive in time to celebrate Israel's 60th birthday and droves of the 700,000 Israelis living abroad to come home.
The latter number is higher than previous government estimates of Israeli passport holders who don't reside in Israel, and include 500,000 who live in North America alone.
He stressed, however, that more Israelis returned to Israel in 2005 (4,195 according to official statistics) than those who made aliya from North America (3,100).
His ministry estimates that the total number of returning citizens is actually 40 percent higher, since not everyone was in contact with the ministry about their repatriation.
"We need to encourage these people who left the country" to come back, he said Wednesday at his first appearance before the Knesset Immigrant Absorption Committee.
"We have a second generation and in some cases a third generation growing up whose connection to Israel is slipping away or in some cases does not even exist."
Boim listed his other priorities as securing jobs and housing for new immigrants, helping at-risk youth and strengthening newcomers' use of Hebrew.
Those testifying at the committee meeting also drew Boim's attention to the issue of providing pensions for immigrants, giving more money to the immigrant associations and speeding up the rate of Ethiopian aliya.
In February 2005, the government decided to double the rate of immigration for Falash Mura (Ethiopian descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity and have since returned to Judaism) from 300 to 600. That followed a decision two years ago, and was never implemented, to bring all of the Falash Mura to Israel immediately. More recently, flagging momentum on increasing the immigration rate had been attributed to the change in government. But on Wednesday Boim alluded to a government meeting on the subject to be held next Tuesday.
"There's a new government that needs to make a decision [now]," he said. The government is "dragging its feet" on the issue of the Falash Mura, charged Avraham Neguise at the meeting. Neguise co-founded South Wing to Zion, which lobbies for the absorption of the Falash Mura.
He said he was pleased, however, that there was an imminent meeting.
At a Knesset Education Committee meeting also held Wednesday, Committee Chairman Michael Melchior (Labor) declared that, "The government must implement its decision. Absorbing Ethiopian Jews is a national project."
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