Halfon slams proposal to drop plan to help Ethiopian olim

Outgoing ministry D-G says such a move could produce disastrous results.

ethiopians at ulpan 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
ethiopians at ulpan 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
A government proposal to abandon a five-year plan aimed at improving the absorption and integration of Ethiopian immigrants could produce disastrous results, Erez Halfon, the outgoing director-general of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. Halfon, who two years ago brought together key representatives from the Ethiopian community in Israel to find ways to improve the situation for thousands of immigrants, was responding to a section of the 2009 Economic Arrangements Bill that calls for the comprehensive plan to be disbanded and divied up between a number of government ministries. "It took us a long time build this program and I have warned the Treasury that if they cancel it now, then we will face a complete catastrophe and by the time [the government] wakes up to this it will be too late," said Halfon, who will be replaced by Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver's appointee Dimitry Aparzev at the end of the month. In the meantime, Halfon and Aparzev are working together. "If we don't invest in this issue now then in five years from now we will have to invest five times as much," Halfon said. The plan was first initiated in November 2006 following a series of demonstrations by Ethiopian Israelis frustrated by difficult economic and social conditions that have plagued the poverty-stricken community. Over the course of 2007, government officials and community activists met under the auspices of an interministerial committee to discuss ways to combine forces and ease the burdens faced by new and even veteran immigrants. In September 2007 the committee presented its recommendations to the government, which, several months later, approved a five-year, NIS 870 million initiative to address the issues such as education, housing shortages, welfare assistance and employment. However, the Finance Ministry refused to approve the plans' budget for the full five years, promising instead NIS 82.5m. for the first year and requesting each ministry involved to negotiate for the additional funds in the follow-up years. This week's publication of the Economic Arrangements Bill showed, however, that the Finance Ministry is now unwilling to negotiate the additional funds for subsequent years but expects each ministry involved to designate a sum from its existing budget to improve services for the immigrants. Avi Masfin, spokesman for the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, said the community now feared that funds for the plan would come at the expense of existing programs for new olim. "We are putting as much pressure as we can on the Finance Ministry and individual politicians to fight this proposal," said Masfin. "If the Ethiopian community was suffering when the economic situation was stable, its obvious that now, during the economic crisis, that they will need even more support than before to get through the next few years." A spokesman for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry told the Post that the ministry, including its incoming director-general, shared the frustration of the Ethiopian community and, even though Halfon will longer be at the helm, would continue to fight any government decision to curtail the plan. The Finance Ministry confirmed on Wednesday that while there was no decision to completely cancel the five-year plan, the recommendation now was for the ministries - health, education, welfare and social services, construction and housing, and labor, trade and industry - to pick up the remaining costs needed to run the various facets of the program.