An Absorbing challenge

The new Immigrant Absorption Minister, Ya'acov Edri, discusses plans for his new role with the Jerusalem Post.

yaacov edri 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yaacov edri 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On the government's Web site, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry is listed last. In the Finance Ministry's allocations, the pecking order of portfolios is not much different. It's no wonder that when politicians are appointed absorption minister, they usually jump at the first chance to take another job. That was the case with the last two ministers, Ze'ev Boim and Tzipi Livni. New Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri created the same impression when he accepted the portfolio on the condition that he would also be appointed to President Shimon Peres's former post of minister of Negev and Galilee Development. But in an interview at his office in Jerusalem this week, Edri said he was honored to receive the portfolio, because he himself made aliya from Morocco with his parents and nine siblings in 1959. He made his way from the transit camp of Or Akiva to its city hall, where in 14 years as mayor, he learned firsthand how to handle new immigrants. "I see this as an important job for me as an immigrant," Edri said. "My own absorption was very hard. Being an immigrant gives me understanding and confidence when dealing with absorption-related issues. When people talk about the difficulties of immigrants, I understand immediately, and I don't have to be told anything twice." Edri's sensitivity to the plight of immigrants is coming in handy this week when he is fighting to prevent the Finance Ministry from cutting immigrants' customs benefits on refrigerators, air conditioners and other electrical items. Following a tense meeting with Finance Ministry budget chief Kobi Haber at his office last Sunday, Edri declared a "world war" against the Treasury to restore the NIS 38 million cut. By Wednesday, Edri had already succeeded in having the cuts cancelled. Victory in his first fight as a minister with a portfolio proved Edri's staying power in a political battlefield that requires elbows to get ahead. How did you succeed in your fight against the budget cuts? I declared a world war on the budget cuts. They tried to cut from both of my ministries. But I succeeded in maintaining all the rights of the immigrants. What message was the Finance Ministry was sending with the suggested cuts in your budget? The cuts would have sent the wrong message to potential Western immigrants. Aliya is the essence of Zionism. This issue has been important since before the state was founded. This is what strengthens the state and ensures its future. What ideas do you have to improve the lives of immigrants? My first reform will be to ensure that from now on, immigrants receive their identity cards when they arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport. They shouldn't have to wait in line at the Interior Ministry to receive their cards. [New population registry director] Ya'acov Genot said he would deal with the issue immediately. We will do this for all immigrants. There will be an Interior Ministry clerk at the airport who will distribute the cards to new immigrants on the spot. It's the right thing to do to prevent unnecessary hassles to immigrants. What are you doing to bring back Israelis living abroad? I will do everything possible to help Israelis return. I am working to change the policy that requires returning Israelis to pay back payments on health funds. This should change as of January 1. It will help bring a lot of immigrants who already know the language, have family here and are able to make aliya in a way that is cheaper and easier. What can be done to bring more immigrants from the United States? Their immigration has many possibilities. Nefesh B'Nefesh is smart in helping them with housing, jobs and absorption in advance. The number of immigrants from America has been rising, but it is still way too small. Every satisfied immigrant we absorb here well will bring more. We have to do more to send the message to Jews in the US that this is their home. Will you be delivering that message personally soon in the US? I don't have any plans to leave the country, and I don't know when or to where I will. Has not being able to speak English made your job more difficult? I am sorry I'm not fluent. I feel good with every immigrant. That my English isn't the best does not add or take away from that. I have seen many respectful people who needed translators. But (switching to English:) I will make every effort to improve my English. It's necessary for me. You speak French. Does that help? Every language helps. I don't know if it will help bring more French immigrants. What we need to do is to make Israel more attractive. And there has to be a calm security situation. You were quoted in a Knesset committee supporting Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit's plans to change the Law of Return. Do you agree with him that something must be done to limit the thousands of non-Jews arriving from the former Soviet Union? All the relevant policymakers and officials will meet soon to deliberate and make a decision on that issue. I don't want to say anything until I see the numbers with my own eyes. [However,] there is a problem with intermarried families. We need to simplify conversion. We need to help people who want to convert do it in a simpler and more respectful way. I know the prime minister is doing a lot to expedite the process. We need to reach an agreement with all the rabbis. It's important for absorbing immigrants. Sheetrit also wants to stop bringing the Falash Mura from Ethiopia. Do you agree? No. There are agreements between the government and the American Jewish organizations, and we are not going to change them. But I don't want to comment until I meet with Sheetrit on the matter after the budget fight is over. What should be done about the refugees coming to Israel from Darfur? The real Darfur refugees have to be absorbed in the best way possible. But the Sudanese who are not refugees have to be returned to Egypt. The lists have to be given to international organizations so they won't be harmed there, in accordance with the international agreements. There is an agreement on this between the prime minister, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Red Cross, so no one will be lost along the way. The genuine refugees from Darfur have to be absorbed without causing them any further anguish. They have suffered enough. Their number is known to be 300 to 400. We are in a Jewish state and we need to set a quota of the 300-400 people from Darfur that are already here and not more. We need to close the fence hermetically and increase the army presence there to prevent more Sudanese from coming. What are you doing to bring to Israel the remaining Jews in Iran? I cannot talk about it because of the sensitivity of the issue. All I can say is that Israel will do everything possible to bring every immigrant to Israel. Why is the Immigrant Absorption portfolio so unwanted by politicians? I disagree. I want to be absorption minister at least until the end of term. The job is interesting for me. It's Zionism. It contributes on socioeconomic issues. I have experience helping immigrants as mayor of Or Akiva. I want to say honestly that I wouldn't turn down a senior portfolio, but for the stability of the country, I believe ministers need to stay in their positions for many more years to learn them better, because if not, it hurts the office. So in the next government, if you were given a choice between the Immigrant Absorption, Construction and Housing or National Infrastructures portfolio, you would take Absorption? If they give me those three options, I would stay in this job. I think it's unfortunate that people see the portfolio the way they do. I see it as important for me as an immigrant. I made aliya in 1959 with my parents and nine siblings to the transit camp in Or Akiva. My own absorption was very hard. Being an immigrant gives me understanding and confidence when dealing with absorption-related issues. When people talk about the difficulties of immigrants, I understand immediately, and I don't have to be told anything twice. We can't avoid having at least one political question. What is Kadima's future? The political map is unclear and foggy now. The polls say one way now but later they will say different. Kadima will be a big party in the future, because it's neither Right nor Left and the people of Israel have said there is a need for a centrist party. We have a prime minister who is not temporary. Kadima won't merge with another party. It has its own path.