New absorption minister doesn't speak English

Ministry gets third head since last July as cabinet votes to approve the appointment of Eli Aflalo.

aflalo 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
aflalo 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The cabinet voted on Sunday to approve the appointments of Eli Aflalo as immigrant absorption minister and Ruhama Avraham as minister of tourism - two positions that require regular dealings with English speakers in Israel and abroad. The appointments of the two Kadima ministers will be brought to a vote in the Knesset on Monday. In a related appointment, Labor's Avishay Braverman's position as chair of the Knesset Finance Committee will be voted on when a majority is found to pass it. Avraham speaks passable if not completely fluent English while Aflalo speaks French, but does not speak English. Sources close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the ministers' language skills were not a factor in the decision to appoint them. "Speaking English is not part of the criteria for the jobs," an Olmert associate said. "No government has ever given its ministers an English test and we won't be the first to start. There are world leaders like [French President Nicholas] Sarkozy who don't speak English." But officials in the ministries and the Jewish Agency and professionals in the fields of absorption and tourism stressed the importance of speaking English fluently. "The appointment of an absorption minister who doesn't speak English like Aflalo proves that the address for absorption is the Agency, where we take our job seriously," an Agency official said. "The government shouldn't be surprised if it plays second fiddle on Jewish world issues if these are the kind of people they appoint. Maybe it would be better if the ministry was abolished and the money spent elsewhere." The Agency official said the last few absorption ministers all "seemed to hate the job." Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni held the post in the last government while she was also justice minister and had her current portfolio. Ze'ev Boim received the ministry as a consolation prize when Olmert bypassed him for his preferred job of Knesset speaker when the government was formed in May 2006. He left the job a year ago in favor of the Construction and Housing Ministry. Ya'acov Edri wanted to be interior minister but he agreed to take the Absorption portfolio last July on the condition that he would also be appointed minister of Negev and Galilee development. Now, when he was forced to give Aflalo one of the two jobs, he chose to disappoint him by giving him Absorption and not letting the Afula resident become Negev and Galilee development minister. "It's a scandal that the Absorption Ministry has its third minister in two years," said former deputy absorption minister Marina Solodkin (Kadima). "It shows disrespect to the ministry staff and to the million immigrants served by the ministry. It makes the government look foolish in the eyes of the Diaspora and sends them a message that the government of Israel is unprofessional, anti-immigrant and does not want aliya." A Likud source compared the Aflalo and Avraham appointments to its handling of the Second Lebanon War, saying that both proved that the government was "amateurish." "To place two clearly unqualified ministers whose English leaves what to be desired in such important positions highlights that this government's only goal is survival," the Likud source said. Avraham said Sunday that she "speaks quite good English," and that she feels comfortable conversing in the language, adding that she spoke at Israel's 60th birthday event in New York City. She said she also spoke a little Spanish and that she understands Arabic. But tourism officials said that was not good enough and that they missed former tourism minister Isaac Herzog, who is a native English speaker. "It's absurd that in the year 2008 we would even consider appointing a tourism minister who doesn't speak English fluently and eloquently," said Mark Feldman, the CEO of the Jerusalem-based travel agency Ziontours. "It's a slap in the face to tourism professionals in this country and abroad. We're talking about the second-largest source of income to this country, so it's imperative that we have someone fluent in English. The tourism minister represents us abroad in countless forums so they must feel comfortable speaking English conversationally. "Israel is a brand and the tourism minister becomes a symbol of the brand. A pretty smile is not enough to promote this country."