'No automatic citizenship for Jews'

Interior Minister Sheetrit: "Don't go finding me any lost tribes because I won't let them in any more."

french olim 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
french olim 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri on Tuesday slammed Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit's proposal to cancel automatic Israeli citizenship to Jews. Although Sheetrit told reporters that Edri "agrees with the idea," a spokesperson for the absorption minister said Edri "completely disagrees, and never expressed any agreement. The minister is absolutely opposed to the suggestion, and the interior minister spoke of his own volition only." Appearing at the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Sheetrit said he believed "Israel should no longer grant automatic citizenship to Jews." He explained that "Israel should become like every other country. I want to see that [the immigrant] is not a criminal, that he's learning Hebrew; that he's here for five years before getting citizenship." Sheetrit told the delegates from around the world that "we have to focus on absorption" of olim already in Israel "whose lives are miserable." The interior minister also called for more careful filtering of those allowed to enter the country. "Don't go finding me any lost tribes, because I won't let them in anymore," he declared. "We have enough problems in Israel. Let them go to America." Asked by The Jerusalem Post if he wanted to completely cancel any special treatment of Jews coming to Israel, Sheetrit said he would still like to grant automatic entry and residence, but not citizenship. Meanwhile, the Jewish Agency took pains on Tuesday to distance itself from Sheetrit's comments. "The agency supports the continued existence of the Law of Return, which [has been] the soul of the State of Israel since its inception," read an agency statement. One senior Jewish Agency official told the Post shortly after Sheetrit's speech that "everyone here is against [Sheetrit's] suggestion to change the Law of Return. The big problem is conversion, not the Law of Return." Several participants in the Board of Governors meeting walked out of the hall in protest during the speech, which also included criticism of the Jewish Agency's priorities. According to a spokesman for Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews leader "walked out because of the comments about Ethiopians and the minister's calling the agency irrelevant. He wanted to express his disagreement and discomfort over the insulting content of the speech." Sheetrit's comments on hardening entry requirements were directed toward organizations such as the North American Conference for Ethiopian Jewry - which the minister mentioned by name - and Shavei Israel, which finds groups claiming Jewish descent around the world and brings them to Israel via a conversion program in the Chief Rabbinate. Shavei Israel head Michael Freund reacted angrily to Sheetrit's comments, calling them "post-Zionism in its ugliest form. They are an outrage. They show that he simply doesn't understand what this country is all about, which is serving as a homeland and a refuge for the entire Jewish people." Noting that Sheetrit himself had been born in Morocco, Freund wondered "what he would have felt when he and his family made aliya if they had been treated in the manner in which he now wants to treat new immigrants to Israel." Regarding the comment on lost tribes, Freund said, "Mr. Sheetrit has never bothered to explore or even study the issue of the lost tribes, such as the Bnei Menashe, nor has he ever met with any members of the community, so I find it simply astonishing that he would so irresponsibly determine their fate without even bothering to investigate the issue. "The aliya of the Bnei Menashe will continue," he vowed. •