MKs demand ouster of adviser who disparaged FSU olim

Finance minister's adviser Avi Simhon apologizes for saying FSU immigrants "have no connection to Judaism. They came here for economic reasons.”

FSU olim 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
FSU olim 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Coalition and opposition MKs called on Sunday for the immediate removal of a senior Finance Ministry official who was recorded making statements seen as defamatory toward immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Dr. Avi Simhon, the chairman of the Finance Minister’s Economic Advisory Forum, told a meeting of the Commercial and Industrial Clubhouse at the Tel Aviv Crowne Plaza Hotel that non-Jewish immigrants had come to Israel to improve their economic condition rather than for ideological reasons.
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“These people have no connection to Judaism. They came here for economic reasons alone,” Simhon said while participating in a panel discussion during the meeting held late last week.
“They thought that here they could find better economic conditions,” the senior economic advisor said. “They didn’t come out of a desire to join the Jewish people, but because they were offered an absorption package.”
Simhon’s statements were made public when a tape of the comments was submitted to Army Radio on Sunday morning.
He compared the immigrants to the asylum- and work-seekers from Africa who stream across Israel’s southern borders.
“If we accept those 450,000 immigrants, why can’t we also let tens of thousands of border infiltrators pass a sped-up conversion process?” he asked.
After the recording of his comments was broadcast, Simhon said that his “comments were taken out of context. I did not intend to say that all of the immigrants from Russia are not Jews. I was just referring to those who are registered with the Interior Ministry as non-Jews. I was trying to say that I do not accept the statements that the immigrants must be converted just because they are currently in Israel.”
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz’s office responded to the initial comments, saying that “Avi Simhon’s statements reflect his views and not the opinions of the finance minister, who has great respect for the Russian aliya.”
Shortly after the tape was broadcast, Steinitz held what his office described as a “clarification conversation” with Simhon.
During the conversation, Simhon reportedly told Steinitz that he sees immigration in general, and specifically immigration from the former Soviet Union, as a great blessing to the country and to the Zionist effort.
“It is hard to cast any doubt on the great contribution of immigrants to the state, to its strength, to its security, to its economy and to culture in Israel,” he reportedly said.
Simhon said that the interpretation of his statements as being against immigration from the former Soviet Union or against the Law of Return is “very far from his positions” and he apologized to anyone who was offended by his statements.
But politicians were not easily mollified by Simhon’s explanations on Sunday morning.
“Simhon’s statements testify more than anything to ignorance on everything related to the Law of Return,” responded Israel Beiteinu, a party whose support base is Russian-speaking immigrants. “Bureaucrats of this type have no place in public service, and the finance minister would be best advised to immediately fire him.”
Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee chairman Danny Danon (Likud) said that he had called on Simhon to publicly apologize before his committee, which will hold an urgent hearing in the coming days on Simhon’s remarks.
“I am embarrassed in the name of the Knesset by the vilifying statements that came out of the mouth of a person with such status,” Danon said. “These were baseless defamations and heresy against the wonderful effort to ingather the exiles that entire generations have upheld. Every person who has a Jewish connection belongs in the State of Israel, the Jewish state.”
Kadima MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima) also called on Steinitz to dismiss Simhon, saying that “the government of Israel under Netanyahu and Steinitz has been revealed as a post-Zionist administration. The senior economic adviser’s unprecedented defamation of immigrants from the former Soviet Union shows the ignorance and cynicism that harms thousands of immigrants who came to Israel under the Law of Return and made great contributions to Israel.
“If Steinitz does not fire him, his adviser’s position will be seen as his own,” Molla warned. “It is interesting to see what [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, the immigration absorption minister [Sofa Landver] and the rest of Israel Beiteinu intend to do as the immigrants’ representatives in the government.”
Last month, at the Sderot Conference for Social Issues, Simhon aroused a storm when he suggested that poverty in Israel was the result of people in certain sectors having too many children.