To love aliyah, to forget about the olim – why I quit the Knesset

ONE WOULD think that since aliyah is so important to prosperity and success of the State of Israel, the priorities of this community will be high on the agenda of every government, Right or Left.

Michael Freund dances with Bnei Menashe new immigrants at Ben-Gurion Airport on November 16 (photo credit: COURTESY SHAVEI ISRAELI)
Michael Freund dances with Bnei Menashe new immigrants at Ben-Gurion Airport on November 16
Dozens of meetings with voters are taking place now all around the country ahead of parliamentary elections set for April 9. The politicians will do their best to convince the citizens that they did their utmost during the last four years for the respective populations, and that they will work even harder if only their party will get re-elected.
Many of such meetings will include olim – freshmen and veterans, from Russia, the US, France or Ethiopia. Heads of parties will come to a community center in Ashkelon and to a hipster bar in Tel Aviv, meet with lone soldiers, young students or pensioners and promise them a better future. Your pensions are meager? We will work on that! Your children suffer from racism decades after you made aliyah from your native country? Here is a plan to change all that. No social housing? We will build the necessary apartments. Do you have a problem with acquiring a recognition of your diploma? Oh, these bloody bureaucrats, we will teach them a lesson, just wait until we get elected or re-elected.
Colorful flyers and T-shirts will be given away, and a mandatory selfie with olim, some of them know little Hebrew if at all, will be taken in the end by the politician’s staff.
And this is what happens next: the minute these parties are re-elected, they will forget at once all of their plans and promises.
How do I know? I’ve just spent four years at the Knesset trying to fight the windmills of indifference and disinterest. During these four years, I’ve seen senior politicians, olim among them, avoiding the Aliyah and Integration portfolio like the plague (the only party that actually insists on Aliyah portfolio is Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, and the office is easily given away to them on demand while no discussion on what actually happens with this important office). I’ve seen the committee for Aliyah, Integration and Diaspora empty from any MK’s presence while the chief of the committee, Avraham Nagosa, leads the discussion with the representatives from civil society all by himself.
Sometimes I saw MKs come to participate in a discussion that was tied to their respective community (i.e., good for primaries or national elections) and leave the moment the other discussion had begun. I’ve seen government officials canceling their participation seconds before the discussion starts (actually, it happens all the time at the Knesset, but more often in the committee for Aliyah and Integration, which is regarded as a weak and insignificant one).
Some heated and important discussions do take place at the committee from time to time, but government officials rarely follow the decisions made by its members. Why so? Because olim-related issues do not score very high on politicians agenda, and also because the olim are an amorphous group that lacks a strong political lobby inside the Knesset to pressure politicians and make them more active in this regard. And there is yet another important reason why it happens – Israeli politicians love aliyah, but don’t really care about the olim.
PRIME MINISTERS of Israel and leaders of various parties have failed – time and again: 180,000 elderly olim from FSU lack housing, and somehow they get along with a meager allowance from the National Insurance Institute. They failed lone olim-soldiers, who feel desperate and commit suicide, by cutting the budget of the “Eran” hotline. They didn’t do enough to change the attitude toward olim from Ethiopia. They also didn’t do a thing to ease the pain of some half a million olim and their Israeli-born children, who simply can’t get married in their own country after Israel spent tons on stimulating aliyah.
They didn’t present any plans to ease the 25,000-strong waiting list for social housing that includes exclusively olim, and the list goes on. The current Knesset term that lasted four full years – a rarity in Israel’s turbulent political life – wasn’t any different in this regard. My bills and bills of my colleagues from opposition and the coalition on social housing, civil marriages, language accessibility, education against racism and other important issues were declined time after time by the ministerial committee for legislation, while respective heads of parties didn’t exercise their power to promote them further on.
Not one minister, including the “Yisrael Beytenu” Party had threatened to quit the government over aliyah-related issues (eventually Avigdor Liberman decided to resign over the crisis on Israel’s southern border). But I entirely do not put the blame solely on coalition members. My own faction, Zionist Union, never even tried to shape aliyah-oriented policy and to actively engage the olim. Nor did the Hatnua Party of Tzipi Livni, which I was a member of, attempt to put the aliyah-related issues higher on its agenda. The relative funds were never allocated (while expensive advisers had been hired as the party continued to bleed mandates and popularity), the necessary attention and dedicated never available.
A few MKs, including Professor Manuel Trachtenberg – once an oleh himself and who later resigned from the Knesset – had invested plenty of time and effort in shaping balanced and well-thought bills on pensions for olim, social housing and so on, but it seemed that Zionist Union leadership, especially after Avi Gabbay was elected, never took interest in them.
ONE WOULD think that since aliyah – the ultimate goal of Zionism – is so important to prosperity and success of the State of Israel, and since every Israeli family is either a descendant of olim or made aliyah themselves, the priorities of this community will be quite high on the agenda of every government, Right or Left.
But in reality, it seems that while the right-wing parties believe that they will be a default choice for many olim, the left-wing parties just decided to let go, labeling all of the olim as right-wingers.
Since my first day at the Knesset, I tried to do my very best filing queries to ministers who never answered, promoting bills that never made it through the preliminary readings, although dozens of MKs from both sides of the aisle supported them, trying to curb my own party. Unfortunately, there was no team to fight together for the budgets, amendments and legislation. My hope is that a large all-Israeli party, such as the Zionist Union, will adopt aliyah-oriented agenda that didn’t materialize.
I believe that Israel desperately needs such a platform that will represent all olim, fight for their rights and try to solve their problems, and I hope that such a platform will erupt in time for next elections. I promise to do everything in my power to make it happen while continuing cooperation with civil society organizations, like KeepOlim, which continuously raise awareness for these burning issues. Hopefully, someday Israeli politicians will not only love “aliyah,” but also commit to olim themselves.
The writer was a member of the Aliyah and Absorption committee and chaired a parliamentary lobby supporting olim in Israel.