Knesset event cheering immigrants marred by fighting on Ethiopians, conversion
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Knesset event cheering immigrants marred by fighting on Ethiopians, conversion

Second 'Aliya Day' holiday event punctuated by criticism of government, rabbinate over those left behind

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) shakes hands with Likud MK Avraham Neguise during an event marking Aliya Day in the Knesset on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) shakes hands with Likud MK Avraham Neguise during an event marking Aliya Day in the Knesset on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was supposed to be an upbeat and apolitical celebration of Jewish immigrants to Israel, lauding their accomplishments and numerous contributions.

But the Knesset’s second-ever commemoration Tuesday of a new national holiday — Aliyah Day — devolved at times into a fracas, as coalition and opposition lawmakers criticized the government over its policies on conversion to Judaism and stalled immigration from Ethiopia.

Addressing the crowd of Israeli leaders, along with immigrants — half of them Ethiopian Israelis — and the organizations supporting them, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed immigrants’ contributions to the state and singled out the “great honor” of facilitating the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

“As prime minister, I had the great honor of bringing to Israel, in several waves, the remnants of the Ethiopian community,” he said.

The prime minister also emphasized that he headed and was actively involved in an inter-ministerial committee to integrate the Ethiopian Israelis into society, education, and the workforce, a task he dubbed “holy work.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an event marking “Yom HaAliyah” at the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But the government’s treatment of Ethiopian Jews was fodder for criticism by opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Kulanu MK Eli Alaluf during their respective speeches in the parliament.

The Prime Minister’s Office has come under fire for perceived foot-dragging on the immigration from Ethiopia. Netanyahu was also criticized after he did not meet with leaders of the local Jewish community during his July 2016 visit to Ethiopia — the first for an Israeli prime minister.

A government plan to bring the 9,000 Jews remaining there to Israel was approved in November 2015 but was not implemented because there was no budget for the program. Following protests, the Finance Ministry allocated a sum that enabled 1,300 Ethiopians to move to Israel over the next year.

According to the head of the Knesset’s Immigration Absorption Committee, Likud MK Avraham Neguise (himself an immigrant from Ethiopia), the plan was continuing apace, with the remaining 800 of the 1,300 set to arrive in December.

Neguise and Herzog traded barbs during the event, after Herzog said “the agreement [on advancing Ethiopian Israeli immigration] is not advancing at an appropriate pace.”

Chairman of the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs committee Avraham Neguise speaks during an event at the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Neguise interrupted the opposition leader to lay out the figures of the 1,300 and the timetable for their expected arrival, defending the government’s position.

“You said 9,000. That was the agreement you presented,” Herzog shot back.

“Let’s be realistic. In your time, you closed it,” replied Neguise, referring to a slowdown in immigration when the Labor Party was in power. “This is a fact.”

“Don’t make things up,” Herzog replied.

The approximately 9,000 Jews left behind in Ethiopia are classified as Falashmura, a term for Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. Falashmura are not considered eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which requires at least one Jewish grandparent and disqualifies someone who has converted to another religion, even if the conversion happened a long time ago.

Countering these claims, Ethiopian Jews said that the decades-old process to determine Jewish identity was poorly executed and inaccurate, dividing families. At least 80 percent of the Jews in Ethiopia have first-degree relatives living in Israel.

From the coalition, Kulanu MK Alaluf rebuked the government for hindering the continued immigration flow.

A member of the Falashmura Jewish Ethiopian community carries her baby on her back before attending the Passover prayer service, in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia. April 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“It is unacceptable that there are at least 12,000 Jews are waiting [to move to Israel] — and I repeat, Jews. Let’s stop splitting and sorting Jews in this way or another. Enough,” said Alaluf.

The Kulanu lawmaker, who visited the Ethiopian Jewish community along with Neguise, charged that the government was penny-pinching on immigration of Jews from Ethiopia — but not from other countries.

“It’s a game to save money,” he said.

Conversion ‘hasn’t moved a millimeter’

While Neguise and Immigration Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beytenu) implored the lawmakers to withhold their criticism and focus on the celebratory day, Herzog also set off an uproar in the hall on the issue of conversion to Judaism.

In his address, Herzog charged that government officials and the rabbinate had never sought to reach a compromise on the “huge issue, which hasn’t budged a millimeter.”

Earning appreciative whoops and applause from the audience of immigrants, many of whom hailed from the former Soviet Union, Herzog said: “There was no fight or discussion between the government and the rabbinate to solve the problem.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog sits next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an Aliyah Day event in the Knesset on October 24, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There was none. And I tell you this as the grandson of a chief rabbi who determined that Ethiopian Jews were Jews and determined that you may accept leniency in conversion. And today, no one is coming forward to challenge the rabbinic establishment and invite it here and ask it [to find loopholes],” Herzog said.

“Do you know that the official in charge of conversion in the Prime Minister’s Office does not meet the chief rabbis? They don’t meet with him. They don’t invite him.”

Meanwhile, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky defended US rabbis Avi Weiss and Haskel Lookstein, whose conversions have been disqualified by the Israeli rabbinate.

While stressing that he was eager to avoid criticism on the national holiday, Sharansky hailed Lookstein — “who raised generations upon generations of Zionist Jews who immigrated to Israel from the US” — and Weiss for their activism benefiting the Jewish state.

“Today, the rabbinate does not recognize the conversions of Rabbi Lookstein or Rabbi Avi Weiss. Is this how the gates of the State of Israel ought to be opened?” he said.

Many of the speakers at Tuesday’s event hailed the contributions and accomplishments of Israel’s immigrants, pointing to the numerous lawmakers present from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia as evidence that Israel’s glass ceiling had been shattered.

But sparring and political jibes punctuated the ceremony. That included Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova, who interrupted Netanyahu’s praise for the pension agreement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin for former Soviet Jews in Israel.

Svetlova, sitting on the panel of speakers, interjected with a comment on the low wage, setting off a yelling match among the lawmakers present.

“Let the pickling do its work,” replied the prime minister, referring to a speech on Monday night in which he had branded the opposition “sourpusses,” using a Hebrew word that means, literally, pickles.

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