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Minister defends calling out ‘white hypocrisy’ of colleagues over refugee policy

Pnina Tamano-Shata says she couldn’t remain silent in cabinet meeting marred by offensive jokes; defends ongoing efforts to take in Ukrainian refugees, despite setbacks

Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, November 15, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, November 15, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata on Thursday defended comments she made during a cabinet meeting earlier this week, when she called out her white colleagues for their “hypocrisy” regarding Israel’s treatment of refugees from Ukraine versus those from Ethiopia.

“The truth is known to everyone and sometimes people don’t like to hear the truth,” she told the Ynet news site. “I told the truth. There is a certain level of hypocrisy that we need to expunge. The only medicine to treat this is putting everything on the table for all to see.”

During a cabinet meeting on Monday, Tamano-Shata tore into her colleagues for refusing to offer the same degree of sympathy and support for Ethiopian Jews seeking to flee their war-torn country that they are now showing for Ukrainian refugees.

“This is the hypocrisy of white people. We must also work to advance the immigration of Jews from Ethiopia, who are also fleeing a war,” she said.

In response, Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai cracked, “We’re from Europe.”

Tamano-Shata, who herself immigrated from Ethiopia, reportedly did not take the response well, telling Shai to “take it back, it’s not funny.” At that stage, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman reportedly intervened to defend the comment as “just a joke.”

Ethiopian Immigrants arrive in Israel as part of Operation Tzur Israel, March 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Economy Minister Orna Barbivai also apparently didn’t appreciate Tamano-Shata’s remarks, saying, “How can you say such a thing? How would you react if someone said that Black people are hypocrites?”

“There was a moment when I thought they forgot I was in the room,” Tamano-Shata told Ynet. “Whether it is a joke or not, such things should not be said during a meeting of the Israeli government. We are such a diverse people. I sat there and felt small, so it was important for me to hold up a mirror to their faces, even more so as someone who believes in all different parts of Israel’s society and tribes.”

“As an Ethiopian, I can tell you that I work as much for the Jews of India, France, the United States, Russia and Ukraine, as I do for my community,” she added.

On Tuesday, the High Court rejected a petition seeking to bar additional Ethiopian immigrants from moving to Israel, paving the way for thousands to escape the Tigray conflict — a move welcomed by Tamano-Shata.

Asked how many immigrants from Ukraine and Russia officials are expecting to arrive, Tamano-Shata said that some 5,000 have already arrived since the start of the fighting, with estimates that the figure will reach the tens of thousands in the coming weeks and months.

Immigrants fleeing from Ukraine arrive at the immigration and absorption office at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

According to data released on Thursday by the Population and Immigration Authority, 11,390 Ukrainians refugees have arrived in Israel since the Russian invasion began. The figure included those eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

The population authority also said 258 Ukrainian nationals were denied entry to Israel since the start of the war last month.

Responding to allegations that Israel is woefully unprepared for the task, Tamano-Shata said that “you can’t expect everything to be perfect when it comes to such a massive undertaking.”

“We are constantly working to get additional manpower in order to absorb them, getting those who arrive places to sleep, finding people who can speak the needed languages,” she said.

“There are setbacks, be it in Ben Gurion Airport or on the bureaucratic level. My job is to solve these issues. We are working in full force to give the best treatment possible.”

Ukrainians disembark from a special flight to Israel from Romania upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport, March 8, 2022 (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The issue of Ukrainian refugees has been a highly contentious one in Israel. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, with the support of many right-wing lawmakers, initially severely limited the number of refugees who could enter the country and required the families of those coming in to put down large monetary deposits that would only be returned upon their exit from the country.

In the face of a public outcry against these practices, as well as criticism from government ministers, the Interior Ministry first did away with the deposit requirement and increased the number of refugees it would allow into Israel to 5,000, then softened the rules further, allowing any Ukrainian with a family member in Israel to enter the country without limit.

Refugees looking to enter the country were also initially subjected to extensive questioning and detention at Ben Gurion Airport before fierce backlash prompted the government to begin housing them at hotels in Tel Aviv instead.

Though the government has eased its policies on refugees, it has continued to face criticism for its handling of the issue. On Wednesday, Kan news reported that the Population and Immigration Authority had unnecessarily deported dozens of Ukrainian refugees because one of its forms had a translation error, resulting in applicants inadvertently declaring that they had stayed in Israel illegally in the past — when they thought they were saying only that they had previously visited the country.

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