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Shaked: Israel 'should boast about the absorption operation'

Ministers defend hardline refugee policy at meeting marred by offensive jokes

Liberman makes crack about Ukrainian women; Tamano-Shata calls out ‘hypocrisy’ of white colleagues who don’t support Ethiopian immigration

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked holds a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked holds a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a cabinet meeting on Monday, several ministers defended Israel’s hardline stance against taking in large numbers of Ukrainian refugees who are not eligible for citizenship, a day after the government acceded to pressure and agreed to ease its policy to a certain extent.

The meeting also saw cabinet members making seemingly racist and sexist jokes amid the worst humanitarian disaster to hit Europe since World War II.

“Enough with the self-flagellation. We are going above and beyond what any country that does not border Ukraine has done,” said Agriculture Minister Oded Forer, according to selectively leaked quotes published in Hebrew media.

“That’s correct,” responded Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. “The government and the ministers should boast and praise the absorption operation.”

Added Shaked: “There is no other country that is absorbing immigrants at such a scale.”

While her comment was correct in terms of immigration, countless other countries are absorbing or expecting to absorb far higher numbers of refugees. Israel’s handling of arrivals has also raised outrage, with some would-be entrants kept waiting for hours and even days at the airport, before Shaked last week arranged for them to accommodated at a hotel.

Minister of Agriculture Oded Forer arrives for a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 20, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunan / AFP)

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman called out those who have criticized Israel’s policy, saying, “When Israel was under fire, we did not see Europe speak out in our favor.”

He also made an off-color crack about Ukrainian women during the meeting, after Shaked noted that many mayors across the country are volunteering to take in Ukrainian refugees.

“Some of them only want Ukrainian women,” Liberman joked in response.

Nobody called out the minister for the comment and several colleagues even laughed at it, reports said.

After it was leaked, though, Liberman asked that it be wiped from the official minutes of the meeting.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a press conference, presenting new reform on housing, at the Finance Ministry offices in Jerusalem, on October 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli later slammed Liberman’s comment and subsequent request.

“There are some things that are not a joke. The finance minister asked to delete from the minutes of the meeting his outrageous statement about Ukrainian women. I hope this is the last time such things are said about women, who have always paid the price of war that men decided on,” tweeted Michaeli.

In a TV interview on Tuesday, Liberman apologized for the comment.

Also at the meeting, Absorption Minister Pnina 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 potential Ukrainian immigrants.

“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.

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

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

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

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?”

A leaked back-and-forth from the meeting also exposed the lack of clarity around what the country’s refugee policy actually is, and how it is supposed to be implemented.

While Shaked announced last week that Israel is prepared to take in 100,000 refugees who are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return — meaning, people with at least one Jewish grandparent — in practice, Israel has taken in over 7,000 refugees, with around half of them eligible for citizenship.

Refugees from Ukrainian wait for admission in front of the registration office for refugees inn Hamburg, Germany, Monday, March 14, 2022 (Marcus Brandt/dpa via AP)

Shaked capped the number of refugees ineligible for citizenship at 5,000 but later announced that any relatives of Israelis would also be granted entry, amid public outcry over the stringency of the policy.

However, it remained unclear how many people would actually be allowed in under the policy change and who exactly was permitted entry.

“If a refugee is a third cousin [of someone already in the country], he will not be approved,” Shaked told the meeting.

Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin pushed Shaked on her comment, asking her to clarify exactly what she was saying.

“Grandfather — yes. Brother — yes. Third cousin — we’ll have to see what the request is,” Shaked responded.

Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin speaks during a press conference, presenting new reform on housing, at the Finance Ministry, Jerusalem, October 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Elkin asked her: “What does that mean ‘we’ll have to see?’ That is not a policy. I’m totally lost. What does the policy say?”

Shaked responded that relatives will be allowed in.

“Relatives is a very broad term. It needs to be a clear policy,” said the Ukraine-born Elkin.

“Nu, Elkin. Why are you doing this now?” asked Shaked.

It was unclear which parts of the conversation Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was present for, as he left the meeting shortly after it started for a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During the meeting, the cabinet approved a series of measures to assist new immigrants reaching Israel from Ukraine and the surrounding countries, allocating additional funds and resources toward housing and providing basic services to the newcomers.

According to the United Nations, over 2.8 million Ukrainians have now fled their homes since the Russian invasion, with millions more thought to be internally displaced within the country.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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