The Knesset's Aliyah and Absorption Committee held a stormy debate Wednesday following remarks by public officials that caused insult to immigrants from Russia.
Russian-immigrant MKs from the Israel is Our Home party skewered MK Otniel Schneller of Kadima and Dr. Avi Simchon, an adviser to the Finance Minster, both of whom recently made disparaging remarks regarding the Russian-speaking olim [immigrants].
Speaking on the Knesset podium Tuesday on the subject of drunken driving, Schneller said that the phenomenon of drunken driving "did not exist before the aliyah from the Commonwealth of Independent States."
Schneller refused to apologize from the podium Tuesday but sounded a more conciliatory tone Wednesday.
"My comments were misunderstood," he said. "The debate was about road safety, and I am a professional on this subject. I created the National Traffic Police, I made road safety classes mandatory in schools, I led legislation on helmets and safety."
Schneller tried to maneuver between his comments Tuesday and the need to fend off criticism. He said that drunken driving had reached Israel in the last 20 years but that this had nothing to do with the olim. He also said, however, that "Any culture that reaches Israel creates norms on the roads as well."
"I was floating a problem, not laying blame," he tried further to explain.
Ben Gurion was drunk?
Aliyah Minister Sofa Landver was not soothed by the explanation. "Maybe the parents of 35,000 olim-soldiers are drunks also?", she asked him pointedly. "Maybe [first Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion, who made aliyah from Russia, was under the influence of alcohol when he declared the state? Was [Prime Minister] Levi Eshkol drunk when he started the Six Day War? Was Arik Sharon, whose family's roots are in Georgia, drunk when he created Kadima?"
Landver said that the people of Kadima do not like Russian immigrants because they did not vote for them.
"This is demagoguery," Schneller fired back. "I risked my life for you to be able to make aliyah. The aliyah is dearer to me than your politics and the olim are dearer than those who try to represent them."
MK Faina Kirchenbaum raked Schneller over the coals too, and claimed that surveys have shown that drunkenness is as common among native Israelis as it is among olim. "As a Knesset member you have responsibility," she scolded him. "Even if you apologize, this remark will be remembered."
Kirchenbaum also had harsh words for Dr. Simchon, who said in a lecture that more than 400,000 olim who came to Israel were not Jews. "Maybe they have some grandfather who was a Jew," he said in the lecture, a recording of which reached Voice of Israel radio. "They came here because they were given an absorption package and we agreed to take them in," Simchon went on. "If we absorbed them, why don't we absorb the infiltrators from Africa too?"
He later apologized for the remarks and praised the immigrants from Russia as "a great blessing to the country.".
Unmollified, Kirchenbaum said: "I learned in the Diaspora that popular anti-Semitism grows from state anti-Semitism. In Israel, too, the bureaucrats stoke these flames." MK Lia Shemtov - who, like Kirchenbaum and Landver, hails from Israel is Our Home - demanded that Simchon be fired.
Committee Chairman Danny Danon (Likud) summed up the meeting by "vigorously denouncing" what he termed the "incitement against olim." He called on Schneller and Simchon to issue direct apologies for their statements.