Treasury Official Under Fire After Attack on Russian-speaking Immigrants

High-ranking adviser faces potential ouster for questioning the pedigree and motivations of olim from former Soviet Union.

Several Knesset members called yesterday for the dismissal of a high-ranking adviser to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz for saying that hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants who received citizenship because of their Jewish heritage are not actually Jewish and "came here for financial reasons."

Avi Simhon, who heads Steinitz's financial advisory committee, also reportedly asked why illegal migrants from Africa shouldn't be able to undergo a quick conversion if Israel could take in 450,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose Jewish status is questionable.

simhon - Tomer Appelbaum - December 27 2010
Tomer Appelbaum

"The unprecedented defamation against immigrants from the former Soviet Union, by the finance minister's senior financial adviser, shows the ignorance and cynicism that harms thousands of immigrants who came to Israel under the Law of Return and contribute a great deal to the State of Israel," said MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima ), who moved to Israel from Ethiopia.

Molla called on Steinitz to fire Simhon, adding: "If he doesn't do so, the adviser's position will be viewed as his position."

Comments slammed as 'racist'

Yisrael Beiteinu, which counts Russian-speaking immigrants as its electoral base, condemned Simhon's remarks as "racist."

"Officials of this kind, who hold racist views, have no place in the civil service, and the finance minister would do well to fire him at once," the party said in a statement. "Soviet immigrants came to Israel with the encouragement and support of every single government of Israel, which understood their importance to the development and progress of the State of Israel."

Simhon made the comments Friday, at the Commercial and Industrial Club of Tel Aviv.

"More than 450,000 immigrants who reached Israel were never Jewish," he said. "Maybe they had a grandfather who once was Jewish. They came here for financial reasons."

The remarks were broadcast on Army Radio yesterday, sparking the calls for his dismissal, and an apology of sorts from the Finance Ministry.

"Dr. Simhon explained that the interpretation given to his comments - making it seem like he had come out against the immigration from the former Soviet Union or against the Law of Return - is nowhere near his position, and in any case, he seeks to apologize to anyone who was insulted by the comments as broadcast," Steinitz's bureau said in a statement.

The statement also said Simhon sees immigration - including the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union - as a windfall for the country and for Zionism.

The finance minister released the statement after meeting with Simhon, whom he summoned for clarification after he heard about the broadcast and walked out of the weekly cabinet meeting to deal with the incident.

The statement would appear to meet the requirement of coalition chairman MK Zeev Elkin (Likud ), who called for Simhon's dismissal unless he issued an apology.

"If Simhon doesn't apologize and retract his comments in a clear fashion, I will demand that the finance minister cease all contact with him immediately," said Elkin, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.