Bnei Menashe men in India reciting traditional Jewish prayer (photo: Shavei Israel)

JERUSALEM – In a move that has incensed religious, nationalist and immigration groups, the Israeli government this week voted to heavily restrict approval of new immigrants who want to convert to Judaism and move to the Jewish state.

The bill, initiated by Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, constitutes a major obstacle for many immigrant groups, including thousands of Indian citizens who believe they are one of the “lost tribes” of Israel and seek to return to the Jewish state.

Over 1,000 members of the Indian group – the Bnei Menashe – moved in recent years to Israel, where they were successfully integrated into religious Israeli society, holding professional jobs, attending universities, becoming rabbinic leaders and serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Israeli lawmakers voted earlier this week to take away the interior minister’s power to approve the immigration of groups who claim Jewish descent, instead requiring a vote by the entire Israeli cabinet.

Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization working to bring the remaining 7,000 Bnei Menashe from India to Israel, slammed the decision.

He accused Sheetreet of attempting to “prevent groups with historical ties to the Jewish people from returning to Judaism and moving to Israel.”

“Requiring full cabinet approval every time a group of 100 or 200 people wish to move here and undergo conversion is a recipe for bureaucratic inertia, as there is little chance of getting such an item onto the busy agenda of the entire government,” said Freund, who previously served as deputy communications director under former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Rabbinic delegation interviews Bnei Menashe members (photo: Shavei Israel)

The Bnei Menashe believe they are descendants of Manasseh, one of biblical patriarch Joseph’s two sons and a grandson of Jacob, the man whose name was changed to Israel. The tribe lives in the two Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, to which they claim to have been exiled from Israel more than 2,700 years ago by the Assyrian empire.

The Bnei Menashe, which has preserved ancient Jewish customs and rituals, has been trying the past 50 years to return to Israel.

Freund recently brought over batches of the tribe to Israel after members of Israel’s chief rabbinate flew to India to meet with and convert members of the Bnei Menashe. Once legally Jewish, the tribe was able to apply for Israeli citizenship under the country’s “Law of Return,” which guarantees sanctuary to Jews from around the world.

But the Indian government, which heavily restricts conversions, put a halt on the plan by barring further conversions.

Now Bnei Menashe members seeking to return must be brought over as tourists and convert once they are in the Jewish state. However, the new cabinet decision requiring full governmental approval for every batch makes their immigration unlikely.

“Why, you might be wondering, would Sheetrit and his cabinet colleagues do such a thing? The answer is really quite simple. It is post-Zionism of the ugliest sort, tinged by prejudice and sheer ignorance,” stated Freund.

Post-Zionism is a secularist movement in Israel that believes Zionism – support for a Jewish homeland – was fulfilled with the establishment of Israel and is no longer necessary.

This week’s vote isn’t the first time the Israeli government has blocked the arrival of the Bnei Menashe.

Over the last decade, Freund’s Shavei Israel, at times working with other organizations, brought about 1,200 Bnei Menashe members to the Jewish state.

The original batches of Bnei Menashe to arrive here came as tourists in an agreement with Israel’s Interior Ministry. Once here, the Bnei Menashe converted officially to Judaism and became citizens.

But diplomatic wrangling halted the immigration process in 2003, with officials from some Israeli ministries refusing to grant the rest of the group still in India permission to travel here.

To smooth the process, Freund enlisted the help of Israel’s chief rabbinate, which flew to India in 2005 to convert members of the Bnei Menashe, a process stopped last year by India.

Freund then coordinated with the Israeli government the arrival of batches of a few hundred Bnei Menashe as tourists who would later convert, but that process was canceled after Sheetreet took office.

Freund took particular offense at the involvement of Sheetreet, himself an immigrant.

“Amazingly enough, though, Sheetrit himself was born in the town of Ksar Souk, Morocco, in 1948 and made aliya at the age of 9. He undoubtedly endured various types of discrimination as he was growing up here, as many veteran Israelis looked down on Sephardic immigrants from Morocco,” commented Freund.

But the activist said he was hopeful a way would be found to fly over the remaining Bnei Menashe:

“The divine process of Israel’s return to Zion is far greater than any single person or even government, and no human power can stand in its way,” he said.

According to Bnei Menashe oral tradition, the tribe was exiled from Israel and pushed to the east, eventually settling in the border regions of China and India, where most remain today. Most kept customs similar to Jewish tradition, including observing Shabbat, keeping the laws of Kosher, practicing circumcision on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life and observing laws of family purity.

In the 1950s, several thousand Bnei Menashe say they set out on foot to Israel but were quickly halted by Indian authorities. Undeterred, many began practicing Orthodox Judaism and pledged to make it to Israel. They now attend community centers established by Shavei Israel to teach the Bnei Menashe Jewish tradition and modern Hebrew.

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