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Historic: Bnei Menashe Permitted to Move to Israel

Overturning a previous decision requiring Cabinet approval for Bnei Menashe immigration, the gov't has now decided to allow all of them in.

By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 8/20/2008, 1:21 PM

In a decision that is being called "historic," the government has resolved to allow the remaining 7,232 members of the Bnei Menashe Jewish community in India to immigrate to Israel. 

The decision comes ten months after another Cabinet decision demanding Cabinet approval each time a group of ten or more Bnei Menashe wished to immigrate to Israel. That decision was called "immoral" and "post-Zionist" by Bnei Menashe supporters.

The welcoming decision was made over the past few days by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, after Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit was finally convinced to remove his objections.  It was Sheetrit who led the original decision of last October, voluntarily transferring to the Cabinet his authority to approve immigration - and thus essentially preventing Bnei Menashe from arriving.

Background
The Bnei Menashe claim descent from the tribe of Menashe, one of the Ten Tribes exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrian empire over 2,700 years ago. They reside primarily in the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, along India's border with Burma and Bangladesh. In recent years, over 800 members of the community have made Aliyah, thanks largely to the efforts of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization that assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.

The Bnei Menashe in Israel reside mainly in Kiryat Arba, Beit El and Ofrah.

300 Each Month
With the new government decision, it is hoped that all the remaining Bnei Menashe will be brought to Israel within a two-year period, at a rate of some 300 per month. This, in order not to antagonize the Indian government, and apparently to ease the immigration process as well.

Community is Jewish, Individuals Must Convert
Michael Freund, head of Shavei Israel, has been working for over 15 years to provide Jewish and general education to the Bnei Menashe in Israel, and to persuade the Israeli government that they should be allowed to immigrate. Their aliyah [immigration to Israel] is complicated by the fact that though the Jewishness of the community is now a recognized historical and religious fact, each individual must formally convert to Judaism on his own.

Approximately 100 Bnei Menashe used to arrive in Israel each year, until approximately 2003, when then-Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, of the extreme-secularist Shinui party, ordered a freeze on further immigration to Israel from India, Ethiopia and Peru. He explained openly that immigrants from those countries undergo only Orthodox conversions, and that many of them choose to live in Judea and Samaria. 

Freund countered at the time that the reason why most of the Bnei Menashe live in Yesha (Judea, Samaria and Gaza) was because those localities actively welcomed them, while others did not. 

Rabbi Amar Rules
Freund later achieved a breakthrough in the matter when he succeeded in having Israel's Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar send two rabbinical court judges to visit northeastern India.  Based on the findings of that visit, the Rabbi ruled in March 2005 that the Bnei Menashe were, in fact, “descendants of Israel.”

The remaining 7,232 Bnei Menashe members in India comprise an exact list of those whose immigration to Israel the government will allow.  The government and the Jewish Agency wish to avoid a situation, such as in Ethiopia, where apparent non-Jews "jump on the bandwagon" and demand to be brought to Israel as well.

Post-Zionist Decision Replaced by Welcoming Hand
Regarding last year's decision, Freund told Arutz-7 at the time, "The Chief Rabbinate is willing to convert them, but the government is saying it does not wish to allow these people to be candidates for conversion.  This is an unconscionable act... Requiring full cabinet approval every time a group of people wishes 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. Hence, by creating a virtually insurmountable obstacle to approval, [Sheetrit] hopes to bury the issue once and for all." 

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

If so, the government's latest decision has replaced its "ugly post-Zionism" with a warm and welcoming hand to Jews the world over.