From In­dia, With Dif­fi­culty

Forward Magazine - - News - By Sam Kesten­baum Con­tact Sam Kesten­baum at kesten­baum@for­ or fol­low him on Twit­ter, @skesten­baum

Is­rael spends $2 mil­lion to bring ‘home’ a ‘lost tribe’ with claims of dis­tant ties to bib­li­cal Is­raelites.

Is­rael will spend 8.1 mil­lion shekels, or about $2 mil­lion, to bring more than 712 mem­bers of In­dia’s Bnei Me­nashe com­mu­nity to Is­rael this year, the Is­raeli news site Walla re­ported May 22.

In the past, the Min­istry of Ab­sorp­tion and the Jewish Agency have han­dled group im­mi­gra­tion to Is­rael. But in the case of the Bnei Me­nashe, a group that claims dis­tant ties to the bib­li­cal Is­raelites, their im­mi­gra­tion has been spear­headed by Shavei Is­rael, an Is­raeli or­ga­ni­za­tion that seeks “lost” and “hid­den” Jews around the world, to take on the task of group re­set­tle­ment.

While the Jewish Agency has col­lab­o­rated with Shavei in ef­forts to bring the group to Is­rael, the Is­raeli not-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion has cham­pi­oned the small group from north­ern In­dia.

The news comes amid grow­ing Is­raeli in­ter­est in Ju­daiz­ing groups. There are per­haps mil­lions of in­di­vid­u­als in Africa, Asia and the Amer­i­cas who pro­claim an­ces­tral or spir­i­tual con­nec­tions to Jews or Is­rael, though few are ha­lachic con­verts and would not be el­i­gi­ble for im­mi­gra­tion un­der Is­rael’s Law of Re­turn.

The Is­raeli govern­ment has re­cently formed a spe­cial com­mit­tee to map such myr­iad groups and re­think its pol­icy to­ward them.

Shavei, which was founded in 2002, is ac­tive in Africa, Asia and the Amer­i­cas and has as­serted it­self as the most prom­i­nent or­ga­ni­za­tion work­ing with Ju­daiz­ing groups — and has al­ready as­sisted thou­sands of peo­ple who claim dis­tant Jewish or Is­raelite roots re­lo­cate to Is­rael.

“We have brought more than 1,000 Bnei Me­nashe in the past two and half years,” Michael Fre­und, Shavei’s founder, told the For­ward in an ear­lier in­ter­view. “It’s been a big suc­cess.”

In to­tal, Shavei has al­ready set­tled around 3,000 from the com­mu­nity and “there are an­other 7,000 still wait­ing to come,” Fre­und said. “Their con­cep­tion of re­turn is both geo­graphic and spir­i­tual.”

Ac­cord­ing to Walla, the Ab­sorp­tion Min­istry waived the typ­i­cal “ten­der” pro­ce­dure be­cause of Shavei’s knowl­edge of the Bnei Me­nashe. Shavei, Walla re­ported, will as­sist in fly­ing the com­mu­nity to Is­rael, con­vert­ing them to Ju­daism and over­see­ing their ac­cli­ma­tion.

The Bnei Me­nashe’s path to im­mi­gra­tion, though, has not al­ways been smooth. Last Novem­ber, Haaretz re­ported that Shavei’s “cam­paign to bring this group to Is­rael has been fraught with ques­tion­able govern­ment decisions, an am­bigu­ous rab­bini­cal rul­ing and po­ten­tial con­flict of in­ter­est.”

The Bnei Me­nashe were “dis­cov­ered” in the 1980s by Fre­und’s men­tor, an in­flu­en­tial “Lost Tribe seeker” and Re­li­gious Zion­ist named Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail. Avichail was con­vinced that the group mem­bers, who live in the In­dian bor­der­lands, were de­scended from the bib­li­cal tribe of Me­nashe, though long-sev­ered from other Jewry or rab­bini­cal tra­di­tions. Many so­cial sci­en­tists con­test this claim. Nev­er­the­less, Avichail as­sisted the first wave of Bnei Me­nashe im­mi­grants in both com­ing to Is­rael and un­der­go­ing Ortho­dox re­li­gious con­ver­sions.

Con­tro­ver­sially, many of the first Bnei Me­nashe were first set­tled in Is­raeli set­tle­ments in Gaza and the West Bank. This was, Fre­und em­pha­sized, be­cause hous­ing was af­ford­able in the set­tle­ments.

Many Bnei Me­nashe still live in Kiryat Arba, a set­tle­ment near the city of He­bron, but new im­mi­grants now typ­i­cally go to cities and towns in Is­rael’s north, Fre­und said.

“Sim­ple In­di­ans are be­ing brought here to save the set­tle­ment move­ment,” one mem­ber of the Knes­set, from the La­bor Party, protested in 2003.

In In­dia, too, Shavei’s work and the Bnei Me­nashe’s Is­raelite story have not al­ways been well-re­ceived, even from within the Mizo, the same eth­nic group as the Bnei Me­nashe.

One Chris­tian Mizo wrote in 2004, that “the mass con­ver­sion by for­eign priests will pose a threat not only to so­cial sta­bil­ity in the re­gion, but also to na­tional se­cu­rity,” re­fer­ring to the work of Jewish groups.

“A large num­ber of peo­ple will for­sake loy­alty to the Union of In­dia,” the writer stated, wor­ried.

Fre­und has deftly nav­i­gated the murky wa­ters be­tween Is­rael’s rab­binate and the Min­istry of Ab­sorp­tion, a cou­ple of the prin­ci­pal bod­ies in­volved in de­cid­ing who is el­i­gi­ble for Is­raeli cit­i­zen­ship and who is not. But Shavei is also well funded, re­ceiv­ing some back­ing from Chris­tian evan­gel­i­cal groups, in­clud­ing Bridges for Peace and the In­ter­na­tional Chris­tian Em­bassy Jerusalem.

Esther Col­ney, one of the first Bnei Me­nashe to im­mi­grate in the 1990s, de­scribed her first years in Is­rael as bumpy. In a re­sponse to a For­ward query, she wrote in an email that it was dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate the labyrinthine Is­raeli bu­reau­cracy — and to find suit­able work. Few ar­rive speak­ing He­brew flu­ently, Col­ney said, and few thought she was Jewish.

New im­mi­grants, she said “should be given par­ent­ing work­shops” and “guid­ance on how to take on a pro­fes­sion.” Still, Col­ney said, “I think that Is­rael needs more peo­ple like us, peo­ple with Zion­ist hearts.”


New Ar­rivals: Bnei Me­nashe im­mi­grants are met by fam­ily mem­bers as they ar­rive at Is­rael’s Ben Gu­rion In­ter­na­tional Air­port in 2012.

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