Immigration of ‘lost tribe’ to resume after 5 years

1,700 members of Bnei Menashe community with possible Jewish roots already in the country; some 7,000-9,000 remain in India and Burma

Bnei Menashe immigrants arrive at Ben Gurion Airport from India in 2006. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Bnei Menashe immigrants arrive at Ben Gurion Airport from India in 2006. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The government has quietly decided to approve, after a five-year hiatus, continued immigration of the Bnei Menashe, a tribal group based in north-eastern India and in Burma that claims descent from the lost tribe of Menashe.

On Tuesday, Army Radio reported that a flight of 274 new immigrants is scheduled to arrive within a few weeks.

About 1,700 members of the tribe already reside in the country, mostly in West Bank settlements, especially in Kiryat Arba. There are an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 Bnei Menashe remaining in India and Burma. In 2005, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar ruled that the tribe had Jewish roots but members must still undergo a conversion process to be eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.

In 2007, immigration was effectively halted by a change in government policy, which required issues of mass immigration and conversion to be approved by cabinet decision, instead of just the Interior Ministry.

MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima), who was interior minister in 2007, and who opposes renewed immigration for the community, said Tuesday that it endangered the Jewish identity of the state.

“Apparently, there are those in government who think that if they come to Israel and convert to Judaism, maybe they will vote in future elections,” Sheetrit said in an interview to Army Radio.

MK Otniel Schneller, also of Kadima, argued that the issue is essentially one of family reunification for the community members already residing in the country. “We are a democratic country. A country that considers the importance of humanitarian gestures… they should receive a warm welcome.”

Shavei Israel, a NGO which effectively acts as a liaison between Israel and the Bnei Menashe, will be funding and managing the renewed immigration, according to Army Radio.

Israel last week renewed flights of Falash Mura immigrants from Ethiopia, seeking to bring over the last remnants of the Jewish community there.

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