Some 80 members of the Bnei Menashe community from India’s north-eastern states landed at Ben Gurion Airport yesterday, the first of more than 1,000 that the decided decided some two years ago to bring to Israel.
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Greeting the newcomers at the airport, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom said that he intended bringing even more members of the Bnei Menashe community and Ethiopian Falash Mura to Israel.
Some 3,000 Bnei Menashe immigrants have settled in Israel, so far.
“This is hugely exciting, bringing another group of Bnei Menashe,” Shalom told Haaretz. “They’re returning to Israel after thousands of years, they’re also returning to Judaism. They’re reconnecting to the Israeli nation and I’m going to conduct the most liberal policy possible, bringing to Israel people who want to come from anywhere in the world.”
Israel had previously objected to bringing members of the Bnei Menashe community to Israel “not only for religious reasons, but for financial or other reasons that I don’t even want to think about, and you know what I’m talking about,” Shalom said.
“But I’m going to take a completely different approach. I also came here to express my position that we must open our hearts and arms and receive these people with a warm greeting,” Shalom said.
He said the newcomers strengthen Israeli society, like “the amazing immigration from the former Soviet Union. Everyone doubted them and questioned their Jewishness, but ultimately they gave Israel a huge economic, cultural and security boost.”
Shalom said he also intended to repatriate more Falash Mura – members of a Jewish community in Ethiopia who converted to Christianity under pressure – and hoped they will not be the last. He has instructed Population and Immigration Authority director general Amnon Ben Ami to draft a new proposal for the cabinet “to see how we can bring more groups.”
The Netanyahu government approved the immigration of the Bnei Menashe community, which claims descent from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, although they are not seen as Jews according to the halakha. Their immigration to Israel was initiated by the Shavei Israel NGO, which was founded and is chaired by Michael Freund, an immigrant from the United States and a consultant to Netanyahus during his first term as prime minister.
Freund has said in the past that he regards Israeli Arabs as a demographic threat and that creative measures are needed to increase the Jewish population of Israel.
Former Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar ruled in 2005 that Bnei Menashe members are “seed of Israel” and therefore permitted to immigrate to Israel, subject to conversion, according to both the NGO and media reports.
However, an inquiry published by Judy Maltz in Haaretz in February found there was no such explicit ruling. Amar in fact established that the Bnei Menashe are not “seed of Israel” by customary definition and their Jewish roots have not been proved.
“Seed of Israel” is a halakhic term for anyone born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. The Chief Rabbinate enables people classified as “seed of Israel” to undergo a speedy conversion process.
Freund called on the government yesterday to approve the immigration of some 6,500 more Bnei Menashe who remain in India.
“There was a hiatus between 2007 and 2012, during which the government didn’t let any of them come for political reasons, but we managed to renew the immigration in 2012,” he said.
“We intend to continue bringing them all here, because they deserve it,” he said. “These are people filled with Zionist motivation. They make a good living, work hard, join the army and defend Israel; they raise the cutest Jewish children and come here to contribute to the state and strengthen it.”
The new immigrants will live in Kfar Hassidim for the first three months, funded by the state and the NGO. After that, most of them will move to permanent housing in Katzrin, while the rest will probably go to Carmiel.
“In the last 10 years we’ve been settling immigrants mainly in the Galilee, because of the work opportunities there and the much more reasonable housing costs,” Freund said.
“They are people with a lot of inner peace and are therefore very suitable for all kinds of high-tech plants. Topographically, it’s very similar to where they came from – very green, mountains and things like that. For us, it’s very significant because the Golan was the Menashe Tribe’s domain 2,700 years ago, so this is closing a historic circle,” he said.
Miriam Hokip, 22, arrived with the group yesterday, along with her parents and three brothers. “I have no words to express my joy,” she said. “I’m really excited. I can’t believe I’ve landed here on the ground. I really feel wonderful. I’m grateful we all landed safely, thank God,” she said in English.
Asked why she wanted to come to Israel, she said “because it’s the land of our fathers and the promised land.” She said she wants to receive from Israel, but also to give Israel what it needs and wants from her.
“From today on I’ll pray that those who remain in India will be here very soon,” she said.