Israel's immigration policy is riddled with internal contradictions, and the Bnei Menashe aliyah embodies them all. Otherwise it would be impossible to comprehend how one man's vision has brought Israel to the brink of a severe crisis in relations with India or how the Chief Rabbinate, reluctant to convert hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish citizens from the former Soviet Union, would send a special delegation of religious judges to eastern India to convert a mysterious ethnic group.
The affair began in the mid-1990s, during Benjamin Netanyahu's term as prime minister, when a letter on behalf of the Bnei Menashe found its way to Michael Freund, then deputy director of communications in the Prime Minister's Office. Freund, who sees the Bnei Menashe as descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes, formed a foundation to bring them to Israel.
When that arrangement was frozen in June 2003 by Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, Freund sought out religious court judges, flew them to India and convinced them he was right. The judges in turn persuaded Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who in 2005 dispatched a rabbinical conversion court delegation to India to perform a mass conversion of the Bnei Menashe. The delegation converted 216 people before its activities were discovered.
The Indian authorities complained Israel was conducting mass religious conversions in its territory. The affair threatened to create a rift between Israel and one of the world's most important countries. The Foreign Ministry halted the conversions immediately and returned the judges to Israel. But in the Indian government's view, the damage had already been done.
In the case of the Ethiopian Falashmura, who are converted upon arriving in Israel, government officials can limit their immigration to their heart's content. But the Bnei Menashe converted in accordance with Halakha (Jewish law), and no law, therefore, can take away their "right to return" to their country, the State of Israel, after 2,700 years. All Freund needed to do now was receive funding from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Freund intends to bring the remaining 7,000 Bnei Menashe to Israel, which would necessitate cabinet approval, which seems unlikely at the moment. But Freund will likely come up with yet another maneuver, and Israel will again find itself greeting Jews returning from the east after 2,700 years.