15 Bnei Menashe Families From India Allowed to Immigrate

Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer

Fifteen extended families from India's Bnei Menashe community have received Israeli government permission to immigrate, in the name of "family reunification."

Another 7,000 members of the group, which claims to be descended from one of the 10 Lost Tribes, remain in India.

For the last three years, the government, especially Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, have opposed letting groups that claim Jewish ancestry, but are not Jewish, to immigrate to Israel.

The Bnei Menashe are from northeast India, practice Judaism and claim to be descended from the tribe of Menashe, which was one of the 10 lost tribes of the kingdom of Israel and was exiled to Assyria in the eighth century BCE.

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has ruled the Bnei Menashe are of Jewish ancestry but must undergo full conversion to return to the Jewish people.

Over the years, about 1,500 of them were permitted to immigrate to Israel. Many converted in India and came to Israel under the Law of Return, but in 2005, following a dispute with the Indian government, the conversions in India were stopped.

The Shavei Yisrael organization, which assists groups seeking to return to their Jewish roots, has been lobbying the Israeli government to let in the Bnei Menashe still in India, and convert upon arrival as a condition for receiving citizenship.

Sheetrit has been blocking these initiatives, but a few months ago, Shavei Yisrael Chairman Michael Freund asked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to allow 23 extended families into Israel to join their relatives. Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel supported the move and managed to persuade Sheetrit, who last week announced that he would allow in 15 families, for a total of 150 to 200 people.

Shavei Yisrael is planning to organize a special charter flight for the group in January. Meanwhile, efforts are underway to find the group a place to live for their first year in Israel, when they will undergo conversion.

"The new immigrants will most likely settle in the Galilee, whose lush landscape and pastoral setting resemble the land of their birth," said Freund.

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