India Blocks Airlift of Bnei Menashe

A much-publicized operation, in which members of the Bnei Menashe tribe were due to be brought to Israel from India, has been canceled for fear relations between the two countries will be harmed.

The Indian aviation authorities have refused to grant permission to an Israir flight to depart on November 12 with 812 members of Bnei Menashe, the largest number of members of the tribe wishing to immigrate so far.

The Bnei Menashe members underwent conversion about a year ago by emissaries of the Chief Rabbinate, without the knowledge of the Indian authorities.

A few months ago, Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim bowed to pressure and approved the group's arrival in Israel. The group members were due to be received by an official welcoming party at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

The plane was leased from Israir by the Jewish Agency and the operation was funded by the Friendship Fund, whose donors are Evangelical Christians.

Plane grounded

The fund had invited photographers to film the operation so this could be used in fund-raising in the U.S. However, India's Foreign Ministry on Monday informed Israel's ambassador to New Delhi that the plane would not be allowed to leave.

According to diplomatic sources, the Indian government is not favorably disposed to the conversion process nor any attempt to present the Bnei Menashe's departure from India as a mission of savior. Israel will therefore have to lower the profile of the operation and bring the Bnei Menashe here gradually, probably on regular El Al flights.

The Bnei Menashe believe they are members of the tribe of Menashe, part of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel who were dispersed by the Assyrians 2,500 years ago. Some 5,000 of them live in eastern India and about 1,000 have immigrated to Israel over the past 20 years.

In the summer of 2005, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar agreed to send a rabbinical conversion court to India.

But, after a few weeks, the Indian authorities protested to Israel's Foreign Ministry against the mass conversion, and it was called off. The religious court members returned to Israel after converting 612 Bnei Menashe. Those who have converted are now able to come to Israel under the Law of Return and the Jewish Agency is arranging for their absorption in Carmiel and Upper Nazareth.