From the Amazon to China: A Look at the 'Jew-ish' Groups Israel Is Trying to Bring Into the Fold

Members of groups with a Jewish connection from Africa, Asia and South America may get a chance to stay longer in Israel, even if they fall short of citizenship

Immigrants from the Indian Bnei Menashe community, June 25, 2015.
Ilan Assayag

A proposal to create a new status in Israel for people who have Jewish roots or belong to “emerging Jewish communities” is being welcomed by leaders of communities that could be affected.

As reported in Haaretz last month, the special status would be awarded to individuals with a connection to the Jewish people or Judaism who currently cannot immigrate under the Law of Return or spend long periods in Israel. The Law of Return grants automatic citizenship only to people who have at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse, or who have converted to Judaism.

Visitors to Israel who do not meet these criteria are restricted to three-month stays in the country unless they renew their tourist visas or change their status, which is often difficult.

But a yet-to-be published report by a committee appointed by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry offers a key recommendation: Let people who do not qualify for the Law of Return but who have a Jewish connection stay in Israel longer so they can explore their Jewish heritage and learn about the country. The committee crafted guidelines on how Israel should treat individuals with a connection to the Jewish people or Judaism, but who do not qualify as Jewish under Israeli law or Jewish law. Millions of people worldwide could potentially benefit from the new status the committee has recommended.

“This would be a big step forward,” said Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, spiritual leader of the Abayudaya community in Uganda. Members of his community, who all converted to Judaism and do not claim Jewish ancestry, have encountered difficulties over the years obtaining visas from the Interior Ministry to study in Israel.

“The news of this proposed change has been met with great interest and some skepticism,” said Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the spiritual leader of an 80-member congregation of Bnei Anusim – descendants of Jews forced to convert during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. This community in southern Italy was recently accepted for membership in the Reconstructionist movement.

“Many of our members throughout the south of Italy, Sicily and Sardinia would be thrilled to spend more time in Israel, especially to study,” Aiello said.

Some, however, are concerned they might not be welcomed in Israel because they underwent non-Orthodox conversion, Aiello said. “They feel that Jews who are pluralistic in their beliefs and who have made conversions as such will always face obstacles from the traditionalists,” she said.

An American rabbi of Italian descent, Aiello noted that she provides her converts with a certificate affirming their Jewish roots and status as Bnei Anusim. “We wonder if this certificate would be a help or a hindrance to those who would want to avail themselves of this new program, should it come to fruition,” she said.

Before the proposal becomes policy, it has several key hurdles to overcome. First it needs the approval of Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, followed by a majority vote in the cabinet. Based on experience, ministers representing the Orthodox parties are unlikely to show enthusiasm for a proposal that could potentially expand the definition of “who is a Jew.” In other words, it is still a very long shot.

In any case, which groups and individuals could be the beneficiaries if it gets passed? First consider those that definitely will not. The committee has recommended excluding people born Jewish who have either converted to another religion or believe in another religion even if they still identify as Jews. That, for example, would rule out Messianic Jews who believe in Jesus.

The Law of Return requires a Jewish grandparent for immigration to Israel, not a more distant ancestor. The law thus rules out hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people with proven Jewish ancestry – especially in places like the former Soviet Union, Poland and Hungary. Often in Poland and Hungary these are the descendants of Jews forced to hide their identity during the Holocaust. In the former Soviet Union, many are the descendants of Jews who intermarried during the communist era when practicing Judaism was forbidden.

Around the world

The committee recommended that the new status apply to these people, as well as to members of communities that practice Judaism, consider themselves Jewish and are considered by those around them to be Jewish. The following are some key communities that fall into this category.

Abuyadaya. Based in Uganda with a small satellite community in Kenya, the Abuyadaya split from Christianity in the early 20th century when they began identifying as Jews and observing Jewish laws and customs. In 2002, a rabbinical court sent to Uganda by the Conservative movement formally converted most of the 1,500-strong community, and since 2009, the community has had its own rabbi.

No members of the community currently live in Israel, though one did apply to immigrate and has yet to receive a response from the Interior Ministry. Several members of the community have been granted visas to study at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem, although many others have had their requests rejected.

Under existing Israeli law, only Jews can obtain student visas to study in non-degree-conferring institutes of higher education around the country, which are mainly religious schools or yeshivas.  Although the Jewish Agency considers the Abuyadaya a recognized Jewish community, the Interior Ministry is still developing a position on the matter.

Bnei Menashe. Based in northeast India, the Bnei Menashe consider themselves descendants of the “lost tribes.” Since the 1990s, several thousand members have been granted special permission to immigrate to Israel, even though they do not qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return. Spearheading the effort has been Shavei Israel, an organization run by American-born Michael Freund, a former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who got the government to let the Bnei Menashe come to Israel and undergo Orthodox conversions.

As a matter of principle, the government does not usually allow large group conversions of foreigners in the country. Many members of Bnei Menashe live in West Bank settlements. The government limits the number of Bnei Menashe it lets into Israel, and the existing quotas have all been filled.

Kaifeng Jews. Based in China, this community was formed around 1,000 years ago when a group of Jewish merchants, presumably from Persia, settled in the area of this city next to the silk route. The Jews lived among themselves in a segregated community for hundreds of years before they began assimilating and intermarrying with local Chinese.

Nir Kafri

At its height, the community numbered as many as 5,000 Jews. Today, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 Chinese can trace their Jewish roots. Only a small fraction of them, however, are active participants in the recently revived community. A small number have immigrated to Israel in recent years. Barnaby Yeh, a former active member in the community, does not expect any mass exodus of Kaifeng Jews if the Israeli government becomes more welcoming.

“The vast majority of them are either unable or unwilling to leave the city, let alone the country, for a variety of reasons, including especially cultural and economic ones,” he said. “The desire to emigrate has been grossly exaggerated, especially by certain parties with a vested interest in mass migration.”

Jews of the Amazon. Based in Iquitos, a large city in the Peruvian rainforest, this community is comprised of descendants of Moroccan Jews who arrived in the Amazon in the 19th century seeking employment in the rubber industry, and who married and had children with local women. Hundreds of members of the community, which has been recognized by the Jewish Agency, have immigrated to Israel over the past 15 years, most of them to the city of Ramle. Several years ago, the Interior Ministry denied two members of this community legal status in Israel because they had a Jewish great-grandparent rather than a Jewish grandparent.

Other Judaizing communities in South America. In recent years, many new Jewish communities have been established around South America outside the mainstream communities. Some claim descent from forced converts. Although they practice Judaism and consider themselves Jewish, not all of these self-identified Jews have undergone formal conversions.

The fastest growing community by far exists in Colombia. Daniel Askenazi, an Orthodox rabbi who serves the Jewish community of Barranquilla, estimates that the emerging Jewish community in his country is by now 2,000-strong. Although the mainstream community is larger – estimated at between 2,500 and 3,000 – he believes the emerging community will soon outnumber the mainstream community because it has been growing much more quickly. Askenazi said he welcomed a possible change in Israeli policy that would make it easier for members of Colombia’s emerging Jewish community to spend time in Israel.

“The current attitude of the Interior Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate is a disgrace,” he said. “It is humiliating and goes against Jewish ethics and Jewish law. There are many horror stories about what some of them go through to stay in Israel and study Torah, so anything that could help end this madness is a positive development.”

Lemba. Based in Zimbabwe, the members of this tribe who identify as Jewish number anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000. They, too, claim descent from the “lost tribes” and embrace certain Jewish practices. Genetic testing provides evidence that they emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean. To date, no members of the tribe have sought to immigrate to or study in Israel.

Chika Oduah

Igbo. Based in Nigeria, the members of this tribe who identify as Jewish number anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000. They, too, have no representation in Israel, but they also claim descent from the ancient Israelites.