Israel Bars Large Group of Immigrants From India After Discovering High Rate of COVID Among Them

India, one of the world hot spots for coronavirus infections, is one of nine countries that Israelis are currently prohibited from traveling to because of the high incidence of infection

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Bnei Menashe praying at a synagogue in India's northeastern state of Manipur in 2012.
Bnei Menashe praying at a synagogue in India's northeastern state of Manipur in 2012.Credit: Anupam Nath / AP

In a rare move, Israel’s Health Ministry is barring a large group of immigrants from India from entering the country, having discovered numerous cases of COVID-19 among them.

The group of 275 immigrants were all due to land at Ben Gurion International Airport on Monday afternoon on a flight from New Delhi. Initially, the Health Ministry had planned to bar the entire group, but under pressure from the Aliyah and Integration Ministry and the Jewish Agency, it agreed to allow some members, who tested negative for the virus, to board the flight.

The group, which claims ancestry from one of the lost Israelite tribes, had been granted special government permission to move to Israel as its members do not qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return. They were to have arrived on temporary resident visas with the understanding that they would obtain citizenship after undergoing Orthodox conversions.

Funeral pyres burn for patients who died of COVID-19 in Allahabad, India in April.Credit: Sanjay Kanojia / AFP

Known as the Bnai Menashe, these immigrants hail from Northeastern India and were in transit in New Delhi when it was discovered yesterday that many were infected with the coronavirus. Among the 275 Bnai Menashe scheduled to arrive Monday afternoon on an El Al flight via Mumbai, 36 tested positive.

The Aliyah and Integration Ministry, along with the Jewish Agency, initially decided to leave behind only the group members who tested positive and their families, allowing the remaining 160 group members to fly to Israel as planned. 

But when the Health Ministry learned of the high positivity rate, it denied entry to the entire group, for now.

In a statement to Haaretz, the Ministry of Health said: “Given the high infection rates and the real threat of entry of dangerous variants into Israel, we have ordered that this group be held back in their country until they have been fully quarantined and those infected are fully recovered.”

But late on Sunday night, following appeals from the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration and the Jewish Agency, the Health Ministry agreed to let some of the Bnai Menashe come on Monday’s flight. No information was available immediately on how many would be on the flight.

This was not the first time immigrants have been denied entry to Israel after testing positive for COVID-19. But it is the first time such a large group has been infected and that such a large group scheduled to arrive in Israel has been kept out. India is currently one of the world’s hot spots for coronavirus infections, and along with the United States and Brazil, has the highest recorded death rate. It is one of nine countries that Israelis are currently prohibited from traveling to because of the high incidence of infection.

This was to have been the first Bnei Menashe flight that the Jewish Agency has helped finance. Until now, Shavei Israel, a private organization, had assumed sole responsibility for bringing members of the group to Israel. About 4,000 Bnei Menashe live in Israel, most of them having arrived in the past decade.

After a hiatus of several years, the Bnei Menashe aliyah resumed late last year when about 250 members of the group arrived. Earlier this month, the cabinet approved a one-time allocation of 10 million shekels ($3 million), at the request of Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, to cover the cost of settling an additional 548 Bnei Menashe in Israel over the course of this year. As part of this cabinet resolution, the Jewish Agency agreed to split the cost of their flights and passports with Shavei Israel. Shavei Israel raises most of its funding from Christian evangelical organizations. 

In a letter sent last weekend, Michael Freund, the founder and director of Shavei Israel, beseeched his Christian supporters: “Please pray for the full and speedy recovery of the Bnei Menashe who are ill with Corona and for the Lord to bless Shavei Israel with the strength, energy and resources to overcome this challenge and bring His children home to Zion as soon as possible!!”

The Aliyah and Integration Ministry, in response to questions, said that all the Bnei Menashe arriving in Israel Monday had tested negative for the coronavirus and posed “no health threat whatsoever.” This statement was issued before the Health Ministry ordered that the entire group temporarily be denied entry.

It promised that those left behind in India would be able to board flights to Israel once they had fully recovered and were no longer in danger of carrying the virus.  “We see in the immigration of Jews to Israel, even during this difficult time, a supreme goal, and for that reason, even during 2020, at the height of the coronavirus, more than 21,000 immigrants moved here.”

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