Israeli Government Set to Approve Expanded 'Lost Tribe' Immigration

Plans under way to take in another large group of 712 'Bnei Menashe' from northern India.

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

Interior Minister Silvan Shalom will request special government approval to renew the immigration of a large group of individuals from northeastern India who claim descent from the ancient Israelites but are not recognized as Jewish by Israeli law.

Because the Bnei Menashe, as they are known, are not recognized as Jewish under the Law of Return, their immigration to Israel requires special government authorization. A spokesman for Shalom confirmed plans are under way to bring another 712 members of the community to Israel within the next few weeks, pending government approval.

About 2,500 members of the Bnei Menashe community already live in Israel, with most of them arriving in recent years as part of a new policy implemented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Previous governments had barred their immigration, since little, if any, proof exists of their Jewish lineage.

A report published in Haaretz earlier this year  found that the campaign to bring this group to Israel has been fraught with questionable government decisions, an ambiguous rabbinical ruling and potential conflict of interest. It also found that the transition to life in Israel for the Bnei Menashe has been particularly difficult.

Spearheading the campaign to bring the group to Israel is a private organization called Shavei Israel, founded and headed by a former Netanyahu aide. The organization actively lobbies the government to allow not only more members of this particular community into Israel, but also members of other groups referred to as “lost” and “emerging” Jewish communities. Roughly 7,000 individuals still living in northeast India identify as Bnei Menashe.

The group claims descent from the tribe of Manasseh, one of the ten "lost tribes" deported by the Assyrians after the conquest of the Kingdom of Israel in the eight century BCE. 

Since he assumed the position of interior minister earlier this year, Shalom has embraced the mission of Shavei Israel and undertaken to advance its goals. 

In October 2013, the previous Netanyahu government approved a decision to allow 899 members of the Bnei Menashe community entry into Israel over a three-year period. Since this quota has already been filled, any new immigration requires special government authorization.

Because the Indian government prohibits conversions on its territory, the Bnei Menashe undergo the process only after they have arrived in Israel.

Despite this, the minister of interior’s spokesman told Haaretz that the 712 members of the community expected to arrive in Israel over the next few weeks have already been converted. When asked to explain how this was possible, considering the ban in India on conversions, he declined to elaborate.

Michael Freund, who heads Shavei Israel and is also a commentator for The Jerusalem Post daily, has said he views Israel’s Arab minority as a demographic threat and advocates using unconventional means to boost the country’s Jewish population. In past years, his organization has arranged housing for immigrants from the Bnei Menashe community in West Bank and former Gaza settlements, although this was ultimately halted.