Secret Government Plan to Bring Indian Tribe to Israel Faces Criticism in Knesset

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Bnei Menashe land in Israel. April 26, 2015. Credit: Ilan Assayag

While the Israeli government was suspending plans to bring over the remaining members of the Ethiopian Jewish community, claiming lack of funding, it recently approved a secret deal to renew immigration for members of a tribe in northeast India claiming descent from ancient Israelites.

An opposition member of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs committee, Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union), now wants to know why one group trumps the other. Additionally, she asks, why does the government refuse to divulge details of its decision to bring 700 Indian nationals to Israel, who are not considered Jewish by law, and convert them to Judaism?

In an official query submitted to Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin on Monday, Svetlova wrote: “It turns out there is a budget. While the Ethiopian Jews are being left behind, quietly and secretly hundreds of members of the Bnei Menashe community, who identify as descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes, are being brought over. 

“But while the Ethiopians live under constant danger, in bad conditions, and still wait to immigrate to Israel, the Bnei Menashe in India, whose Jewishness has yet to be clarified, are being brought over with urgency. And where are they being settled? You guessed right. In the West Bank settlements. And all this is happening away from the public eye.”

Spearheading the campaign to bring the Bnei Menashe to Israel is a private organization called Shavei Israel that aims to return “lost Jews” to their roots. The organization was founded and is headed by American-born Michael Freund, a former aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Before resigning over allegations of sexual misconduct, former Interior Minister Silvan Shalom had agreed to submit a proposal to the government to renew the immigration of this northeastern Indian tribe and bring over another 700 of its members.

That was after Shavei Israel had exhausted the quotas determined in two previous government decisions in recent years. Bringing the Bnei Menashe to Israel requires special government approval because members of this community are not considered Jewish by Israeli law and are therefore not eligible for automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. Since the Indian government prohibits religious conversions on its soil, the Bnei Menashe are brought to Israel for that purpose.

At one time, the Bnei Menashe were sent to live in Jewish settlements outside Israel’s internationally recognized borders. In recent years, however, they have been settled inside the “Green Line,” in many cases in mixed Jewish-Arab towns. 

Last month, the government halted plans to bring over another 9,000 members of the Falashmura community in Ethiopia citing budgetary considerations.  The decision applied mainly to those who have family members in Israel. The Falashmura are Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. They, too, are required to undergo conversion upon arrival in Israel. 

In a Facebook post, Svetlova – a Russian-born former journalist serving her first term in the Knesset – said she had demanded that Elkin “reveal the budget for this questionable aliyah operation, the priorities, and also the reason all this was kept secret.”

The two previous decisions taken by the government to bring members of the Indian tribe to Israel were published on the website of the Prime Minister’s Office. Asked by Haaretz for a copy of the latest decision, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said it could not be publicized because it was “classified.”

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