A Homecoming in Israel

Critics of Israel who slander it as an apartheid state could not have been happy about the joyous special ceremony at Ben Gurion airport on January 17, 2013. They would have been bedazzled, bothered, and bewildered when an 18-year old girl, a political science student from Manipur in northeast India, was officially recognized as the 2000th member of the Bnei Menashe tribe to reach Israel and make aliyah.

In refutation of the charge made by hostile critics in the international community that Israel is a racist society, this ceremony of a non-white Asian woman was a dramatic illustration of Israel's achievement in creating a society free of discrimination and racism. The Bnei Menashe tribe, a small people of about 9,000 in India, has only recently made its appearance on the world stage. The members of the tribe claim their ancestor was Menasseh, the son of Joseph, and that they have descended from one of the ten lost tribes of Israel who were exiled around 720 B.C. by the Assyrians who had invaded the northern kingdom of Israel. The southern kingdom was not invaded, and most Jews in the world are descended from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south of the kingdom.

The Bnei Menashe tribe was taken as slaves and sent to Assyria, and then migrated to East Asia and India. The members therefore have an East Asian appearance and speak Tibeto-Burman languages. Today about 7,200 remain in Manipur and Mizoram in India. For long this people, part of the Kuki, Mizo, and Chin people, were headhunters and animists, but became Christian in the 19th century.

In the early 1950s members of Bnei Menashe began to identify with Judaism and with the State of Israel. In the 1970s Rabbi Eliyahu Avihayil visited the tribe and indeed named it Bnei Menashe. The crucial issue was whether the members could be validly accepted as an authentic part of the Jewish community. Though there is controversy over their Jewish identity and there is no documentary evidence confirming the fact, there appears to be a valid relationship with Jewish history. The tribe has biblical memories, worshipped one god, maintained ceremonies and practices of Judaism, observed funeral rites and marriage ceremonies, and sang ancient songs. One genetic study, though its accuracy is disputed, suggests the existence of Middle Eastern genes among them. At this point however there is no clear evidence of a common genetic origin with Jews elsewhere.

The tribe in the last 50 years has been building synagogues and mikvaot (ritual baths), under the supervision of Israeli rabbis. As a result of this identification with Jewry, members of the tribe began leaving for Israel, largely under the sponsorship, facilitation, and financial help of Shavei Israel, a nonprofit and nongovernmental organization headed by Michael Freund that is concerned with reaching descendants of Jews throughout the world and encouraging their immigration to Israel.

Over the last two decades the Bnei Menashe have been entering Israel. They were allowed to enter Israel on the basis of the Law of Return after a complete conversion to Judaism. Because of political differences and arguments that they were being exploited for political purposes, their immigration was halted in June 2003. However, in 2005 the Chief Rabbi of Sephardic Jews, Shlomo Amar, accepted their claim to be Jews devoted to Judaism, part of the lost tribe of Menashe, and therefore they were allowed to immigrate, though only after complete Orthodox conversion so they would be completely Jewish when they entered Israel.

After some delay and hesitation, a decision that ended uncertainty about granting visas to the tribe was made in October 2012 when the Israeli cabinet unanimously decided to allow immigration by members of the tribe, provided they undergo genuine conversion to Judaism. After tourist visas and temporary resident status they are eligible for immigrant status to become citizens of Israel.

The Bnei Menashe who have immigrated in recent years are now an integral part of the Israel community, living in various cities, including Jerusalem, Carmiel, Ma'alot, and Kiryat Arba. The new immigrants are sent for a few months to an absorption center in Givat Haviva, an appropriate place that had been founded in 1949 as the national educational center of the Kibbutz Artzi movement.

Unlike the widespread excitement in the Jewish world over the immigration into Israel of Jews from Russia, the  entrance of the Bnei Menashe has received little attention. But in a sense their entrance, if not important numerically, is symbolically significant. It gives a devastating rebuttal to those who have in the international community denounced Zionism (that is Israel) as racist. Even the United Nations Human Rights Council might take note.

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