Israel Integrates Ethnic Groups

These are the times, as Thomas Paine might have said, that try the minds of the ignorant members of the American Studies Association who, in calling for a boycott of Israeli institutions, shrink from the service of academic freedom. Fortunately, these are also the times of glorious triumph as was shown with the arrival at Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv, on December 26, 2013 of 38 members of Bnei Menashe (BM) from the Indian state of Mizoram.

This group joins the more than 2,000 other members of Bnei Menashe who came from India and are already living in Israel. The BM provides a remarkable rejoinder to the bigots who categorize Israel as an "apartheid state" but who now have to witness the attempts to absorb an ethnic group. The BM claim to be descendants of Menasseh, son of Joseph, son of Jacob. They regard themselves as one of the ten lost tribes who were exiled from Israel by the Assyrians who invaded the northern kingdom of Israel around 722 B.C.

The tribe moved from Assyria eastwards, to Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet, and China, and to Central Asia, primarily to Northeast India, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh. In the 19th century many of the BM were converted by Baptist missionaries to Christianity. Nevertheless, they engaged in practices akin to those of Judaism, in festivals, funeral rites, and in birth and marriage ceremonies. In 1996 a letter from a member of BM to Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime minister, asserted that the groups were Jews, that they were in the process of converting to Judaism, and wanted to make aliyah to Israel.

After some hesitation about the claims of BM, the chief rabbi of Sephardic Jews, Shlomo Amar, accepted them as Jews, though they need formal conversion to the religion. The essential argument was that the rabbis were not proselytizing but only making formal the conversion of the members of BM who had already accepted Judaism and were in fact "returning" to Judaism.

Not everyone agrees this to be the case, and critics hold that the BM claim is "historically untenable." So far DNA tests on the BM are inconclusive, and are continuing. One study in Calcutta concluded that the masculine side of the tribe bore no links to people in Israel, but the feminine side suggested a genetic profile with Middle East people that may have resulted from intermarriage.

Regardless of the contradictory conclusions of these DNA studies the process of absorption of BM continues. Another 7200 members of the tribe still in India have been accepted for aliyah in a one to two year period after they have been formally converted to Orthodox Judaism by a beth din (commission of rabbis). This conversion will take place in Nepal in order to avoid problems with India. Some accounts suggest there may be as many as two million members of the lost tribe living in Northeast India and Myanmar (Burma).

Membership of a lost tribe of course does not in itself make anyone a Jew. But the definition -- a person with at least one identifiable Jewish grandparent or one who has converted to Judaism -- allows the BM to be acceptable as members of the religion and to immigrate to Israel.

The BM is not the first ethnic group of Jews to emigrate to the State of Israel. The Falash Mura, the Beta Israel (House of Israel) community of Ethiopians who claim to be descendants of Jews who converted a century ago, began arriving in the early 2000s. Their immigration and absorption since 1977 was an official enterprise, largely funded and organized by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency. Now numbering about 120,000, they have been brought to Israel under the Israeli Law of Return in various airlifts including Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991).

Coming from their basic agrarian society, their integration into the cities and towns in which they now live has not been easy. Yet though they still exist on a lower economic and educational level than the average Israeli, substantial progress has been made, partly because many of the younger Ethiopians have completed mandatory military service, partly because of the educational process, and partly because they have become involved in Israeli political and cultural life, including one Ethiopian young woman who became Miss Israel 2013.

In contrast, the entrance of the BM has been financed and organized by a private body, the non-profit Shavei Israel. This group led by Michael Freund, former aide to Netanyahu, has since 1997 has engaged in activity in locating Jews in places including hidden communities to bring those regarded as having Jewish ancestry to Israel.

Israel is a country that has since its establishment in 1948 been absorbing and integrating Jews from many countries into its society. Its inclusion of ethnic groups such as the Indians and Ethiopians is an illustration of its objective to create a society open to Jews of all kinds. It is also a refutation of the politically-correct bigots who accept the fallacious Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood and depict Israel as a country that discriminates against people.

No doubt the integration of Indian and Ethiopian Jews from the subsistence economic condition of their past to a highly sophisticated economy in a rapid process of modernization is a difficult task, though Israel has tried to ease it by preferential arrangements for them and by training community leaders. The policy of Israel, however, provides a striking contrast with that of the Arab League, which instructs Arab states to deny citizenship to Palestinians. Perhaps the League and the international community in general will now be mindful that Israel wants its inhabitants, Ethiopians, Indians and the rest, to become productive citizens, not to languish in camps.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.

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