‘Lost Tribe’ of Bnei Menashe to Make Aliyah, Convert to Judaism, by End of Year
Israel is investing millions of shekels to bring hundreds of members of India’s Bnei Menashe community to the Jewish state and oversee their conversions to Judaism by the end of December this year, an Absorption Ministry document waiving the usual procedure for such immigration confirmed, the Hebrew news site Walla reported on Sunday.
According to the report, the document was presented to the non-profit organization Shavei Israel, which has been actively involved in trying to help the Bnei Menashe community from northeastern India move to Israel and undergo official conversions to the religion with which they claim to identify.
What is special about the document – which states that NIS 8.1 million (just over $2 million) will be allocated to bringing 712 Bnei Menashe members to Israel, converting them to Judaism and overseeing the process until they receive the temporary Israeli ID cards given to all new immigrants – is that it also constitutes a waiver of the “tender” procedure normally involved in such operations. The reasons given by the Absorption Ministry for its decision to waive the procedure were that Shavei Israel is familiar with the community; has the capability to undertake the project within a short time frame; and is “the only organization, to the best of our knowledge, that has been dealing with the Bnei Menashe in its country of origin.”
According to Walla, the document specifies that Shavei Israel will be charged with the task of flying the community from India to Israel and handling its acclimatization, including conversion, Hebrew studies and assistance in their absorption into local communities.
Michael Freund, who heads the organization, was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deputy communications director from 1996-1997. The US-born Ra’anana resident established Shavei Israel in 2002, to bring the “lost tribes of Israel” – wherever they are in the world — back home. These communities are not defined as Jewish under Israel’s Law of Return, but feel they are rooted in the Jewish people. Freund’s organization searches for the offspring of these Lost Tribes and hidden Jews or Conversos. This is how he found the Bnei Menashe.
“India does not look kindly on efforts of missionaries to convert various populations in its midst,” an Absorption Ministry official told Walla, to explain why the Bnei Menashe cannot undergo their conversions prior to making Aliyah. The official, who remained anonymous in the interview, was extremely critical of what he called Freund’s “missionizing,” and attributed his ability to get government funding for the Bnei Menashe to his “ties with Netanyahu.”
The Bnei Menashe say their oral history of 2,700 years describes their escape from slavery in Assyria to Media/Persia. From there they moved to what is now Afghanistan and then to Hindu Kush, Tibet and then, in around 240 BCE, to Kaifeng – eventually settling in the Himalayas, where they tried to preserve their heritage. They practice many Jewish rituals.
While still working in the Prime Minister’s Office, Freund received a letter from the Bnei Menashe, who told him they were descendants of the tribe of Menashe, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and appealed to him to help them return to their “Promised Land.”