Interior Ministry Barring Immigration From Three Countries
Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, a member of the secularist Shinui party, has reportedly said that immigration to Israel from Ethiopia, India and Peru will be frozen because immigrants from those countries undergo only Orthodox conversions and many choose to live in Judea and Samaria. Poraz made the statement to leaders of Amishav, a group founded in 1975 to reach out to people of Jewish ancestry who are interested in returning to the Jewish fold. Amishav director Michael Freund told The Jewish Press that there are currently 7,000 to 8,000 individuals of the Bnei Menashe group in northeastern India who claim they are descendants of the tribe of Menashe. “In the past decade we have brought more than 800 of this group to Israel. Most of them live in Gush Katif, Kiryat Arba or Sheve Shomron,” he said.
“We are an Orthodox organization everything is done according to Jewish law in full coordination with the Israeli chief rabbinate,” Freund added. He said that when they arrive in Israel, the immigrants undergo a full conversion by the chief rabbinate. The vast majority 98 to 99 percent remain religious and serve in the army. Two members of the Bnei Menashe community have received rabbinical ordination.
The late Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook urged the founding of Amishav, according to Freund. In 1975 Rabbi Kook heard Rabbi Eliyahu A vichayil of Jerusalem lecturing about the Ten Lost Tribes, and he called him over and told him to go find them. “I must admit,” says Freund, “that at first I was very skeptical about this whole thing of lost tribes, and approached it as a matter of helping true converts. However, after I visited their community in India myself over two years ago and studied their customs and spoke with them, I am convinced that they do have a historical connection to Am Yisrael.” Freund told The Jewish Press that Amishav had arranged for a meeting between the Bnei Menashe leaders and Minister Poraz, and that Poraz made it clear that he was not happy with the fact that they all undergo Orthodox conversion.
He would like to see them undergo a Reform or Conservative conversion, Freund said. Poraz, he added, is also unhappy with the fact that most live in settlements in Judea, Samaria or Gaza. “So because of those two issues he has frozen this aliyah and this is something we are fighting to change. My goal is that by the end of this decade all of those 7,000-8,000 people will be living in Israel as Jews. And we will achieve it regardless of what Poraz says.” Attempts to obtain a statement from the Interior Ministry were unsuccessful.
Amishav also works with other population groups, including descendants of marranos in Spain and Portugal. Asked how he knows their claims are legitimate, Freund said, “In some cases there are people who have an old tradition in their family who were told that every Friday afternoon their grandmother would go into the basement and light candles in secret. In other cases there are people who did genealogical searches, who went to the archives of the Inquisition of Madrid and Barcelona.
“The Inquistion, much like the Nazis, were very meticulous at keeping records of everything they did. And these people researched their families and can show you with documents that their ancestors were Jews. Many of them are brought up as Christians, and when they discover that they are Jews they go through an identity crisis.Freund said that rabbis sent by Amishav to Spain and Portugal receive calls and letters every day from Spaniards who say, “We might be descended from Jews. What do we do? Where do I get more information?” This doesn,t mean they are all interested in becoming Jews. It can be plain genealogy or intellectual curiosity, he said.
“I feel that we the Jewish people, have a historical, moral and religious responsibility towards these people because their ancestors were kidnapped and torn away from us against their will by the Catholic Church. Now their descendants are grappling and trying to understand what it means that their ancestors were once Jews. “We owe them to at least send them the information. What they choose to do with it is their decision,” Freund said.