‘Lost Tribe of Israel’ couples marry in Jerusalem
JERUSALEM – Eighteen couples from a group of hundreds who recently moved here from India believing they are one of the “lost tribes” of Israel have been married in a massive, emotional ceremony, fulfilling for many a lifelong dream of starting a life in what they consider their homeland.
“For the first time, 18 B’nei Menashe couples – equal to chai [‘life’ in Hebrew numerical equivalent] – married in a joint ceremony under the wedding canopy in Jerusalem. This symbolizes their successful absorption into Jewish and Israeli society, and we wish the couples a lot of joy and success,” said Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based immigrant organization working with the “lost” Jews.
Shavei hopes to bring to the Jewish state the remaining 7,000 Indian citizens who believe they are the Bnei Menashe, the descendants of Manasseh, one of biblical patriarch Joseph’s two sons and a grandson of Jacob, the man whose name was changed to Israel.
The tribe lives in the two Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, to which they claim to have been exiled from Israel more than 2,700 years ago by the Assyrian empire.
This past August, WND reported Freund’s group brought 230 Bnei Menashe to Israel; the new arrivals made their way to a Shavei Israel absorption center in northern Israel where they studied Hebrew and Torah. The batch of arrivals followed about 1,200 other Bnei Menashe brought here the past 10 years, largely with the help of Shavei Israel.
Freund, who previously served as deputy communications director under former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stressed the Bnei Menashe have been keeping Jewish customs for at least the past four decades and were well-off in India but came due to Zionist ideology.
According to Bnei Menashe oral tradition, the tribe was exiled from Israel and pushed to the east, eventually settling in the border regions of China and India, where most remain today. Most kept customs similar to Jewish tradition, including observing Shabbat, keeping the laws of Kosher, practicing circumcision on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life and observing laws
of family purity.
In the 1950s, several thousand Bnei Menashe say they set out on foot to Israel but were quickly halted by Indian authorities. Undeterred, many began practicing Orthodox Judaism and pledged to make it to Israel. They now attend community centers established by Shavei Israel to teach the Bnei Menashe Jewish tradition and modern Hebrew.
Israel moves to restrict “lost Jews” immigration
Freund recently brought batches of the tribe to Israel after members of Israel’s chief rabbinate flew to India to meet with and convert members of the Bnei Menashe. Once legally Jewish, the tribe was able to apply for Israeli citizenship under the country’s “Law of Return,” which guarantees sanctuary to Jews from around the world.
But the Israeli government, which heavily restricts conversions, put a halt on the plan in October when Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit pushed through a bill heavily restricting approval of new immigrants who want to convert to Judaism and move to the Jewish state.
The bill, largely viewed as specifically targeting the Bnei Menashe, took away the interior minister’s power to approve the immigration of groups who claim Jewish descent, instead requiring a vote by the entire Israeli cabinet each time any group of more than ten “lost Jews” wants approval to immigrate.
Freund accused Sheetrit of attempting to “prevent groups with historical ties to the Jewish people from returning to Judaism and moving to Israel.”
“Requiring full cabinet approval every time a group of 100 or 200 people wish to move here and undergo conversion is a recipe for bureaucratic inertia, as there is little chance of getting such an item onto the busy agenda of the entire government,” said Freund.
This bill wasn’t the first time the Israeli government has blocked the arrival of the Bnei Menashe.
Over the last decade, Freund’s Shavei Israel, at times working with other organizations, brought about 1,200 Bnei Menashe members to the Jewish state.
The original batches of Bnei Menashe to arrive here came as tourists in an agreement with Israel’s Interior Ministry. Once here, the Bnei Menashe converted officially to Judaism and became citizens.
But diplomatic wrangling halted the immigration process in 2003, with officials from some Israeli ministries refusing to grant the rest of the group still in India permission to travel here.
To smooth the process, Freund enlisted the help of Israel’s chief rabbinate, who flew to India in 2005 to convert members of the Bnei Menashe, a process stopped last year by India.
Freund then coordinated with the Israeli government the arrival of batches of a few hundred Bnei Menashe as tourists who would later convert, but that process was canceled after Sheetrit took office.
The activist said he was hopeful a way would be found to fly over the remaining Bnei Menashe:
“The divine process of Israel’s return to Zion is far greater than any single person or even government, and no human power can stand in its way,” he said.