Cabinet to rethink mass conversion

Exclusive: Proposal gives power to approve aliya of groups with questionable Jewish roots to entire gov't.

October 11, 2007 22:25
2 minute read.
Cabinet to rethink mass conversion

cabinet 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

Cabinet ministers will vote next Sunday on a major change in policy toward mass-conversion aliya, The Jerusalem Post has learned. The proposal will take away the interior minister's power to approve the aliya of groups with questionable Jewish roots who claim Jewish descent, and will make the approval of such aliya require a vote by the entire government. At issue is the way the state deals with communities that claim they are Jewish but whose halachic status cannot be easily ascertained. Most recently, the August arrival of some 200 members of northern India's Bnei Menashe tribe angered Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, who said he might not honor an agreement reached with his predecessor, current Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On, to grant the tribesmen tourist visas while they studied for conversion in Israel. The Bnei Menashe tribe holds to an oral tradition that claims they are descended from Menashe, one of the tribes of Israel exiled and lost to Jewish history following the Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. Doubt as to the authenticity of these origin-claims has led hundreds of tribesmen to undergo a formal conversion in order to move to Israel. Since Indian law limits religious conversion in many parts of the country, the Bnei Menashe cannot conduct their conversions in their home country before coming to Israel. Instead, through the Shavei Yisrael organization, which seeks out forgotten Jewish communities and brings them to Israel, the Bnei Menashe have come to Israel as a first step before enrolling in the Chief Rabbinate's conversion program. With the conversion, they are granted oleh status. Over 1,200 now live in Israel, with several thousand remaining in India. According to one government source who says he supports the new proposal, its passage would mean that "only Jews can come to Israel. And it won't be the interior minister alone who decides which groups come to convert and which don't, but the entire cabinet. It will become an orderly policy, not a whim." Asked if the change meant the interior minister was being chastised for the way he had handled the issue, one coalition MK said, "You can't take away a minister's powers without hearing a lot of noise. This is going over quietly, so the interior minister is most likely behind this himself. He wants to make it more difficult to accept these people. After all, when the whole government meets to vote on something, it can't decide on anything."

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