A crisis in relations with India has been averted by Israel putting a stop to all efforts to convert and bring here about 7,000 Indian citizens, Foreign Ministry official Amos Nadai said Tuesday.
Nadai, who appeared before the Knesset Immigration Absorption Committee, said India had expressed concern with attempts by rabbis to aggressively convert Indian citizens, known as Bnei Menashe.
"The director-general of India's Foreign Ministry, who is responsible for relations with countries in the Middle East, told us, and I quote, 'There is a feeling that Israel is trying to aggressively convert Indian citizens. This issue is of great concern to India,'" said Nadai, deputy director-general for Asia and the Pacific.
"In addition, this morning the Indian ambassador confirmed that the Indian government has no tolerance for proselytizing."
The Bnei Menashe were first discovered by Rabbi Eliahu Avihayel, who has been hunting the 10 lost tribes for the last 45 years.
Since the early 1990s, small groups of Bnei Menashe have been brought here, taught Judaism and converted. Many settled in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.
The conversions were being conducted by the conversion task force in the Prime Minister's Office, headed by Rabbi Moshe Klein. In September, six rabbis, all state employees, converted 200 Bnei Menashe. They were ordered to halt their activities and return home.
Nadai said there were indications from official Indian sources that mass conversions of Indian citizens was illegal.
"Perhaps under previous Indian governments we had more diplomatic leeway to reach creative solutions. We could have tried to explain that Bnei Menashe have already embraced Judaism and that the conversion is only a technical thing," Nadai said. "But this government is less friendly than the previous government. There is no partner to talk to."
Diplomatic relations between Israel and India have worsened after the recent change of Indian governments, he said.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to power last year when his Congress Party defeated Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which had maintained close and public ties with Israel.
In recent weeks Israeli diplomats have reported a cooling of political ties between the two countries, and an attempt by India to lower the profile of its ties with Israel. Diplomatic officials described a meeting Singh had with Jewish leaders in New York at the UN General Assembly meeting in September as "less friendly than in the past."
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who held meetings at the UN in September with a number of leaders of countries with which Israel enjoys a strategic relationship, such as the US, Russia, Turkey and Britain, did not meet with Singh, although they did speak at a reception.
Both Israeli and Indian officials have consistently denied that recent Israeli-Pakistani contacts have negatively impacted on Indo-Israeli ties.
Nadai told The Jerusalem Post that he did not foresee any political or economic sanctions now that the conversions have been discontinued. "But if we had not stopped the conversions, it could have hurt the delicate balance of relations between the two governments."
Nadai said total annual trade between Israel and India was $2.5 billion in 2004 and that in the first half of 2005, there was a 23% rise compared to the same period last year.
Responding to the reported halt in conversions, Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, an organization spearheading the effort to educate Bnei Menashe and prepare them for conversion and immigration said: "If what the Foreign Ministry says is true, I would expect it to try to change Indian policy."
Freund said that India issues special "missionary visas" to church officials. Therefore, he said, it was unclear why India opposes Israeli conversion activities.
"Just as the Vatican, just as many other religious movements send religious officials to India to engage in religious activity, so too should we be allowed to help Bnei Menashe to return to their people," he said.
The Jerusalem Post received documents from Indian officials in Mizoram, Manipur and New Delhi stating that there were no constitutional obstacles. The letters also praised Shavei Yisrael's involvement with the Bnei Menashe.
"India is a country of freedom and democracy. We have never encountered any difficulties with our activities there, either from the Indian government or from the local state governments of Mizoram or Manipur. The only difficulties we have encountered have come from the Israeli Foreign Ministry which seems to be opposed to the immigration of Bnei Menashe."
Nadai rejected Freund's claims.
During the term of former interior minister Avraham Poraz immigration of the Bnei Menashe was frozen. Poraz opposed the immigration in part because a large percentage of the Bnei Menashe ended up settling in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
Several months ago Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar recognized the Bnei Menashe as legitimate candidates for conversion. He okayed an effort to convert Bnei Menashe in India. After their conversion, the Interior Ministry could not prevent their immigration.
Avihayel, who attended Tuesday's committee meeting, heads Ami-Shav, which works, together with Shavei Israel, for the conversion and immigration of the Bnei Menashe.
Avihayel said there are numerous traditions held by Bnei Menashe that prove they belong to the Jewish people.
Some of these traditions include circumcision by flint stone, purification of lepers with spring water and a bird, a kind of tallit with azure coloring and traditional songs that mention holy places in Israel, such as Shilo and Zion.
Bnei Menashe also have their own version of a Pessah sacrifice and bread without yeast.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.