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The government has postponed all conversions and aliya of Bnei Menashe and other groups claiming Jewish roots until an inter-ministerial committee reviews the matter, according to Immigration Absorption Minister Zeev Boim.
At least 216 Bnei Menashe are currently waiting in their native India to come to Israel, despite having completed their conversion under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate six months ago.
Boim said those people would be allowed to come here, but that first the government must decide what its policy will be towards those who have yet to convert.
Shavei Israel, a Jewish group that has helped the Bnei Menashe begin the conversion process, said Thursday that such a delay would be unacceptable and is threatening to file a High Court petition to allow the converted Bnei Menashe to make aliya immediately.
Over 7,000 more Bnei Menashe reside in the Manipur and Mizoram provinces of India, while tens of thousands of people around the globe are discovering ties to a Jewish heritage, such as Anusim, commonly known as Marranos, on the Iberian Peninsula and South America and Sabatnakim in the Former Soviet Union.
A handful of Jewish organizations are dedicated to helping those who want return to Judaism, which would make them eligible for aliya.
"The problem is not with the 216. Certainly they will make aliya," Boim told the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors last week. "But before they make aliya, and this is the reason for the delay, we need to make some [decisions]."
He noted that no one considers these groups Jewish according to Halacha, and continued, "There's a large group and nobody can tell what their numbers are. We need to make up our mind; do we convert them or not? If so, since when does Judaism convert them just like that? ... The Jewish religion is not one of missionaries. It does not seek populations and force them into Judaism. This is what Christianity does."
In the meantime, Boim said he has "given an order to stop all conversion activity."
Rabbi Moshe Klein, the deputy chairman of the conversion authority within the Prime Minister's Office, said the Rabbinate agreed with the decision to halt conversions and will convene a committee on the subject in concert with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"The Rabbinate has no problem. The Rabbinate is also a part of the government, and we have to decide together with all the ministers," he said.
But Shavei Israel objects not only to the delay for those who have converted, but to the suggestion that a decision has to be made about whether to let the rest come.
They say the Bnei Menashe, who claim descent from Jews exiled before the destruction of the First Temple, still live as Jews according to the Old Testament, and merely need to convert due to concerns about intermarriage and the need to learn Talmudic tradition.
"We have no right not to tell them and we have no reason not to tell them [to come]. We're encouraging aliya from everywhere," said Ruth Lieberman, a media consultant for Shavei Israel.
"The State of Israel has a law that says that every Jew can come to Israel," she said. "There's no government policy that has to be formed. It's already been formed. It's in the law books."
Others within the organization accused the government of discrimination.
"If they would come from the United States or Europe, nobody would ask anything. But because he comes from the Third World, with a kippa and tzitzis (ritual fringed garment) hanging out, with a face like a Thai worker, it's a big question," said one Shavei Israel staffer.
According to the group, Bnei Menashe had no problem coming to Israel to convert and then make aliya at a rate of 100 a year until 2003, when then new Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of Shinui stopped the flow on grounds that the Bnei Menashe were only coming for economic reasons, while groups such as Shavei Israel were encouraging them to come so they could populate the territories.
Following Poraz's decision, the Rabbinate, in conjunction with Shavei Israel, visited India and converted the 216 currently waiting to make aliya after they had gone through the proper conversion preparations.
The vast majority of the approximately 1,000 Bnei Menashe already in Israel live over the Green Line. But Shavei Israel dismissed the accusations.
"The only reason they came to these places in Gush Katif and Kiryat Arba is that they are Orthodox, they are used to being in warm communities. This is the natural way of life there [and] these are the only places that accepted them with warm hearts," the staffer said.
"This [decision] is not pure," he added, attributing the government delay to political considerations. "Yes, we should stop a lot of people coming to Israel, people that don't have any relation with Judaism or who are criminals or in poor health. But somebody that is a good person, that wants to convert or has converted, why not?"
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