Fundamentally Freund: Minister Sheetrit: Let our people into the Promised Land

Despite this week's cabinet decision, the historic homecoming of 'lost Jews' will continue.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
Well, we can all rest easy now. Sure, Iran is still threatening to incinerate the Jewish state, Syria is actively trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction, and Palestinian terrorists continue to fire rockets into southern Israel on a near-daily basis. But have no fear! The government, at its weekly cabinet session this past Sunday, decided to devote precious time and energy to protecting us all from a far graver threat to the future of Israel: increased aliya from abroad. That's right. You read that correctly. At the instigation of Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, the government adopted a shameful decision aimed at slamming the door shut on groups of people who want to be Jewish and come to Israel. According to the cabinet communiqué, it was decided that the Interior Ministry "would issue entry visas for groups regarding conversion and the acquisition of citizenship only with government approval and in accordance with special criteria." But behind that rather innocuous sounding language lies a far more sinister objective, which is Sheetrit's stated determination to prevent groups with historical ties to the Jewish people from returning to Judaism and moving to Israel. After all, 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. Hence, by creating a virtually insurmountable obstacle to approval, he hopes to bury the issue once and for all. Why, you might be wondering, would Sheetrit and his cabinet colleagues do such a thing? The answer is really quite simple. It is post-Zionism of the ugliest sort, tinged by prejudice and sheer ignorance. IN RECENT months, Sheetrit made clear that he opposes efforts to bring on aliya communities such as the Bnei Menashe of northeastern India, who claim descent from a lost tribe of Israel, and now he is doing his utmost to ensure that they will not be able to come home. Without having met any members of the community, nor even studying the issue, he is prepared to seal their fate because they don't fit his preconceived notion of what a Jew is supposed to look like. Just last month, Shavei Israel, the organization that I chair, brought a group of 230 Bnei Menashe to Israel after having received written permission from Ronnie Bar-On, Sheetrit's predecessor at the Interior Ministry. When Sheetrit found out, he tried to scuttle the group's arrival, even as they were in transit on their way to Israel. Fortunately, he failed. Perhaps Mr. Sheetrit simply assumed that anyone seeking to come here from India must be doing so out of economic necessity rather than sincere ideological and religious convictions. Amazingly enough, though, Sheetrit himself was born in the town of Ksar Souk, Morocco in 1948 and made aliya at the age of 9. He undoubtedly endured various types of discrimination as he was growing up here, as many veteran Israelis looked down on Sephardic immigrants from Morocco. It is therefore all the more astonishing that he would now adopt the very same prejudices about the Bnei Menashe that were hurled against him and his fellow Moroccan immigrants, merely because of their complexion or national origin. Indeed, it does not seem to matter to Sheetrit that Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar formally recognized the Bnei Menashe as "descendants of Israel" in March 2005 and called for them to be restored to Israel and the Jewish people. Nor does it seem to bother Sheetrit one bit that there are already 1,400 Bnei Menashe living here as Jews and Israelis in every respect. All have undergone formal conversion by Israel's Chief Rabbinate. They live observant Jewish lifestyles, serve in the army, and support themselves and their families with dignity. Three young men from the community have recently received rabbinical ordination, while others are studying subjects ranging from computer science to education at Israeli colleges and institutes. In last year's Lebanon war, over a dozen young lone soldiers from the Bnei Menashe fought on the front-lines as part of the IDF, battling our foes and defending this land. NONETHELESS, Sheetrit is stubbornly insisting on turning away the 7,000 Bnei Menashe still in India who are waiting to come here. This is a tragedy of immense proportions, not just for the families and people themselves, but for the State of Israel too. The Bnei Menashe are part of the extended Jewish family. Their ancestors were taken away from us against their will, yet they managed to persevere down through the centuries, maintaining their Jewish identity. Now, after so many generations of exile, they are reaching out to us and asking to be brought home. But instead of extending a hand to our brethren, Sheetrit and the government prefer to slap them in the face, failing to realize just how much people such as the Bnei Menashe help to strengthen this country. Sadly, what our leaders seem to have forgotten is that Israel is supposed to serve as the Zionist lifeboat. Comfortably ensconced on board, Sheetrit and his colleagues seem to have no qualms about swatting away those who also seek their place among us. Well, I'd like to put Mr. Sheetrit and his colleagues on notice. 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. Despite this week's decision by the cabinet, the historic homecoming of the Bnei Menashe and other such groups can and will continue. We will launch a very loud, and very public, campaign on their behalf, and we will not rest until they are all able to come home. And, with God's help, I am confident that they will. The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based group that assists 'lost Jews' seeking to return to the Jewish people.