bnei menashe 88.
(photo credit: )
This week, a small bureaucratic shift in policy spoke volumes about this government's - and the Jewish people's - failure in facing the most difficult and arguably most dangerous threat to Jewish continuity: the pitiless calculus of demographics.
On Sunday, the cabinet voted to transfer the power to approve entry into Israel for mass conversions and aliya from the hands of the interior minister to the government as a whole. From now on, those wishing to convert and make aliya as groups - such as the Bnei Menashe tribe of northeast India - will need their entry visas approved at the weekly meeting of the entire government before they can enter the country to begin the conversion process.
This change, quietly initiated by Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit himself, seeks to throw an almost impassable obstacle in the path of those groups who claim Jewish descent and wish to rejoin the Jewish people.
The decision was taken without public discussion, is based on a misunderstanding of the basic issue, and seems almost incomprehensibly misguided. It is difficult to imagine a more obviously counterproductive and faulty decision by Israeli leaders.
First, the Jewish status of these so-called "lost Jews" - probably not Sheetrit's overriding concern in the first place - is unquestionable. The haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate has long welcomed them as people of Jewish descent who should be brought back into the fold. As a condition for coming to Israel, groups such as the Bnei Menashe tribe undergo the rigorous conversion process of the Chief Rabbinate, a process long criticized by The Jerusalem Post as impossibly stringent and religiously partisan. Almost all adopt observant Orthodox lifestyles.
In the case of the Bnei Menashe, against whom this decision is apparently predominantly directed, their young men not only serve in the IDF, but have volunteered for the army's strictly religiously-observant Nahal Haredi combat infantry battalion.
Second, it seems absurd that while Israel has welcomed with open arms an estimated 300,000 non-Jewish relatives of Jews from the former Soviet Union, many of whom continue to maintain their Christian faith or atheist convictions, the interior minister seeks through under-handed bureaucratic barriers to stop the flow of Jewish converts who have proven their commitment.
The Bnei Menashe tribe holds to an oral tradition that claims descent 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.
Third, one of the keys to Jewish continuity must be the renewal of conversion. This newspaper has called in the past for efforts in this regard, and has seen the Chief Rabbinate's cumbersome and oppressive supra-halachic conversion process as one of the major stumbling blocks. Here, however, it is the Chief Rabbinate that warmly embraces the "lost Jews," and Israel's secular interior minister who has created the problem. Now, it would appear, even people who go through the unreasonably stringent conversion process will be kept out.
The logic behind this is hard to take at face value. It is reminiscent of the kind of discussion directed against North African Jewish refugees in the 1950s, when even liberal newspapers urged the government not to bring in these "undesirable" olim, but to focus on young halutzim [socialist pioneers] who could be shaped by the Jews already living in Israel.
Are Sheetrit and his colleagues worried about foreign-looking dark-skinned people running around the country? Surely not. Are they worried by the potential arrival of a few thousand religious, perhaps right-wing, voters? Again, surely not.
Since no other explanation is forthcoming from the cabinet - the government has tried to slip this decision through without mention - we suspect that less-than-legitimate reasons lie behind it.
Why, then, would a country nervous about its collapsing demographics take steps to keep out those who have already proven that they are committed Jews and Israelis? Enlighten us, please.