Diaspora Ministry: Millions with ties to Judaism are ‘strategic asset’

The report said that there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people, who see themselves as Jewish or the descendants of Jews.

Surinamese Jews share the Passover Seder at the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo, Suriname April 11, 2017. Picture taken April 11, 2017. (photo credit: RANU ABHELAKH/REUTERS)
Surinamese Jews share the Passover Seder at the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo, Suriname April 11, 2017. Picture taken April 11, 2017.
If Israel continues to ignore tens of millions of people around the world who have a connection to Judaism there could be “devastating consequences” for the future of the Jewish people and Israel, according to a report written by a committee appointed by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, which was obtained by The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
The committee was appointed in order to examine Israel’s relationship with populations in the world who have an affinity to the Jewish people for which the state has no current policy.
“In recent years there has been a growing awakening of various groups with an affinity to the Jewish people or to Israel, even though they are not Jews or are entitled to the Law of Return,” wrote Dvir Kahana, Diaspora Affairs Ministry director-general, in the preface to the 152-page report.
He described this as “a fascinating trend with strategic potential for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
The report said that there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people, who see themselves as Jewish or the descendants of Jews – some who are active in Jewish community frameworks, but who aren’t entitled to the Law of Return, Conversely, the report notes, there are millions of people who are eligible to the Law of Return but are not part of any Jewish community and sometimes do not even see themselves as Jewish.
According to the committee, in the past few years, there are new and growing circles of people who feel a connection to the Jewish people. The report attributes this phenomenon to the existence of the State of Israel, a new-found confidence to affiliate with the Jewish people and to modern-day technology that allows the free flow of information.
The Ethiopian Falash Mura, whose ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity, are highlighted as an example of a community that is not eligible to immigrate to Israel according to the Law of Return, but feel an affinity to the Jewish people and practices Judaism in their organized communities.
Thousands have immigrated to Israel, permitted by several government decisions, though thousands more are still waiting for permission. They immigrate to Israel via the Law of Entry rather than the Law of Return.
India’s Bnei Menashe, who claim to be descendants of the tribe of Menashe, exiled from the Land of Israel more than 2,700 years ago by the Assyrian Empire, are another example.
Both the Falash Mura and the Bnei Menashe are required to convert to Judaism after arriving in Israel.
Ashley Perry, president of NGO Reconectar, has for years been advocating for Israel to address what he says are tens of millions of descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were compelled to become Roman Catholic more than 500 years ago, and today want to reconnect and learn about their Jewish roots.
Reconectar, meaning reconnect in Spanish and Portuguese, works to reconnect Bnei Anusim with the Jewish people.
Perry presented information to the committee and has met with members of the committee and ministry on a number of occasions. He has also provided them with information and recommendations for use in their report.
“I believe that this is certainly the next stage of Zionism,” he told the Post. “This committee addresses a vital issue which is a game-changing moment for the Jewish people as we begin to reconnect with those we were disconnected from during the long and difficult Diaspora.”
He added: “We have spent the last couple of years meeting everyone from the prime minister and president of Israel to many of the organizational, lay and religious leaders of the Jewish world to raise awareness of this issue and place it on the global Jewish agenda... We are delighted that this committee’s report will be the first step.”
Members of the committee include Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, former cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser, Rotem Yadlin and Fiamma Nirenstein.
The committee’s main conclusion is that the fast growth of communities with an affinity to Judaism constitutes a “new and unprecedented reality that is taking shape regarding the borders and dimensions of the Jewish people.”
The report also says that while the existence of millions of people who are not Jewish or entitled to the Law of return but have an affinity to the Jewish people present a challenge to the Israel and the Jewish people, it is also "a strategic and unprecedented opportunity" to bring closer these communities to the Jewish people.
Committee Head Ofir Haivri told The Jerusalem Post that an example of these challenges is the lack of recognition given to bnei anusim as Jews by Israel and established Jewish communities in the Diaspora
But it's an opportunity, the committee says, "to set a permanent and clear path for the minority who will want to fully join the Jewish people (ie convert) and at the same time to produce channels of stable and far-reaching cooperation with the large majority among these communities, who wish to be connected to the Jewish people and to help them and their country."
The committee recommends that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry will work to turn the its conclusions and recommendations into government policy, and that the ministry will establish a special unit that will be responsible for the discussed populations.
This system will permit the collection of information relating to these populations, the registration of communities and contacts, the nurturing and strengthening of these communities and providing responses to inquiries and questions on related issues by government agencies and by organizations and individuals.
The committee also recommended that the ministry establish a public advisory council of experts to provide advice for various issues that may arise in the process of establishing and operating the new system.
Other recommendations include: raising awareness in Israel and the Jewish World about the subject of anusim and their descendants; recruiting communities of Bnai Anusim for support of the state of Israel; preparing Jewish and Israeli educational resources for interested communities; and reviewing the possibility of broadening the criteria for participation in programs such as MASA and Taglit to include these populations, or the establishment of a program just for them.
The committee also recommends collaborations with various government bodies to provide for extra allowances for these communities, such as working with the Interior Ministry’s Population Authority in order to allow members of these populations to work or study in Israel.
It also recommends collaboration with the Strategic and Hasbara Ministry to promote ties with these groups, to help in the fight against BDS and to enhance Israel’s image in the international community.
The report specifically says that the committee’s recommendations do not deal with the issues of conversion and aliya. Haivri told the Post that the only recommendation the committee makes on those issues is that the state should decide how to address these communities in a more organized fashion rather than making  individual decisions for individual populations as it did with the Falash Mura and Bnei Menashe.
But Haivri stressed that the majority of these communities are not interested in neither conversion nor aliya, but they are interested in Judaism and in Israel.