PMO: No decision yet on Bnei Menashe

Political sources say Interior Minister Sheetrit is stumbling block to aliya of northern Indian tribe.

state-religion survey 224 (photo credit: )
state-religion survey 224
(photo credit: )
Government officials tried to dampen expectations Wednesday, following a report that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had given final approval to bring the 7,232 members of the Bnei Menashe tribe of northern India to Israel. "Nothing happened," said a representative for the Prime Minister's Office Wednesday in response to the Ma'ariv report, because Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit "hasn't agreed to anything yet, and the prime minister hasn't made any final decision." The Bnei Menashe, who live in the states of Mizoram and Manipur on the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma) claim to be descendants of a lost tribe of Israel. Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recognized their status as "descendants of Israel" in 2005, and some 1,400 have already made aliya aided by NGO Shavei Israel which has lobbied for years to bring them to Israel. In October, Sheetrit drew widespread criticism for warning the Jewish Agency's board of governors not to "go finding me any lost tribes, because I won't let them in any more. We have enough problems in Israel. Let them go to America." Since then, Sheetrit has faced pressure from many directions, including the Prime Minister's Office, Diaspora Jewish leaders and NGOs such as Shavei Israel and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, to change his stance. As yet, Sheetrit has steadfastly refused. A representative for Sheetrit said no decisions had been made and acknowledged only that a consultation had been held two weeks ago between officials from the Interior Ministry, the Prime Minister's Office, the Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency. Even the Ma'ariv report that Sheetrit and new Immigrant Absorption Minister Eli Aflalo would be traveling to India in September on a fact-finding mission about the Bnei Menashe was denied by sources close to both. A representative for Aflalo said his office "has no idea where this information came from. The absorption minister has yet to form an opinion on this issue, and no trip to India appears on the minister's schedule." Several of the parties involved said the government had been preparing a press release with a statement on the prime minister's alleged approval, but that the statement was dropped after the report were leaked to the press. It was not immediately apparent why government agencies would deny such a statement had been made if it had already been written. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, director of the IFCJ, which raises money from Evangelical Christians to support Israel and Jewish causes, said he was assured by the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday that Olmert had in fact made the decision to bring the Bnei Menashe to Israel. "We're treating this as a fait accompli," he said, noting that the IFCJ has taken out newspaper advertisements for Thursday supporting the move and offering to contribute some $20-30 million over the next two years to facilitate the aliya. Sheetrit himself could not be reached for a response, but all parties pointed to him as the main hurdle to the Bnei Menashe aliya. Bobby Brown, a former advisor to Sheetrit who has supported the Bnei Menashe aliya for several years, recalled the minister's departing speech when he left his job as Jewish Agency Treasurer in the early 1990's. In that speech, "Sheetrit told the board of governors that he had found the receipt showing that a poor young child in Morocco named Meir Sheetrit had received a pair of shoes, shirt and jacket from the American-Israel Joint Distribution Committee. There wasn't a dry eye in the audience when Sheetrit said he'd written a cheque to the JDC for the value of those items so they could give another small Meir Sheetrit the chance to come to Israel and make their life here. Now when the Jewish people are trying to do just that, he's standing in their way. It's almost as though there are two Sheetrits that are in conflict." One source close to the Bnei Menashe community complained that the political infighting was ignoring the people stuck in limbo because of the debate. "We're talking about 7,232 human beings. The goal is to just get them to Israel."