Essay: Keep them coming

Bnei Menashe can't come to Israel unless they convert, and they can't convert unless they come to Israel.

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
As someone who has been involved with the "Bnei Menashe" community in Israel and in northeast India, I was gladdened by the arrival as new immigrants last month of 216 of its members. Converted to Judaism by a rabbinical court from Israel that visited India in 2005, this was the first group of Bnei Menashe to have entered this country since 2003, when the gates were shut to them. And yet the arrival of the 216, which brings to about 1,000 the total number of the community now in Israel, was an occasion for mixed feelings. If neither the government of Israel nor the government of India changes current policies, the gates will now shut again for the remaining 7,000 Bnei Menashe living in India, nearly all of whom would also like to immigrate to Israel. These 7,000 are trapped in a closed circuit. On the one hand, they are no longer allowed to come to Israel and convert here, as hundreds did before 2003; indeed, as the suspect citizens of a "Third World" country, they are not even allowed to set foot on Israeli soil unless they are halachically Jewish and subject to the Law of Return. On the other hand, not only are there no rabbis in India to convert them, the Israeli rabbinical court that accepted the 216 into the Jewish fold was made to leave in mid-mission by the Indian government, which has barred any more such procedures. This makes it a Catch-22 situation: The Bnei Menashe remaining in India can't come to Israel unless they first convert and they can't convert unless they first come to Israel. A great deal of nonsense has been spoken and written about the Bnei Menashe, both by those who are sympathetic to them and by those who are not. Many of their supporters, in the best hyper-imaginative tradition of lost tribe literature, have painted a picture of a group of exiled Israelites, separated from their co-religionists by the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE, who continued to live Jewish lives for 2,700 years while wandering from the Middle East to southeast Asia, and who are now asserting the identity they have always had. Many on the other side have painted a counter-picture of a gullible group of Asian yokels who have been talked into believing that they descend from an ancient Israelite tribe by wild-eyed rabbis and nefarious settlers out to solve the demographic problem by importing millions of make-believe Jews. IT'S HARD to say who is being more delusory. The Bnei Menashe of the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur along the Burmese border are not country bumpkins, and no one talked them into anything. They belong to a Tibeto-Burmese ethnic group, the Kuki-Chin-Mizo, that has one of the highest literacy and educational levels in India, and their original interest in Judaism was an indigenous development that had nothing to do with outside intervention or assistance. The Judaism they practice, as anyone knows who has visited them in India, is sincere, dedicated, and - thanks largely to the efforts of a single Jerusalem rabbi who took them under his wing many years after the inception of their movement - thoroughly based on modern Israeli Orthodoxy. Moreover, even if all 7,000 of the Bnei Menashe were to turn up at Ben-Gurion Airport tomorrow morning, they wouldn't amount to a feather on the demographic scales. We're not threatened by an Ethiopia-like situation in which a supposedly small Jewish community turns out, by virtue of family and blood ties, to be a large one. This is because the Bnei Menashe are also not the heirs of a 2,700-year-old tradition of being or living as Jews. Although in my opinion, as set forth in my book Across The Sabbath River, there was ancient historical contact between a probably small group of eastward-wandering Manassite tribesmen, whose forefathers were exiled by the Assyrians, and some of the ancestors of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo, there was nowhere among the latter the slightest consciousness of being Israelite or Jewish, let alone anything closely resembling Jewish observance, prior to the mid-20th century. An organized Jewish community first appeared in northeast India in the 1970s, and its early membership came entirely - as much of it still does - from disaffected Christians. In fact, it was the Christianization of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo by British missionaries, who introduced them to the Hebrew Bible, that first made them aware of certain intriguing parallels between biblical religion and their own pre-Christian rituals and traditions. To some - I happen to be one of them - the very fact that certain customs, beliefs, stories and names that we know from the Bible survived for millennia among the descendants of a group of exiles from the land of Israel who ended up merging with a Tibeto-Burmese people in a far corner of Asia, thousands of miles from where their ancestors started their wanderings, is enormously exciting. Others may shrug. We can't all be romantics when it comes to history. We can't all be romantics when it comes to our own times, either. It's possible to be immensely moved by the fact that several thousand people living near the Indian-Burmese border, convinced that their forefathers were torn away from the people of Israel long ago, want to rejoin it - and it's possible to find it pointless. There's no sense in arguing about such things. One thing, however, should be above argument. Being Jewish is not a matter of race or color. If several thousand otherwise ordinary Englishmen or Frenchmen who were hard-working and law-abiding citizens of their countries wanted permission to come to Israel in order to deepen their knowledge of the Judaism they were already practicing and to convert to it formally, we might find it strange, but we wouldn't put barriers in their way. Nor, if we were told that they were being prevented by the English and French governments from becoming full Jews in England and France, would we find it tolerable. There's no reason to feel any differently in this case. Israel should allow members of the Bnei Menashe community to come and convert here, as they were allowed to do until 2003. But they should be allowed to convert in India, too. To make it impossible for them to do either, so that they have to go on living as a tiny religious minority in a remote area with no Jewish services, resources or educational facilities to speak of, and without even the comfort of being recognized as Jews by their co-religionists, is unconscionable. This is something that both the Israeli and Indian governments should be able to understand.