Let my people come

The guy getting paid to promote aliya is actually doing his utmost to prevent it.

bnei menashe boy 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bnei menashe boy 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For the past nine months, Ruti Joram and her four young children have been anxiously waiting to make aliya. It is not family matters which are holding them back, nor does the situation in the Middle East deter them from seeking to fulfill their dream. Since last year, their bags have been packed, and all their other possessions were either sold or given away. They have said the requisite good-byes to family and friends, neighbors and co-workers, and prepared themselves to build new lives in the Jewish state. So why, you might ask, are Ruti and her kids still waiting? What is preventing them from getting on an airplane and coming here? It might sound illogical, or even absurd, but the person standing in their way is none other than Israel's Minister of Immigrant Absorption, Ze'ev Boim. That's right. The guy getting paid to promote aliya is actually doing his utmost to prevent it. THE SAGA began last autumn, when Ruti and her children were among 218 people formally converted back to Judaism by Israel's Chief Rabbinate. All are members of the Bnei Menashe, a community of 7,000 that resides primarily in the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh. The Bnei Menashe claim descent from a lost tribe of Israel, and succeeded in preserving the memory of their Jewish ancestry over the centuries. They keep the Sabbath, practice circumcision on the eighth day, observe the laws of Kashrut and family purity, and have built dozens of synagogues across India's northeast, all of which face toward Jerusalem. Over the past decade, nearly 1,000 members of the community have moved to Israel, where they play an active role in society. They are industrious people who serve in the army, lead productive lives and raise incredibly beautiful Jewish children. Indeed, in March 2005, after thoroughly studying the community, its history and its traditions, Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar formally recognized the Bnei Menashe as "descendants of the Jewish people." Subsequently, in September 2005, the Chief Rabbi dispatched a special rabbinical court to India, which carried out the conversion of the community members, all of whom wish to make aliya. Nonetheless, even though the 218 Bnei Menashe were converted by Israel's Chief Rabbinate, and the entire process took place under the supervision of Israel's Conversion Authority, which is an arm of the Prime Minister's Office, the Absorption Ministry has refused to consent to their arrival. And so, even though all the other relevant players - from the Interior Ministry to the Chief Rabbinate to the Jewish Agency - have all approved the Bnei Menashe aliya, it remains stuck thanks to Mr. Boim's misguided policy. AND JUST what is that policy, you might be wondering? Well, it seems that Boim is not willing to allow the 218 Bnei Menashe Jews to move here until the government formulates an official stance regarding what to do vis- -vis the other 7,000 members of the community. In other words, he wants Ruti Joram and her four children to continue waiting until Israel's bureaucracy gets its act together and makes some sort of decision, a process that could take months or even years to complete. This approach is entirely unacceptable, for the simple reason that under the Law of Return, the moment that the 218 Bnei Menashe completed their conversions, they immediately became eligible to make aliya. If Boim wants to devise an overall policy concerning the 7,000 remaining members of the Bnei Menashe community, let him go ahead and do so. But what does that have to do with the 218 who have already converted? They are Jews in every respect, and neither Boim nor anyone else has the right to stall, delay, defer or postpone their arrival, or to link it to some protracted bureaucratic decision-making process. Frankly, the Absorption Ministry's position is illegal and immoral. It runs counter to the basic values of Zionism and Judaism, and it cannot be allowed to stand. Whoever heard of an Israeli government minister blocking Jews from moving to Israel? Formally speaking, the Absorption Ministry is not empowered to decide who moves to Israel, but it does play a central role in arranging new immigrants' affairs once they get here. So as long as they continue to withhold their approval, the Jewish Agency will not go ahead and bring the 218 Bnei Menashe Jews to Israel. As Chairman of Shavei Israel, an organization that assists the Bnei Menashe, I have repeatedly appealed to Boim and to his Director-General, Mirala Gal, in recent months to allow the aliya to go forward, but neither has even bothered to respond. And so, left with no choice, we have hired a prominent attorney, who sent a letter to Boim the other day insisting that he follow the law and immediately agree to facilitate the Bnei Menashe's arrival. If he fails to do so, we will not hesitate to go to the Supreme Court against him. Never in my wildest imagination did I think it would be necessary to take the Israeli government to court in order to be allowed to bring Jews to Israel. Some have suggested that Boim, and others like him, are motivated by socioeconomic concerns, or even prejudice, and that they want to find a way to halt any more Bnei Menashe from coming here. I pray that is not the case. The Bnei Menashe may not speak Yiddish, eat gefilte fish or identify with the character of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, but that doesn't make them any less Jewish than Boim himself. This past Yom Ha'atzma'ut, a young Bnei Menashe named Tamir Baite was honored as one of Israel's outstanding soldiers at an official state ceremony held in Jerusalem. Baite, a lone soldier who made aliya four years ago, serves in the Givati Brigade's elite Shaked unit, and dreams of the day when his parents and siblings will make aliya. When he is not busy defending the country, Baite rises early to put on his tefillin (phylacteries) and joins in reciting the morning prayers, where he pleads to be reunited with his family, and his community, here in the Jewish state. It saddens me that we've reached the point where people such as Baite and Ruti Joram are treated so callously by our government, which seems to care little for the needless suffering and grief it is causing them. I'm not quite sure how things have come to this, but there is one thing that should be clear: we cannot and will not rest until the Bnei Menashe come home to Zion. They are our brothers and sisters, and it is time we started treating them as such. The writer is chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based group that assists "lost Jews" seeking to return to the Jewish people. www.shavei.org