Chief Rabbi Says Indian Community Descended From Israelites

(Updated July 20, 2006)

Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar decided to recognize the members of India's Bene Menashe community as descendants of the ancient Israelites. Amar also decided to dispatch a team of rabbinical judges to India to convert the community members to Orthodox Jews. Such a conversion will enable their immigration to Israel under the Law of Return, without requiring the Interior Ministry's authorization.

The Bene Menashe community consists of close to 7,000 members of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribe, which lives in northeast India near the border of Myanmar (formally Burma). For generations they kept Jewish traditions, claiming to be descended from the tribe of Menashe, one of the ten lost Israeli tribes that were exiled by the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.E. and have since disappeared.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the tribe's members converted to Christianity, but about 30 years ago, some of the community began moving back to Judaism and set themselves apart from the rest of the tribe.

About 12 years ago, the Interior Ministry allocated an annual quota of 100 immigrants from the Bene Menashe tribe. So far, some 800 of them have immigrated and undergone conversion in Israel. The majority of them live in settlements in the territories. Before Israel implemented the disengagement plan in August 2005, 250 Bene Menashe lived in Gaza's Gush Katif.

As of July, 2006, all conversions and aliya of Bene Menashe have been postponed until an official government ministerial committee review. At leat 216 Bene Menashe who have completed Orthodox conversions under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel are still waiting in India to make aliya. Immigration Absorbtion Minister Ze’ev Boim said that these people who already converted will be allowed to come to Israel once the government decides its policy toward those who have not yet converted.

Boim, who ordered the stop on conversions for the Bene Menashe, claims he has several reservations about what the government of Israel should do. He says, “There’s a large group and nobody can tell what their numbers we convert them or not? If so, since when does Judaism convert them just like that?...The Jewish religion is not one of missionaries. It does not seek populations and force them into Judaism. This is what Christianity does.”

Until 2003, the Bene Menashe had little trouble going to Israel to convert and then make aliya, but then-Interior Minister Avraham Poraz stopped the influx because he claimed they were only coming to Israel economic reasons. Before 2003, as many as 100 Bene Menashe made aliya annually to Israel.

Source: Haaretz, (April 1, 2005); The Jerusalem Post, (July 2, 2006)