On Monday afternoon, Geula Tautang, 19, paced frenetically through the arrivals area at Ben Gurion airport, but her eyes never lost focus on the automatic sliding doors. Her mother would be coming through those doors at any minute—and Geula hadn’t seen her in more than six years.
The Tautang family is part of the Bnei Menashe, a tribe of nearly 9,000 from the Manipur district in northeastern India, bordering Burma and Bangladesh, who believe that they are the descendants of the Israelite tribe of Menashe, exiled from the Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE. They seek to return to Judaism and to their ancient homeland in what is now the state of Israel.
Geula immigrated to Israel with her older brother in 2006 as part of a group of 218. Another 53 members of the tribe, including Geula’s mother, arrived on Monday, part of a group of 274, all of whom are expected to arrive in Israel by Jan. 4. Their aliyah was the result of a major shift in Israeli government policy—and Geula was one of dozens who had come to greet their relatives.
At last the doors slid open, and a group of men, women, and children—the men wearing crocheted yarmulkes on their heads, the women covering their heads with scarves—walked through slowly, pushing heavy baggage carts. Immediately surrounded by their waiting relatives, they became a large, nearly inseparable group embracing, talking, and crying. Geula spotted her mother and shouted wildly; they hugged tightly, pulled apart to look at each other, then hugged again.
Some 15 minutes later, after the chaos had died down slightly, the new soon-to-be Israelis stood solemn for the Hatikva national anthem, tears streaming down many faces as they sang the words they had memorized phonetically. Less unusual travelers passing through the terminal—a group of Russian-speakers just in from Moscow, an exuberant group of Birthright students who’d flown in from Newark—joined in, as a group of African Christian pilgrims looked on in wonder.
“This is a miracle of biblical and historic proportions,” declared Michael Freund to the small group of media gathered at the airport. Freud is founder and director of Shavei Israel, the Israel-based organization that has assumed organizational and financial responsibility for the immigration of the Bnei Menashe. “It is truly an ingathering of the exiles.”
But unlike group aliyot for Jews from Canada, the United States, or Russia, which are sponsored by major organizations such as Nefesh B’Nefesh or the Jewish Agency, this particular ingathering attracted little fanfare and no politicians. That’s because the journey of the Bnei Menashe, who wholeheartedly believe they are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, has been complicated and politicized by the government of Israel.
Some do not think they are even Jewish. Unlike Ethiopian Jews, whose existence and attachments to Judaism have been recognized for generations, the Bnei Menashe are a relatively new phenomenon. So, not everyone sees this week’s aliyah as an “ingathering of the exiles.” When the government announced its decision to allow the group to immigrate, Kadima MK Meir Sheetrit, who was interior minister in 2007, told army radio that the immigration of the Bnei Menashe “endangered the Jewish identity of the state.” Imputing ulterior motives to Netanyahu’s government as Israel proceeds toward general elections, he added: “Apparently, there are those in government who think that if they come to Israel and convert to Judaism, maybe they will vote in future elections.”
According to the Bnei Menashe’s oral history, after the tribes’ exile from the Kingdom of Israel some of them wandered through China and Burma for centuries, eventually settling—some 400 years ago—in the Mizoram and Manipur regions of India. In the 19th century, British missionaries converted many tribesmen to Christianity, although they retained rituals and beliefs that are reminiscent of early biblical practices, including worshipping a single god, keeping a form of kashrut, and adhering to family purity laws.
Because of their history and rituals, Geula said, members of the Bnei Menashe never felt that they fully belonged in India. By the early 1950s, after the establishment of India and Israel as independent states, the Bnei Menashe began to identify more strongly with modern Judaism and the state of Israel. The narrative of their relationship to the 10 lost tribes became more specific, helped in part by Rabbi Eliyahu Avihayil, an Israeli lost-tribe enthusiast, who visited the Bnei Menashe in the 1970s at the urging of his mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. It was Avihayil who gave the tribe the name Bnei Menashe (sons of Menashe) and thus reinforced the narrative within the tribe and to outside observers. Avihayil attempted to interest the Israeli government in their aliyah, but without success.
Over the years, representatives of the community wrote annually to the governments of Israel begging to be brought to the Jewish state but, according to Freund, never received an answer. By the early 1990s, several dozen Bnei Menashe had come to Israel as tourists and then converted to Judaism while on the trip and changed their status so they could legally apply as Jews for immigrant status under the law of return. The state admitted them, but the establishment essentially ignored them.
That’s where Michael Freund came in. A passionate religious Zionist from New York City, Freund, now 44, immigrated to Israel in 1995 and was employed as deputy communications director for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term. In 1997 he discovered one of the letters sent by the Bnei Menashe by chance on a desk in the prime minister’s office. “The letter, hand-written and in a faded orange envelope, looked like it had been through a washing machine. At first, I thought the whole thing was nuts,” he told me. But he was intrigued enough to visit the tribe in India. “Something pulled me there. And when I met them and saw the similarities between their customs and beliefs and the biblical Israelites, I was convinced that these are indeed descendants of the lost tribes,” he said.
Freund began to devote his life to the Bnei Menashe, leaving government after Netanyahu was voted out of office to lobby and raise funds for them to come to Israel. Unable to convince the government to bring the Bnei Menashe to Israel en masse, in 2000 Freund reached an agreement with the interior ministry to allow some 100 members of the Bnei Menashe into Israel each year as tourists; once in Israel, they would undergo an organized process of conversion and naturalization. By 2003, through this under-the-radar aliyah, over 1,000 members of Bnei Menashe were living in Israel, supported by Shavei Israel, which is funded in part by Christian evangelical philanthropies.
But that year, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, from the anti-religious Shinui party, broke the agreement. According to media reports at the time, Poraz opposed the project because the conversions were conducted by the Orthodox establishment, whose authority Poraz sought to undermine. Even more significant, critics like Poraz and Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz contended that because the millennial beliefs of the Bnei Menashe aligned with the messianic beliefs and political ambitions of the settlers and evangelicals, they were being brought to live in settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Freund denied this when I raised it earlier this week. “There was no right-wing conspiracy. Because the Bnei Menashe came in as tourists, they were not entitled to any government funding. At the beginning, only the settlements were willing to take them in, sponsor and support them. Later groups went to cities such as Carmiel and Maalot [within Israel proper]. Some issues are so important that they should be above politics.” As for the conversions being Orthodox, he noted that Orthodox are the only recognized conversions in Israel. Plus, it suits the Bnei Menashe’s beliefs: Most retain their Orthodox practice long after the procedure is complete.
Undeterred by the interior ministry’s about-face, Freund turned to the then Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, who, in the spring of 2005, provided a ruling that declared the Bnei Menashe should indeed be considered descendants of the Children of Israel. However, in order to be considered Jews today, Amar argued, they would still have to undergo full conversion (including circumcision for the males). Fueled by Amar’s ruling, Freund and his supporters established Jewish education and conversion services in Mizoram and Manipur, under the auspices of the prime minister’s office. Once recognized as Jews, the Bnei Menashe would be entitled to immigrate to Israel under the law of return and to receive benefits from the ministry of absorption.
By fall of 2006, Freund’s group was ready to bring 218 converted Bnei Menashe Jews to Israel. But at the last minute, the government of India protested against what it viewed as Jewish missionary activity. The group came, but further organized immigration came to a halt.
This remained the case until this fall, when the Israeli government finally agreed to allow immigration to start up again. So, what changed?
Freund insisted that the government caved because he “was finally able to convince them that this is truly a wondrous mitzvah, an imperative for Israel and the Jewish people.” The prime minister’s office declined a request for comment. However, a source close to the office told me that the reasons might be a bit more prosaic. “Some of the donors to Shavei Israel are also donors to Netanyahu. And the Christian groups, who have lots of clout with Netanyahu, also pressured him very strongly.”
Unlike Jewish immigrants from Russia and the United States who automatically become Israeli citizens under the law of return, the Bnei Menashe arrived on tourist visas. According to the agreement Shavei Israel has struck with the government, they will receive temporary resident status, which means they are not entitled to benefits under the law of return. Shavei Israel is maintaining a private absorption center for them about 30 miles north of Tel Aviv, where they learn Hebrew and study for their conversion. Once converted, they will be eligible to apply for immigrant status, which Shavei Israel will facilitate.
In a tersely worded statement, Ilana Stein, deputy spokesperson for the foreign ministry, said, “Like all of Israel, we are delighted that the Bnei Menashe have come to Israel. Bilateral relations between Israel and India are strong and healthy, and we are sure that they will not be negatively affected.”
Others are not as sanguine. “We are constantly thinking in terms of Jewish numbers. We search for lost Jews. It’s so particularistic,” said a public-health nurse who participated in a training that Shavei Israel organized, speaking on condition of anonymity because she is a civil servant. “Wouldn’t it be better if we took care of the Jews we already have?”
Freund disagrees. “I believe that groups like the Bnei Menashe constitute a large, untapped demographic and spiritual reservoir for Israel and the Jewish people. We are a small people, getting smaller, without too many friends in the world.”
By late Monday night, the authorities had processed the paperwork and visas, and weary newcomers were ensconced in dorms in the absorption center, located near Hadera, in central Israel. Within a few months, they are expected to convert to Judaism and be recognized officially as Jews. Shavei Israel has arranged for them to be relocated to the towns of Migdal Ha’emek and Acco, where the adults will receive vocational training and children will be integrated into the public schools, although they will be free, as individuals and families, to choose where they will live.
Dragging her mother’s suitcase up the stairs to her new dorm room, Geula observed: “I’ve learned to become a Jew and an Israeli. Now it’s my mother’s turn.”
Eetta Prince-Gibson, former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report, is based in Jerusalem