A former Netanyahu aide is the key figure behind an unprecedented government decision to allow an indigenous people from north-eastern India to immigrate to Israel and convert upon arrival.
According to an investigation byHaaretz, nearly 1,000 members of the ‘Bnei Menashe’ community have arrived in Israel over the past two years. “Though little, if any, proof exists of their Jewish lineage”, the paper writes, “the Israeli government voted in October 2012 to allow “a large group” to move to Israel, and, a year later, “voted to bring in an even larger group.”
Such a move required “special government permission” since the Bnei Menashe “don’t qualify as Jews under the Law of Return and are, therefore, not eligible for automatic citizenship.” The new arrivals joined another 1,500 already in Israel, “who had arrived in trickles over the years.” Many of the longer-standing immigrants live in West Bank settlements.
According to Haaretz, “this is likely the first and only time the government has allowed and even provided finance for the mass immigration of a large community whose members do not qualify as Jews under the Law of Return, nor do they have proven Jewish ancestry according to the broader definition of ‘seed of Israel.'”
The organisation behind the effort is Shavei Israel, founded and run by Michael Freund, who served as an aide to Netanyahu during the latter’s first term as premier in the 1990s. Shavei Israel’s 2013 financial report showed that Freund himself has contributed millions of shekels to the organisation’s budget. Other sources of funding are mainly Christian evangelical groups.
In 2001, Freund argued in The Jerusalem Post that “the issue of demography might very well be the greatest threat to the future of Israel as a Jewish state.” He went on:
As the percentage of Jews continues to decline, it will grow increasingly difficult for Israel, as a democracy, to ignore mounting calls by its Arab minority for cultural autonomy and perhaps even self-rule. And if the day were to come when Arab Israelis could elect more representatives to the Knesset than Jewish Israelis, the Jewish identity of the State would be in grave doubt.
Thus, Freund wrote, Israel should be looking for those populations around the world – he mentioned tribes and groups in India, southern Africa, Uganda, Peru, Mexico and Japan – who could immigrate to Israel and boost the Jewish majority. Years later, under the Netanyahu government, it would appear he found a receptive audience for his ideas.