By Aaron Klein© 2007 WorldNetDaily.com
Members of 'lost tribe of Israel' arrive at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv (Courtesy Shavei Israel)
TEL AVIV – One-hundred-seventy-four people from a group of thousands in India that believes it is one of the 10 "lost tribes" of Israel landed here this week, fulfilling for many a life-long dream of returning to what they consider their homeland.
Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization led by American Michael Freund, hopes to bring to the Jewish state the remaining 7,000 Indian citizens who believe they are the Bnei Menashe, the descendants of Manasseh, one of biblical patriarch Joseph's two sons and a grandson of Jacob.
The tribe lives in the two Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, to which they claim to have been exiled from Israel more than 2,700 years ago by the Assyrian empire.
"I truly believe this is a miracle of immense historical and even biblical significance," Freund told WND as the group of 174 arrived here earlier this week.
"Just as the prophets foretold so long ago, the lost tribes of Israel are being brought back from the exile," said Freund, who previously served as deputy communications director under former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Another planeload of 57 Bnei Menashe is slated to touch down in Israel tomorrow.
The group, which has preserved ancient Jewish customs and rituals, has been trying the past 50 years to return to Israel.
Over the last decade, Freund's Shavei Israel, at times working with other organizations, brought about 1,200 Bnei Menashe members to the Jewish state. Many settled in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. About 80 lived in Gaza's slate of Jewish communities, which were evacuated by the Israeli government in 2005.
The original batches of Bnei Menashe to arrive here were brought to Israel as tourists in an agreement with Israel's Interior Ministry. Once here, the Bnei Menashe converted officially to Judaism and became citizens.
But diplomatic wrangling halted the immigration process in 2003, with officials from some Israeli ministries refusing to grant the rest of the group still in India permission to travel here.
Bnei Menashe member arriving in Israel (Courtesy Shavei Israel)
To smooth the process, Freund enlisted the help of Israel's chief rabbinate, which flew to India in 2005 to meet with and consider converting members of the Bnei Menashe. Once legally Jewish, the tribe can apply for Israeli citizenship under the country's "Law of Return," which guarantees sanctuary to Jews from around the world.
Six rabbis were sent by Israel's Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, to begin converting the Bnei Menashe. The rabbis met with hundreds of tribal members, testing their knowledge of Judaism and assessing their conviction, converting 216 individuals – over 90 percent of the members interviewed.
"The rabbis were incredibly impressed with the Bnei Menashe," said Freund. "They saw for themselves that the group is very serious and should be integrated into the Jewish nation. That they are a blessing to the state of Israel."
Last year, 218 converted members arrived in Israel. Freund hoped to repeat the process for 231 more Bnei Menashe who had been approved for conversion, but the Indian government, which heavily restricts conversions, put a halt on the plan.
Bnei Menashe member (Courtesy Shavei Israel)
Instead, the batch of Bnei Menashe that arrived this week were brought to Israel as tourists in coordination with the Israeli government. Once here, the tribe will be officially converted by the country's chief rabbinate and qualify for Israeli citizenship.
The new immigrants will spend the next few months studying Hebrew and Judaism at a Shavei Israel absorption center in northern Israel.
The Bnei Menashe that arrived here over the years have fully transited into Israeli society. Many attended college and rabbinic school, moved to major Israeli communities and even joined the Israel Defense Forces.
Twelve Bnei Menashe served in the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip and in Lebanon in 2006. One of them, Avi Hanshing, a 22-year old paratrooper, was injured during a clash with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Hanshing's father was among those who arrived here earlier this week in an emotional reunion at Israel's international airport.
"As much as we might think that Israel is helping the Bnei Menashe, it is the reverse that is true. It is they who strengthen us – with their faith, with their commitment and with their undying love for Zion," said Freund.
Bnei Menashe member (Courtesy Shavei Israel)
According to Bnei Menashe oral tradition, the tribe was exiled from Israel and pushed to the east, eventually settling in the border regions of China and India, where most remain today. Most kept customs similar to Jewish tradition, including observing Shabbat, keeping the laws of Kosher, practicing circumcision on the eighth day of a baby boy's life and observing laws of family purity.
In the 1950s, several thousand Bnei Menashe say they set out on foot to Israel but were quickly halted by Indian authorities. Undeterred, many began practicing Orthodox Judaism and pledged to make it to Israel. They now attend community centers established by Shavei Israel to teach the Bnei Menashe Jewish tradition and modern Hebrew.
Freund said he hopes the arrival this week of more Bnei Menashe would "jump-start the process of bringing back the rest of the 7,000 Bnei Menashe who are in India yearning to return home."