A blow-up cartoon character isn’t the standard way to welcome newcomers to Israel, but the four-dozen newcomers at Ben-Gurion Airport last week weren’t standard olim.
They came from India.
Two years after Israel lifted a ban on the granting of visas to members of the Bnei Menashe group — putative descendants of the lost tribe of Menashe who are better known in India as the Shinlung tribe — their aliyah resumed, under the direction of the Israel-based Shavei Israel organization.
“The members of this tribe have never forgotten where they came from, and we are excited to be able to help them come back,” said Michael Freund, the organization’s American-born founder. “This is a miracle of biblical and historic proportions. It is truly an ingathering of the exiles,” he told the AFP news agency.
Some 9,000 Bnei Menashe, who claim two-millennia-old Jewish roots, live in northeast India, between Myanmar and Bangladesh. They observe several rituals that appear to be close to Jewish practices (monotheistic beliefs, circumcision on the eighth day, a tallit-like prayer shawl, an oral tradition about a onetime homeland, a harvest song whose lyrics describe escape through a red-colored sea), and Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi recognized them in 2005 as descendants of a Lost Tribe while requiring them to undergo a full conversion to Judaism.
Some 1,700 Bnei Menashe have quietly settled in Israel over the last two decades. About 300 more are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.
“Israel is my heritage and my religion,” Ben Asher, one of last week’s newcomers, told the Ynet news service. “Israel is everything to me. We are very happy. We’ve been waiting for this moment for hundreds of years.”