Monday, August 25, 2008

Tribes and tribulations

What if 300,000 members of a heretofore unknown ethno-European tribe claiming descent from Jewish ancestors were suddenly discovered? And what if, given the right circumstances, they were willing to affiliate with Jewish civilization, learn Hebrew, serve in the IDF and imbue their lives with traditional Jewish values?

The good news is these potential Jews do not have to be airlifted to Israel - they are here from the former Soviet Union, under the Law of Return. Moreover, they serve in the army, pay taxes and have already enriched our society.

The bad news is the state has done precious little to absorb them into the Jewish people. Once it became clear that this "ethno-European tribe" would not jump through every hoop demanded by the religious establishment and that most were unwilling to lead Orthodox lifestyles, Israel's ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist state rabbinate callously turned its back on them.

Not unlike their African, Indian and South American counterparts, these "lost" Jews of the former Soviet Union had long been cut off from their heritage. Over some 70 years, when not overtly oppressed, they were strongly discouraged from studying Torah and observing the festivals. Rampant intermarriage ensued and, as a consequence, many are not halachically Jewish.

Successive governments abdicated their responsibility to exhort the rabbinate to reconnect these newcomers with their Jewish brethren.

To be sure, broadminded, Zionist-oriented, Orthodox rabbis exist who would be willing to convert potential Jews even if they do not commit to Orthodoxy. But they are held in disdain by the religious establishment.

IT IS in this context that we must consider efforts to bring to Israel all 7,232 members of the lost tribe of Bnei Menashe from northeastern India. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit is not keen on facilitating their aliya, though consultations are continuing between his ministry, the Prime Minister's Office, the Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency. Officials are also considering the sensitivities of the Indian government and relations between Jerusalem and New Delhi.

This newspaper would like to see the Bnei Menashe brought to Israel as swiftly as possible. We applaud the indefatigable efforts of Post columnist Michael Freund and his Shavei Israel group, which assists "lost Jews" seeking to return to the Jewish people. That the Bnei Menashe will have to undergo Orthodox conversion presents no problem; they will not hesitate to meet whatever religious demands the rabbinate places on them.

Meanwhile, last week thousands of Ethiopian immigrants demonstrated outside the Knesset demanding that 8,700 Falash Mura - descendants of the community who converted under duress to Christianity - be brought to Israel. The official rabbinate supports their cause and stands ready to convert them because they too are willing to commit to Orthodoxy.

We concur with the government's approach on the Falash Mura - namely, that individuals who qualify for aliya under the Law of Return should be brought to Israel on a case-by-case basis, noting that the 120,000-strong Ethiopian community itself and a number of its spiritual leaders have reservations about bringing the Falash Mura over en masse.

The absorption of the Beta Israel has not been an unmitigated success. Some are college graduates, IDF heroes, even diplomats and Knesset members. Still, there are serious problems, especially among the youth, with truancy, alcoholism and drugs. Sixty-five percent of Ethiopian families remain dependent on the welfare system.

This being the case, we invite the advocacy groups now calling for additional Ethiopian immigration to commit themselves to a similar passionate involvement in the community's ongoing absorption. (The same need for an ongoing commitment applies to the Bnei Menashe too.)

AS A staunchly Zionist newspaper, we want to see ever-increasing numbers of Jews making Israel their home. Yet it is disingenuous for the Orthodox establishment to encourage aliya from Africa, Asia and South America because immigrants from those places are more theologically pliable while tens of thousands of potential Jews already here from the former Soviet Union get the rabbinate's cold shoulder.

At the end of the day, all potential Jews need to be given the necessary tools and encouragement to make an affiliation with Jewish civilization inviting. And those desirous of making a formal commitment to Judaism need the appropriate options for conversion - Orthodox, traditional or progressive.

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