Lost Jewish Tribe Wants Israeli Home

JERUSALEM (AP) — A group from India that claims to be a lost Jewish tribe asked Israel on Tuesday to welcome it home after 2,500 years of exile — the latest request that has Israel reconsidering its open-door policy to Jews and their descendants.

About 450 members of the Shinglung community have come to Israel over the past 10 years, and activists asked Parliament’s Immigration and Absorption Committee on Tuesday to admit and grant citizenship to an additional 100 Shinglung per year.

“Since I was a young boy, I was taught that Israel is the place to which we have to return,” said Samuel Joram, 39, who arrived from the Indian province of Mizuru two years ago with his mother.

But Israel, which since its inception has actively urged Jews from around the world to settle there, fears that a flood of non-Jewish immigrants would threaten the Jewish character of the nation.

Naomi Blumenthal, chairwoman of the immigration committee, said granting the request would leave Israel vulnerable to demands from 2 million people in northeast India and in Myanmar, also known as Burma, who are ethnically related to the Shinglung.

On the other hand, denying the request could make the government an easy target for criticism, she said.

“We have a bad experience with Jewish organizations, mostly in the United States, who would then try to portray us as a racist country that doesn't want to bring people who are different,” she said.

Representatives of the 3,500-member Shinglung community say they are descendants of Menashe, a tribe that was lost after the Jews were exiled from Israel in 586 B.C. Joram said his ancestors, separated from Judaism’s other 11 tribes, called themselves the “children of Menashe.”

In the 1970s, with the help of a businessman from the Monopur province who studied at a Jewish institute in Bombay, Joram said the Shinglung began rejecting Christianity and adopting modern Jewish practices. They began coming to Israel in 1989.

Israel’s Law of Return, established when the country was new, poor and surrounded by enemies, grants Jews or descendants of Jews automatic citizenship and financial assistance.

However, now that Israel is prospering and making peace with its neighbors, officials fear that residents of poorer countries will claim Jewish roots to take advantage of Israel’s higher quality of life.

“If you bring one, think of how many non-Jews will come,” said ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Shmuel Halpert. He added that thousands of Falash Mura — Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity — are also demanding to immigrate.

But some Israelis see the newcomers as political strength — most are housed in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, claimed by the Palestinians as the site of a future state. The settlers welcome the addition to their political base that opposes land-for-security deals with the Palestinians.

Blumenthal said experts would be appointed to investigate the origins of the Shinglung. But prospects still look bleak for Joram, who wants to bring his brother and sister from India to Israel.

“The longing and love for Israel is still there today,” he said.