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Lost Tribe Applicants Stir Debate on Israel Citizenship

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A tiny band of Indians who believe they are members of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel are at the heart of a growing controversy over Israel’s Law of Return.

For the first time since the establishment of the Jewish state, senior government officials are asking publicly whether the time has come to change the policy that any Jew, from anywhere, can claim instant citizenship upon arrival in Israel.

A note of hysteria was introduced into the public discussion this month after newspapers reported that Israel’s ambassador to India, Ephraim Dubek, sent a secret cable to the Foreign Ministry warning that representatives of another Indian group numbering many millions had recently inquired about the possibility of emigrating to Israel.

For a nation of 5 million still struggling to absorb about 500,000 immigrants who left the former Soviet Union over the past five years, the ambassador’s cable hit like a bombshell. It triggered an emergency session of senior Foreign Ministry officials along with public musings about how Israel might take control of its immigration laws while still remaining the refuge for Jews that the founders intended it to be.

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In recent days, Immigration Minister Yair Tsaban and Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin both have said that Israel might have to rethink the Law of Return if dilemmas such as those posed by the Indians continue to occur. Uri Gordon, director of immigration for the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which helps Jews settle in Israel, sent a letter to President Ezer Weizman urging him to recommend that Parliament consider changing the law.

“The current formulation of the law allows people who have absolutely nothing to do with the people of Israel and Judaism to immigrate to Israel, and the possibilities for change must be looked into,” Gordon said.

“The Law of Return was adopted against the background of the Holocaust,” Tsaban said. “The basic assumption at the time was that the Jewish faith was not such a splendid one that non-Jews were eager to join it. But there is a radical change in the situation now. We are witnessing a phenomenon that non-Jews are eager to join the Jewish faith, if to do so means to come to Israel and to upgrade their standard of living.”

Israel has become an attractive alternative for Third World residents eager to escape civil war, poverty or unrest and unable to gain access to Western nations, Tsaban and other Israeli officials argue.

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“The truth is, Israel has no control over its immigration laws once someone claims to be Jewish,” said one senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement on the outskirts of the Palestinian town of Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Rivka Lunkhel is unconcerned about the furor her presence has caused in the halls of government.

“I wanted to live here because this is our country,” said Lunkhel, a 22-year-old member of India’s Shinlung tribe who came to Israel two weeks ago on a tourist visa. Lunkhel said that she has every intention of settling here for good with her husband, Haokhothang--now called Joshua--and their 15-month-old daughter, Runi.

“We are happy here,” she said as she sat in one of the sparsely furnished, narrow mobile homes that Kiryat Arba residents are allowing the Shinlung to stay in temporarily. As she spoke, members of the nine other families who flew to Israel with the Lunkhels were studying Hebrew prayer books nearby. The men have adopted the skullcaps and fringed undershirts commonly worn by observant Jews. The women cover their heads with scarves and wear long skirts, as do many Orthodox women.

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Israel’s Interior Ministry has not recognized the Shinlung claim that the tribe is descended from the ancient Israelite tribe of Menashe. So the Shinlung families entered Israel on tourist visas and are now undergoing strict Orthodox conversions under the supervision of Kiryat Arba rabbis. Once their conversions are completed, the state will have to grant them citizenship under the requirements of the Law of Return. The Shinlung then will be able to apply for family members to follow them.

“Everyone asks us why we have taken them in,” said Bella Gonen, a member of Kiryat Arba’s municipal council in charge of immigration. “We believe they are Jews. Kiryat Arba is open to any Jew who wants to come.”

Indeed, some Israeli journalists have suggested that it is no coincidence that Jewish settlers living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are the most ardent promoters of gathering in the lost tribes. Where else, columnists have asked, are settlers likely to find new recruits at a time when Israel is disengaging from the territories?

Gonen acknowledges that Kiryat Arba, with a population of about 6,500, is eager to attract new residents. But she insists that the settlement’s decision to help the Shinlung was motivated by a belief that Israel must embrace all Jews.

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“It says in the prophecy of the end of days that the rulers in Israel will not want to recognize the Jews living in exile,” Gonen said. “It says that in the end days, the Messiah will go and collect the dispersed from India to Ethiopia. Once this process starts, neither the government nor any power in the world can stop us.”

The frightening thing about the Shinlung of Kiryat Arba, as far as the government is concerned, is that they appear to be only the tip of the iceberg of Indians interested in emigrating to Israel.

The Shinlung, who number about 1.5 million people, live on the India-Myanmar border. Only some members believe that they are descended from Menashe, one of the 10 Jewish tribes dispersed 27 centuries ago when the Assyrians smashed the Kingdom of Israel, splitting it into two kingdoms. Only Benjamin and Judah, the tribes that formed the southern kingdom, survived. Most of today’s recognized Jewish communities can theoretically trace their heritage to those two tribes.

The Shinlung base their claim on a dream a member of the tribe had in the 1950s, telling him the Shinlung were the lost tribe of Menashe and should return to Israel. About 25 years ago, some Shinlung began practicing a form of Judaism, waiting for the day when they would emigrate to Israel. It is estimated that about 5,000 Shinlung now observe the Sabbath, circumcise their sons seven days after birth and follow Jewish dietary laws.

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Even as the first Shinlung were arriving, however, Dubek, Israel’s ambassador to India, cabled the Foreign Ministry, informing officials that he had been receiving letters and phone calls from members of another Indian group, the Dalit, who also say they are long-lost Jews interested in emigrating to Israel.

There are between 250 million and 300 million Dalit, Dubek said in a telephone interview. Also known as Harijans or untouchables, they are at the bottom of India’s caste system and were once subject to discrimination and social restrictions.

“Some want to go to Israel and some want to be in touch with Israel and some want protection from the Israeli Embassy in case they have troubles here,” Dubek said. “It is very complicated.”

Dubek said he told the Dalit he is not empowered to make a decision on the question of their Jewishness. “And I cabled to the ministry, asking for instructions.”

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There is now pending before the Israeli high court a petition filed by Chima Onyeulo, a member of the Ibo tribe of Nigeria, demanding that he be granted citizenship under the Law of Return. Onyeulo insists that Ibo is simply a corruption of the word “Hebrew” and that the Ibo, most of whom are Christian, are members of one of the lost tribes. There are about 7 million Ibo.

There are also two groups--the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and Bene Israel of India--who once were not thought to be Jewish but who now are recognized by Israel as Jews and have immigrated here by the tens of thousands.

But Tsaban is not amused by the efforts of Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, founder of the Amishav (My People Returns) organization, who is dedicated to scouring Earth for the lost tribes. It is Avichail who “found” the Shinlung and is now active in bringing them to Israel.

“I can’t believe that this curious man will cause Israel to have to rewrite its Law of Return,” Tsaban said. “We cannot be expected to fulfill all the prophecies of the Bible. We must be willing to leave something for the Messiah to do when he comes.”

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