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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel Rethinks All-Embracing Law of Return

KIRYAT ARBA, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- 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, the Dalit, 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 Russian immigrants who have fled the former Soviet Union in the past four 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 country's founders intended it to be.

In recent days, Immigration Minister Yair Tsaban and Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin have said Israel might have to rethink the Law of Return if dilemmas such as those posed by the Indians continue to occur.

"The Law of Return was adopted against the background of the Holocaust," said Tsaban. "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 and unrest and unable to gain access to Western nations, Tsaban and other Israeli officials argue.

In Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement on the outskirts of the Palestinian town of Hebron in the Israeli-occupied area of the 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.

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. Once these 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. What most alarms the Israeli government is that the Shinlung and the Dalit appear to reperesent only the tip of the iceberg of claimants to membership of the lost tribes of Israel.

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 "Hebre"' and that the Ibo, most of whom are Christian, are members of one of the lost tribes of Israel. There are several 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 Immigration Minister Tsaban is not amused by the efforts of Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, founder of the Amishav (My People Returns) organization, who is dedicated to scouring the 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."