The Jerusalem Post September 12, 2001
FINDING LOST JEWS
By Michael Freund
As if listening to the latest news bulletins were not depressing enough, Israelis are now being warned once again that the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs in coming decades is looking increasingly bleak. Projections recently presented to the Knesset show that Arabs may outnumber Jews within pre-1967 Israel as soon as the year 2035 (The Jerusalem Post, August 6).
Demography is hardly the most reliable of sciences, as it is nearly impossible to foretell future events such as mass human migrations or natural disasters, all of which obviously affect the statistical models involved. But Israeli policy-makers would be ill-advised to overlook such dire warnings about the fate of Israel's Jewish majority. Indeed, it seems fair to say that, aside from the danger posed by non-conventional weapons in the hands of Israel's neighbors, the issue of demography might very well be the greatest threat to the future of Israel as a Jewish state.
As the percentage of Jews continues to decline, it will grow increasingly difficult for Israel, as a democracy, to ignore mounting calls by its Arab minority for cultural autonomy and perhaps even self-rule. And if the day were to come when Arab Israelis could elect more representatives to the Knesset than Jewish Israelis, the Jewish identity of the State would be in grave doubt.
To their credit, leading Israeli public figures are no longer remaining silent about the issue. On his visit last week to Russia, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called upon world Jewry to immigrate to Israel, stressing the vital need for mass migration as a way of bolstering the state's Jewish population.
But as the pool of potential immigrants from the former Soviet Union begins to shrink, and with mass migration from the West not yet in the offing, it is hard to see how such traditional calls for immigration will have any real or lasting impact on the situation. World Jewry is simply not rushing to move to Israel. While Israel must certainly continue to promote immigration, both as a means of achieving personal Zionist and Jewish fulfillment and as a national responsibility, it must also begin to think more creatively about how to address the ongoing erosion in the country's Jewish demographic profile.
The fact is that there are plenty of people out there in the big wide world who would like to move to Israel. The problem is that most of them are not Jewish. While many are no doubt motivated by economic reasons, there are countless others who are sincere in their desire to be Jews, and it is incumbent upon Israel to at least explore the possibilities that such populations present.
In northeastern India, for example, there are 5,000 members of the Shinlung tribe (referred to as Bnei Menashe because of their claim to descend from a lost tribe of Israel) who have been living observant Jewish lives for some two decades and anxiously wish to immigrate to Israel. In recent years, some 600 Bnei Menashe have immigrated and undergone formal conversion by Israel's Chief Rabbinate. They serve in the army, lead religious Jewish lives and work as productive members of society. Shouldn't those still in India be given a similar opportunity?
Other groups, such as the Lemba tribe of southern Africa and the Abayudaya of Uganda, also express a desire to join their fate with that of the people of Israel, as have other far-flung groups in countries as diverse as Peru, Mexico and Japan.
In recent years, untold numbers of Crypto-Jews (descendants of Marrano Jews who were forcibly converted in Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century), have begun returning to Judaism throughout Central and South America and the United States. Receiving little in the way of encouragement or support from the organized Jewish community, these people are heroically trying to rejoin the Jewish people, and more needs to be done to help them.
But rather than neglecting these people, it is time for Israel to start reaching out to them, assessing their claims to Jewish ancestry and acting to help those worthy of assistance. The various organs of the State, such as the Jewish Agency, the Chief Rabbinate and the Foreign Ministry, need to look more carefully at this issue and give it serious consideration. For a country struggling to find potential new sources of immigration, groups such as the Bnei Menashe and others like them might very well provide the answer.
(The writer served as deputy director of communications and policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office from 1996 to 1999.)
© 2001 The Jerusalem Post