This week, a small bureaucratic shift in policy spoke volumes about this

government's - and the Jewish people's - failure in facing the most difficult

and arguably most dangerous threat to Jewish continuity: the pitiless calculus

of demographics.

On Sunday, the cabinet voted to transfer the power to approve entry into

Israel for mass conversions and aliya from the hands of the interior minister to

the government as a whole. From now on, those wishing to convert and make aliya

as groups - such as the Bnei Menashe tribe of northeast India - will need their

entry visas approved at the weekly meeting of the entire government before they

can enter the country to begin the conversion process.

This change, quietly initiated by Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit himself,

seeks to throw an almost impassable obstacle in the path of those groups who

claim Jewish descent and wish to rejoin the Jewish people.

The decision was taken without public discussion, is based on a

misunderstanding of the basic issue, and seems almost incomprehensibly

misguided. It is difficult to imagine a more obviously counterproductive and

faulty decision by Israeli leaders.

First, the Jewish status of these so-called "lost Jews" - probably not

Sheetrit's overriding concern in the first place - is unquestionable. The

haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate has long welcomed them as people of Jewish

descent who should be brought back into the fold. As a condition for coming to

Israel, groups such as the Bnei Menashe tribe undergo the rigorous conversion

process of the Chief Rabbinate, a process long criticized by The Jerusalem Post

as impossibly stringent and religiously partisan. Almost all adopt observant

Orthodox lifestyles.

In the case of the Bnei Menashe, against whom this decision is apparently

predominantly directed, their young men not only serve in the IDF, but have

volunteered for the army's strictly religiously-observant Nahal Haredi combat

infantry battalion.

Second, it seems absurd that while Israel has welcomed with open arms an

estimated 300,000 non-Jewish relatives of Jews from the former Soviet Union,

many of whom continue to maintain their Christian faith or atheist convictions,

the interior minister seeks through under-handed bureaucratic barriers to stop

the flow of Jewish converts who have proven their commitment.

The Bnei Menashe tribe holds to an oral tradition that claims descent from

Menashe, one of the tribes of Israel exiled and lost to Jewish history following

the Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. Doubt as to the

authenticity of these origin claims has led hundreds of tribesmen to undergo a

formal conversion in order to move to Israel.

Third, one of the keys to Jewish continuity must be the renewal of

conversion. This newspaper has called in the past for efforts in this regard,

and has seen the Chief Rabbinate's cumbersome and oppressive supra-halachic

conversion process as one of the major stumbling blocks. Here, however, it is

the Chief Rabbinate that warmly embraces the "lost Jews," and Israel's secular

interior minister who has created the problem. Now, it would appear, even people

who go through the unreasonably stringent conversion process will be kept out.

The logic behind this is hard to take at face value. It is reminiscent of the

kind of discussion directed against North African Jewish refugees in the 1950s,

when even liberal newspapers urged the government not to bring in these

"undesirable" olim, but to focus on young halutzim [socialist pioneers] who

could be shaped by the Jews already living in Israel.

Are Sheetrit and his colleagues worried about foreign-looking dark-skinned

people running around the country? Surely not. Are they worried by the potential

arrival of a few thousand religious, perhaps right-wing, voters? Again, surely


Since no other explanation is forthcoming from the cabinet - the government

has tried to slip this decision through without mention - we suspect that

less-than-legitimate reasons lie behind it.

Why, then, would a country nervous about its collapsing demographics take

steps to keep out those who have already proven that they are committed Jews and

Israelis? Enlighten us, please.

Copyright Jerusalem Post 2007