Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu, I am writing to you from the village of Churachandpur, in the farthest reaches of northeastern India, where I am visiting with the Bnei Menashe community as it prepares to celebrate Passover next week.
I have just returned from the Beit Shalom synagogue in the heart of town, which was crowded to overflowing for the evening Ma'ariv service. Bnei Menashe men and women, both young and old, swayed back and forth in silent contemplation, as they turned toward Zion and softly recited the ancient Hebrew prayers.
Then, with an intensity of purpose and unshakeable concentration, those present raised their hands and covered their eyes in unison, bursting forth as one to affirm our people's most revered pledge: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one."
The Bnei Menashe trace their ancestry back to the tribe of Menasseh, one of the Ten Lost Tribes that were exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrian empire more than 2,700 years ago.
Despite centuries of wandering, the Bnei Menashe clung to their Jewish heritage and preserved their traditions. They never forgot who they were or where their ancestors came from, and they nourished the dream that one day, somehow, they would manage to return.
Over the past decade, we have been blessed to bring more than 1,700 members of the community to Israel. All have undergone formal conversion by the Chief Rabbinate to remove any doubts regarding their personal status and have been granted Israeli citizenship.
But another 7,000 remain in India, anxiously awaiting their chance to make aliya. The time has come to put an end to their waiting.
PRIME MINISTER, I appeal to you: Please bring the Bnei Menashe home to the Jewish state.
Four months ago, I met with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, both of whom expressed their support for bringing the remaining members of the community to Israel. All that is needed now is for your government to take the courageous and historic decision to reunite this lost tribe with our people.
The Bnei Menashe will be loyal citizens and good Jews. They are kind and soft-spoken, with strong family values and a deep abiding faith in the Torah. Nearly all are religiously observant, with a profound and passionate commitment to Zionism.
Only 4 percent of Bnei Menashe immigrants are reliant on social welfare benefits, which is less than half the percentage of veteran Israelis. They are hard-working and earnest people, and the arrival of thousands of them will be a true blessing for the Jewish state.
Several members of the community in Israel have received rabbinical ordination and now work in outreach, while another is a certified religious scribe whose quill has produced beautiful Scrolls of Esther.
Dozens of others have served in elite combat units, risking their lives in defense of the country.
Simply put, they strengthen us both quantitatively and qualitatively, demographically and spiritually.
Moreover, the Bnei Menashe are part of the extended Jewish family, and we owe it to them and their ancestors, as well as to ourselves, to bring them home.
According to their tradition, after their forefathers were expelled from the Land of Israel, the Bnei Menashe wandered eastward toward China before settling in what is now northeastern India, where they continued to practice a biblical form of Judaism. This included observing the Sabbath and the laws of family purity, circumcision on the eighth day after birth, levirate marriage and sacrificial rites tantalizingly close to those of ancient Israel.
Now scattered in dozens of communities throughout the towns and villages of the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, they follow Jewish law, observe the festivals and even pray in Hebrew, turning their faces, and dreams, toward Jerusalem.
Prime Minister, ever since I worked for you during your previous term of office in the 1990s, I have devoted myself to this cause, investing my time, resources and energies toward helping the Bnei Menashe to return to our people. You have always been encouraging and supportive of my efforts, and for that I am truly grateful.
More than 18 months ago, when I met with you in your office in the Knesset shortly before the elections, you assured me that when you came to power, the Bnei Menashe would be able to make aliya.
And so, Prime Minister, I turn to you now from the pages of this newspaper, and ask you to intervene. You have a chance to make history and to bring the exile of the Bnei Menashe to a remarkable conclusion.As we prepare to celebrate Passover and our ancestors' redemption, nothing could be more fitting than to pass a cabinet decision to open the door for their return.
I know that Israel is beset with problems, and that your government must contend with many challenges. But the time has come to bring this saga to an end. Manasseh's children are waiting to come home. Please heed my call and allow them to do so, once and for all.
The writer served as deputy director of communications and policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office from 1996 to 1999. He is the Founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists the Bnei Menashe to return to the Jewish people.