New Diaspora Ministry Initiative Could Open Israel’s Gates to Millions of non-Jews With Jewish Links

Photo courtesy Shavei Israel.
Photo courtesy Shavei Israel.

By Judy Maltz

Indicating a possible shift in government policy toward “emerging” Jewish communities around the world, Israel’s Ministry of the Diaspora has created a new committee to present recommendations on what it defines as “groups with ties to the Jewish people.”

Member of these “emerging” Jewish communities are not allowed to immigrate to Israel today under the Law of Return, which provides citizenship only to individuals who have at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse or who have converted to Judaism.

“Emerging” Jewish communities cover a wide spectrum. They include groups that claim descent from the so-called “lost tribes,” such as the Bnei Menashe from northeastern India. They also include “bnei anusim” – descendants of Jews forced to convert during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. In addition, they include numerous communities in South America and in other remote corners of the world that have recently discovered Judaism and embrace Jewish practices, sometimes converting to Judaism, but often not. Scholars who study “emerging” Jewish communities – also known as “Judaizing” communities – have estimated their numbers in the millions.

Should the new advisory committee recommend a change in existing immigration policy, and should the government adopt that recommendation, it could potentially lead to a vast increase in the pool of individuals eligible to move to Israel from around the world.

Jewish ties

The committee was set up by Dvir Kahana, the director general of the Diaspora Ministry. “Over the past few years there has been an increasing awareness of large groups of people who are not Jewish by any definition but who have some type of connection to the Jewish people,” he said in a press release published by his office.

“Some of these groups want some kind [of] association with the Jewish people and/or Israel, which raises the question of what ties the government should have with them. As the Diaspora Ministry is in charge of the connection between the Jewish communities in the Diaspora and the State of Israel, we decided to convene this committee to look into what kind of policies should be put in place regarding these groups, if any.”

Since assuming his government position two years ago, Kahana has tried to take over responsibility for Israel’s relations with the Diaspora from The Jewish Agency. His new committee has no representatives on board from The Jewish Agency – nor from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry or the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

The committee is headed by Dr. Ofir Haivri, a former executive at the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center, a right-wing think tank.

The Diaspora Affairs Ministry declined to respond to a question from Haaretz regarding specific communities the committees would be examining. It also refused to say whether the ultimate objective was to promote their immigration to Israel.

Israel’s gates

There is one private organization in Israel very active in reaching out to such “emerging” Jewish communities, in particular the Bnei Menashe. That organization, Shavei Israel, was able to obtain special government consent to bring nearly 1,000 members of this community to Israel in recent years, even though they are not eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return. Michael Freund, the founder and director of Shavei Israel, has long advocated a change in government immigration policy that would allow such groups to come to Israel as easily as Jews who are recognized as such by the Law of Return. Opening Israel’s gates to such communities, he has argued, would help guarantee that Israel maintains its Jewish majority.

Asked if Freund or his organization was in any way connected to the new advisory committee, the Diaspora Ministry declined to comment.

One of the members of the committee is Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, founder and president of Beit Morasha, an Orthodox academic institution in Jerusalem. Ish-Shalom has been a driving force behind a new “traveling rabbinical court” set up last month by The Jewish Agency in order to facilitate Orthodox conversions abroad. His participation in the advisory committee would seem to indicate that the Diaspora Ministry is considering the possibility of having members of these “emerging” Jewish communities undergo Orthodox conversions.

The other committee members are Zvi Hauser, a former cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Rotem Yadlin, a lawyer who served as Hauser’s deputy; journalist Fiamma Nirenstein, Israel’s ambassador designate to Italy and a former outspoken Italian lawmaker for Silvio Berloscunni’s right-wing People of Freedom party; and Dr. Einat Wilf, a former Israeli lawmaker (Labor and Independent), who is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an independent think tank.

In an invitation for experts to appear before the new committee, the Diaspora Ministry noted that one of its mandates will be to explore the possibility of recruiting “emerging” communities for Israel’s hasbarah (public diplomacy) efforts and having them assist “in the struggle against anti-Semitism around the world.”

The Foreign Ministry, which is responsible Israel’s public diplomacy efforts, was unaware of the creation of the new Diaspora Ministry committee or its mandate, a spokesman said.

The committee has until February 2016 to submit its recommendations.

In response to a query from Haaretz, The Jewish Agency declined to comment on this new initiative of the Diaspora Ministry.

Last week, The Jewish Agency notified the Prime Minister’s Office that it was pulling out of a major Jewish world project because of irreconcilable differences with the Diaspora Ministry and its director general over the shape it should be taking. The World Jewry initiative, whose future is now in limbo, had originally sought to create programs to strengthen the Jewish identity of teens and college students abroad. But Kahana had preferred allocating funds made available through the initiative to projects more in line with the agenda of the religious right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, which controls his ministry.

In the past, Kahana served as a senior director in Elad, a right-wing organization that encourages Jewish settlers to move into Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. He and his family live in the Arab East Jerusalem village of Silwan, a major flashpoint of Jewish-Palestinian tensions.