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Lost Tribe Applicants Stir Debate on Israel Citizenship

August 29, 1994|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 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 immigrants who left the former Soviet Union over the past five 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 founders intended it to be.

In recent days, Immigration Minister Yair Tsaban and Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin both have said that Israel might have to rethink the Law of Return if dilemmas such as those posed by the Indians continue to occur. Uri Gordon, director of immigration for the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which helps Jews settle in Israel, sent a letter to President Ezer Weizman urging him to recommend that Parliament consider changing the law.

"The current formulation of the law allows people who have absolutely nothing to do with the people of Israel and Judaism to immigrate to Israel, and the possibilities for change must be looked into," Gordon said.

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

"The truth is, Israel has no control over its immigration laws once someone claims to be Jewish," said one senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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

"We are happy here," she said as she sat in one of the sparsely furnished, narrow mobile homes that Kiryat Arba residents are allowing the Shinlung to stay in temporarily. As she spoke, members of the nine other families who flew to Israel with the Lunkhels were studying Hebrew prayer books nearby. The men have adopted the skullcaps and fringed undershirts commonly worn by observant Jews. The women cover their heads with scarves and wear long skirts, as do many Orthodox women.

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 under the supervision of Kiryat Arba rabbis. Once their conversions 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.

"Everyone asks us why we have taken them in," said Bella Gonen, a member of Kiryat Arba's municipal council in charge of immigration. "We believe they are Jews. Kiryat Arba is open to any Jew who wants to come."

Indeed, some Israeli journalists have suggested that it is no coincidence that Jewish settlers living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are the most ardent promoters of gathering in the lost tribes. Where else, columnists have asked, are settlers likely to find new recruits at a time when Israel is disengaging from the territories?

Gonen acknowledges that Kiryat Arba, with a population of about 6,500, is eager to attract new residents. But she insists that the settlement's decision to help the Shinlung was motivated by a belief that Israel must embrace all Jews.

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