JERUSALEM (AP) — Dozens of Jews who claim to be the descendants of a lost biblical Jewish tribe emigrated to Israel on Monday from their village in northeastern India, celebrating their arrival after a five-year struggle to get in.
The Bnei Menashe say they are descended from Jews banished from ancient Israel to India in the eighth century B.C. An Israeli chief rabbi recognized them as a lost tribe in 2005, and about 1,700 moved to Israel over the next two years before the government stopped giving them visas.
Israel recently reversed that policy, agreeing to let the remaining 7,200 Bnei Menashe immigrate.
Fifty-three arrived on a flight Monday. Michael Freund, an Israel-based activist on their behalf, said nearly 300 others will arrive in the coming weeks.
"After waiting for thousands of years, our dream came true," said Lhing Lenchonz, 26, who arrived with her husband and 8-month-old daughter. "We are now in our land."
Not all Israelis think Bnei Menashe qualify as Jews, and some suspect they are simply fleeing poverty in India.
Avraham Poraz, a former interior minister, said they were not linked to the Jewish people. He also charged that Israeli settlers were using them to strengthen Israel's claims to the West Bank.
When Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recognized the Bnei Menashe as a lost tribe in 2005, he insisted they undergo conversion to be recognized as Jews. He sent a rabbinical team to India that converted 218 Bnei Menashe, until Indian authorities stepped in and stopped it.
The Bnei Menashe come from the states of Mizoram and Manipur near India's border with Myanmar, where, they say, their ancestors landed after the Assyrians banished them. Over the centuries they became animists, and in the 19th century, British missionaries converted many to Christianity.
Even so, the group says they continued to practice ancient Jewish rituals, including animal sacrifices, which they say were passed down from generation to generation. Jews in the Holy Land stopped animal sacrifices after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.