A controversial bill passed the Israeli Knesset’s law committee last week. The Rotem Bill—named after its sponsor, David Rotem, a member of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party—would give ultimate control of the conversion process to the ultra-orthodox Haredi rabbinate. This bill has caused an uproar in the diasporic Jewish community. Alana Newhouse, editor in chief of Tablet Magazine, writes in The New York Times:
The problem is not simply that some of these rabbinical functionaries, who are paid by the state and courted by politicians, are demonstrably corrupt [ . . . ] Rather, it is that the beliefs of a tiny minority of the world’s Jews are on the verge of becoming the Israeli government’s definition of Judaism, for all Jews.
The definition of who is a Jew has haunted the Israeli government throughout its history. As immigrants have flocked from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, and beyond, some in Israel have questioned the “Jewishness” of those wishing to make aliyah (i.e., to immigrate to Israel). Whether questioning the practices of the Ethiopians or the religiosity and ancestry of the former Soviets, the Haredi rabbinate has attempted to restrict the definition of who is a Jew.
More recently, the Bnei Menashe community of eastern India has caused some controversy. Some in Israel have been extremely instrumental in aiding their immigration process, while others have doubted their legitimacy and stood in their way. NPR reports:
Every year, Jews from around the world migrate to Israel, a process knownas aliyah, a Hebrew word meaning “ascent.” But for the Bnei Menashe community of India, who believe they are descendents of one of the 10 lost tribes of ancient Israel, the road has been long and fraught with difficulty.
While almost 2,000 members of the group have been allowed to come to the Jewish state from their home near India’s border with Myanmar (formerly Burma), many more are waiting, their migration frozen by disagreement over whether or not they are really Jews.[ . . . ]
The Bnei Menashe — also known as the Kuki or Shinlung people — are of Tibeto-Burmese origin and have come to believe they are the descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel, sent into exile by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.
The story goes that when Christian missionaries encountered the tribe in the late 19th century, they found similarities between some of their own biblical stories and the Bnei Menashe’s mythology.
Most of the Bnei Menashe converted to Christianity. But in 1951, one of their leaders had a dream that his people’s ancient homeland was Israel. And some of the Bnei Menashe began embracing the idea that they were Jews.