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Israel permits anyone who's Jewish from anywhere in the world to become a citizen. But for one group from a remote corner of India, the road to Israeli citizenship has been long and difficult. The Bnei Menashe believe they are descendents of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel sent into exile by the Assyrians centuries ago.
Almost 2,000 have been allowed to come to the Jewish state, but many more are waiting. Their migration is frozen by disagreement over whether or not they are really Jews. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has this story.
Mr. TZVI KHAUTE: This was my home sweet home in (unintelligible).
(Soundbite of knocking)
Mr. KHAUTE: (Foreign language spoken)
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tzvi Khaute still greets his family in his native Kuki, a dialect spoken in the remote northeastern corner of India where he's from. Wearing a kippa, or a Jewish skull cap, Khaute's family home is decorated with both reminders of India and the symbols of his present life - Jewish religious books and framed sayings in Hebrew.
He still remembers the feeling of awe when he arrived at Ben Gurion Airport.
Mr. KHAUTE: It is a dream come true. Not only my dream; it is the dream of our forefathers. There was the longing and then the yearning always to make aliyah, to reach the Holy Land.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bnei Menashe, also known as the Kuki or Shinlung people, are of Tibeto-Burmese origin, but they have come to believe they are the descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel.
The story goes that when Christian missionaries discovered 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 lost Jews.
Michael Freund is the chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization that works with lost Jews around the world. He has been instrumental in bringing the Bnei Menashe here.
Mr. MICHAEL FREUND (Chairman, Shavei Israel): Initially, I didn't believe the whole lost tribe bit, but I was very taken by them on a personal level, on a human level - by their sincerity, by their desire to become part of the Jewish people. So I thought we should help them. So I became involved through the bureaucracy then in arranging for groups to start coming in an organized fashion.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he is now convinced that the Bnei Menashe are Jews who were sent into exile 2,700 years ago.
Mr. FREUND: I think we have a historical responsibility, a moral responsibility, to reach out to them and to facilitate their return.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But some say the Bnei Menashe's historical narrative is far from clearcut.
Dr. Shalva Weil is an anthropologist at Hebrew University and one of the world's leading experts on the Bnei Menashe. She says they Bnei Menashe are not one cohesive group.
Dr. SHALVA WEIL (Hebrew University): It's a very new kind of religion that's developing in northeast India which combines elements of Israelite identity. But some people who are doing correspondence with me say they are Christians but they believe they should go and live in the state of Israel. Some people say that they're Jewish. Some of them believe that they're both Christian and Jewish at the same time. Many of them don't believe that they are the tribe of Menashe at all.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All the Bnei Menashe who come to Israel undergo an orthodox conversion. Michael Freund says he's only trying to bring around 7,000 of them to Israel.
Still, Weil says there could be millions of members of the Bnei Menashe who ultimately want to come here. And allowing the group to come in based on their link to a lost tribe could also pose a larger challenge for the Israeli government's immigration policy.
Dr. WEIL: There might be billions of lost tribes out there by now. 'Cause 28,000 were dispersed by Sennacherib and Shalmaneser, kings of Assyria. Through natural increase, this could be half the world today.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The project has also run into criticism because during the initial wave of their immigration, many Bnei Menashe were sent to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
For now, the Bnei Menashe's immigration to Israel has been stopped.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in Tzvi Khaute's home, his daughter sings a song in Kuki about the Bnei Menashe's longing for Israel.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
Though the previous Israeli government halted the Bnei Menashe migration, advocates say they are hopeful the present one will allow a new wave in. Tzvi Khaute says it is what many back home in India are dreaming of.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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