The Jewish Agency had sought and received special permission to bring some of the Bnei Menashe community to Israel on a charter flight.
By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News
On Wednesday, 16 immigrants who traveled to Israel from India on a special Aliyah flight tested positive for the highly contagious Indian variant of coronavirus upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport.
The immigrants are from India’s 6,000-person Bnei Menashe community. Because they do not qualify for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, the Jewish Agency had sought and received special permission to bring some of the community on a charter flight.
The Bnei Menashe are from the Mizoram state in northeastern India, near the border with Myanmar. The group claims that they are descended from a lost Hebrew tribe exiled from Israel thousands of years ago, but have not been able to definitely prove that link.
In 2004, DNA testing conclusively found that the Bnei Menashe do not share ancestry with any known Sephardic, Mizrahi, or Ashkenazi Jewish groups. The DNA results indicated that the group is indigenous to east Asia.
They are not recognized as Jewish by the state, and must undergo formal conversion once they arrive in the country in order to qualify for residency or citizenship.
Thirty-six members of the 275-person group had already tested positive for the virus in New Delhi while they were en route to Israel, and Israel’s Health Ministry sought to bar them from entering the country until they had all completed quarantine and received two negative coronavirus tests.
“Given the high infection rates and the real fear of bringing a dangerous variant into Israel, the Health Ministry has ordered the [entire] group delayed in their country until they have completed a full quarantine and all those sick have recovered,” a spokeswoman told Haaretz.
But hours later, likely because of pressure from the Jewish Agency and the Aliyah Ministry, the flight proceeded.
The flight transported 160 people who had not tested positive, despite their prolonged exposure to members of their group who had been found to be carrying the virus.
Upon landing, 16 were found to be positive for the virus.
The office of Aliyah Minister Penina Tamano-Shata insisted that bringing the group to Israel, despite knowing that they had been exposed to coronavirus and not allowing enough time for a proper quarantine, was the right decision.
“Because of the coronavirus situation in India, their economic situation has deteriorated, and therefore the minister wanted to bring them immediately, even at a time like this,” read a statement from Tamano-Shata’s office.
The Health Ministry released a laconic statement saying that “at the request of the Aliyah Ministry and the Jewish Agency, a group of Bnei Menashe arrived. 16 of them have tested positive. They are being quarantined in a coronavirus hotel.”