BEN GURION INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Israel – Fifty-one people who claim descent from a lost Jewish tribe immigrated to Israel from a remote corner of India early Tuesday, the first wave of the Bnei Menashe community to arrive in nearly three years.
Dozens of other Bnei Menashe, who immigrated to Israel over the past decade, waited in excitement at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport to greet them, singing traditional Jewish songs, dancing and waving banners in welcome.
Adding to their excitement was official government sanction given to the new immigrants and 170 other Bnei Menashe who are expected to arrive in coming weeks. The entire group of 218 Indians from two northeastern states near India's border with Myanmar have already been converted to Judaism.
"I feel lonely a little bit, but this is our home," said Arbi Khiangte, 21, who left her entire family behind.
"This is the promise of God — the promised land of God," she said, with tears in her eyes.
The group's immigration ignited a controversy over the group's religious status and assimilation into Israeli society.
Secular Israeli politicians, who reject the group's religious claims, accuse the Bnei Menashe of moving to Israel in search of a better life, and take issue with previous immigrants' decision to live in West Bank settlements.
Religious Israelis and authorities, though accepting the group as a lost tribe, still require a rigorous conversion process. The newest arrivals were converted in India, a move that irked some Indian politicians who oppose proselytizing.
"It's extremely emotional. This is a day we've been waiting for a long time," said Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel, the advocacy group that lobbied for immigration rights for the Bnei Menashe. "This is the largest group ever to come in one fell swoop and there was a great deal of excitement and anticipation among the new immigrants."
Freund said his organization is still working to convert the remaining 7,000 Bnei Menashe in India.
About 1,000 Bnei Menashe, who came on tourist visas throughout the 1990s, currently live in Israel. After arriving, they converted to Judaism and became Israeli citizens. But in 2003, the government froze the visas because of the dispute over the community's Jewish roots.
Because this new group was converted before arriving, they will be the first to receive full rights under Israel's Law of Return, which grants citizenship to anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent.
Initially, the entire group of 218 had been scheduled to arrive on a single charter plane, but the Indian government canceled the flight in an effort to downplay the event. They will now arrive in smaller waves on night flights.
"It was about 10 years ago when I arrived here," said Yehoshua Binyamin, who arrived in Israel as a tourist in 1996, and has since coverted to Judaism and become an Israeli citizen. "I have the same feeling when my friends come here today."