Right-wing Orthodox activists in America have launched an initiative to bring tens of millions of so-called “lost Jews” from Asia and Europe to the West Bank.
The new effort was highlighted in promotional advertisements for an annual concert in Central Park, which has become a major destination for tens of thousands of New York Jews. The event, held on May 23, began as New York’s Israel Day Parade wound down.
In addition to voicing support for Jewish settlements and opposition to a Palestinian state, ads for this year’s post-parade concert declared that the event would be dedicated in part to the “36.6 million Jews… that were lost in the course of the generations and now wish to live in Israel.” According to the advertisements, this group of potential immigrants includes so-called lost Jews now living in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Burma, as well as “the remnants of the marranos in Spain and Portugal.”
Israeli officials repeatedly have expressed fears over the prospect of millions of people from impoverished countries manufacturing claims of Jewish identity in order to gain entry to a more developed nation. Still, the promotional material for the concert featured endorsements from several major right-wing organizations, including the National Council of Young Israel, the Hebron Fund and Americans for a Safe Israel, as well as several media outlets, philanthropists and organizational leaders from the Orthodox community. Among the individuals listed in the advertisements were Yummy Schachter, the president of Yeshiva University’s student council and son of one of the institution’s leading rabbis, Hershel Schachter, and Rose Mattus, the widow of the founder of the Häagen Dazs ice cream company. Mattus gave coupons for free ice cream to concert volunteers.
Interviews with several of the supporters listed in the ads suggested that many were not familiar with the effort to highlight the goal of packing the territories with lost Jews.
“I have no comment, because I’ve gotta do my homework,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, an organization representing Orthodox congregations in North America. Lerner, who served as a host for the event, told the Forward that the chief organizer of the concert, Dr. Joseph Frager, “sent me some stuff to show me it’s real.… I’ve got to start from scratch.”
A chairman of the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, the fund-raising arm of Ateret Cohanum Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem, Frager delivered a speech at the concert celebrating the idea of sending these potential immigrants to Gaza in an effort to derail the efforts of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to order an Israeli withdrawal from the area. Frager told the Forward he has partnered with philanthropists, including Carl and Sylvia Freyer, and Michael Freund, in establishing a yeshiva in India to facilitate the full conversion of would-be immigrants in order to bring them to Gaza.
In December, the New York Times reported that a 6,000-member group of Indians known as Bnei Menashe, already had sent approximately 100 people to live in the West Bank. But Frager claims that, in fact, Bnei Menashe has 1.5 million members.
Many leaders of Orthodox and right-wing organizations, including Agudath Israel of America and the Zionist Organization of America, claimed ignorance when asked about Frager’s efforts.
Many attendees at the concert seemed similarly unaware of the issue, despite the advertising and speeches. But nearly all participants appeared to support efforts to block Sharon from carrying out a pullout from Gaza. Other than blanket statements in support of Israel, the most popular message voiced on signs, T-shirts and stickers was: “The Nation With Gush Katif.” The line, found throughout the event in both Hebrew and English, referred to the largest Jewish settlement in Gaza and was a play on a similar campaign in the mid-1990s to stop any deal that would return the Golan Heights to Syria.