Once Lost And Now Found?

When the veteran Israeli journalist Hillel Halkin began hunting for the Lost Tribes of Israel four years ago, he thought the claim that a community of Indians on the Burmese border was descended from one of the tribes was either a fantasy or a hoax. The fate of Israel’s 10 lost tribes, which, after being driven from ancient Palestine in the eighth century B.C. by Assyrian conquerors, disappeared into ethnic oblivion, ranks among history’s biggest mysteries. On his third trip to the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram, Halkin was shown texts that convinced him that the community, which calls itself the Bnei Menashe, has roots in the lost tribe of Menashe. The documents included a will and words to a song about the Red Sea.

The argument, made in his new book “Across the Sabbath River” (Houghton Mifflin), is not just academic. Some Israeli rabbis believe descendants of the lost tribes number more than 35 million around the world and could help offset the sharply increasing Palestinian population. As founder of the organization Amishav (My People Return), Eliyahu Avichail trots the globe in search of lost Jews, in order to bring them back to their religion through conversation and direct them to Israel. He’s even hoping to make it to Afghanistan later this year. “I believe that groups like the Bnei Menashe are part of the solution to Israel’s demographic problems,” says Amishav director Michael Freund. The group has already brought 700 of the Bnei Menashe to Israel and believes thousands more are eager to come. Most have been put up in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip–the main arena of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Last week at Utniel, a hilltop settlement south of Hebron, a few of the recent Indian immigrants brought back by Amishav sat on the grass during a break from their Jewish studies, singing songs they learned in Manipur about redemption in Jerusalem. A day earlier, Palestinians had shot two Israelis in an ambush a few miles up the road from the settlement. “We feel good here; we’re not scared,” says one of the students, Yosef Thangjom. At another settlement in the area, Kiryat Arba, Manipur native Odelia Khongsai explains why she chose to leave India two years ago, where she had family and a good job. “I had everything a person could want, but I still felt some-thing spiritual was missing.”

Halkin plans to return to India in February with a team of Israeli and American doctors who will conduct genetic tests on the Bnei Menashe to determine scientifically if their ancestors hail from ancient Palestine. But this time it’s the Bnei Menashe who are skeptical. “I think DNA testing is just hogwash,” says Khongsai, who lives with her 6-year-old daughter in a trailer home in Kiryat Arba. “I know I’m a Jew from the Bnei Menashe tribe, and that’s all that matters.”

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