FINDING A LOST TRIBE
The Bnei Menashe grew up in India as Shinlung tribespeople and believe that Israel is their true home
It is Friday night and over 100 new immigrants are crowded into the dining room for Sabbath-eve services. Newcomers from Armenia, Yugoslavia, Holland, Ethiopia, Russia, South Africa and the U.S. join in the chanting and singing. At the head table, leading the Sephardi-style prayers, are several men of short stature, wearing immaculate white shirts and knitted yarmulkes pinned to their jet-black hair. All are stocky with dark eyes, yellow-brown skin and Sino-Tibetan features. Their wives and children, dressed in colorful tribal costumes, are equally noticeable in the crowd. Raising a silver wine goblet, one of the men recites the Kiddush in exotically accented Hebrew, his strong melodious voice greeted with choruses of “Amen, Amen.”
So how do these Shinlung tribesmen from the Mizoram province of northeastern India, bordering Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh, fit in to Jewish services at the Karmiel immigrant absorption center in the Galilee?
Well, these people, who call themselves Bnei Menashe or Children of Menashe, are Jews and also bona fide immigrants. Not only do they claim descent from the Israelite tribe of Menashe, one of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel, they also underwent Orthodox conversion while still in India and are part of a contingent of 218 Bnei Menashe who arrived in Israel in three waves in late November. Since the early 1990s, small groups of Bnei Menashe have come in as tourists and undergone formal conversion to Judaism in Israel. This group is both the largest ever to come to Israel and the first to arrive in the country with full new immigrants’ rights – including a stay at an absorption center – and automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
According to Bnei Menashe tradition, their ancestors were exiled from the Kingdom of Israel by Shalmanezer, King of Assyria, in 721 BCE, over 2,700 years ago. They wandered eastwards through what is today Afghanistan and Mongolia until they reached China. There they lived for centuries until an evil king confiscated their “holy book” and again forced them to flee. This time they moved south through Burma to Mizoram and Manipur in northeast India, where they have lived for the past 400 years.
“Our ancestors came to India from China and Burma. But although I was born in India, the bond with the Land of Israel is much stronger,” says Eliezer Sela. “We are Bnei Menashe. This is our home.” On his first morning in Israel, Sela, 63, sits with members of his family on beds in a small apartment in the absorption center. It is a warm day, but most are still dressed for the cool mountainous Himalayan climate they left behind. The men wear skullcaps and the women large round felt hats in the best Orthodox Jewish tradition. In a mixture of broken English and Mizo, their regional tongue, with a few Hebrew words thrown in, Sela tells how, decades ago, as a primary school teacher in Mizoram, he fell out with his extended Christian family when he reverted to Judaism. He says he was forced to leave his job and travel across India working as a day laborer. Years later he returned to Mizoram, where he opened a cafeteria in the hospital where his wife Dolian worked as a nurse. He sits bolt upright as he speaks, exuding a quiet dignity.
His oldest daughter Rivka, 38, who has been living in Kiryat Arba near Hebron for three years, translates for us. She says life for the Bnei Menashe in Israel is much harder than in India. “The first problem is the language. And we have to work harder to make a living. But the fact that this is our homeland makes us happy,” she says. Rivka works with one of her sisters as an ancillary nurse in an old-age home in Jerusalem. Her husband and a brother provide kitchen help at a yeshiva high school in Kiryat Arba. Three other brothers are studying: one at a yeshiva, another is learning the building trade and a third is about to become a ritual slaughterer.
In a corridor of the absorption center stands Lior Amar, 33, who has also come to visit new arrivals. A cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth, he cradles a baby daughter on his right arm. He is one of 146 Bnei Menashe who were forced to leave Gush Katif, together with all the other residents, during Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip last year. Now living in temporary quarters with other evacuees in Nitzan near Ashkelon, he is taking a gardening course and says he is worried about finding a new home for his family.
So far, most Bnei Menashe have settled in the occupied territories, in Gush Katif or West Bank settlements like Kiryat Arba and Beit El. The new group, however, are to make their homes in the Galilee or the Negev. “We wanted to shatter the image that they only go over the Green Line and that it is all part of some right-wing conspiracy” to bolster the Jewish population of the territories, says Michael Freund, founder and director of Shavei Israel, an organization that has been working for years with the Bnei Menashe in India and Israel and facilitating their aliyah.
The newcomers will spend 18 months at the absorption center learning Hebrew, undergoing vocational training and generally being helped to adjust to the Israeli way of life. They are accompanied by Simha Rentlin, a 19-year-old Bnei Menashe woman from Beit El, who liaises with their veteran Israeli hosts. Rentlin speaks fluent Hebrew, displays an easy confidence and says she intends to go to university to study social work.
Downstairs a group of teenage Bnei Menashe visitors congregates. Unlike the sedate newcomers, they wear tight clothes, sport punk hairstyles and speak loudly in clipped Sabra-style Hebrew. They have the swaggering brashness of young Israelis who do not question their cultural belonging. Some have been in the country for most of their lives. There is very little left of their Shinlung origins.
Back in India, the Bnei Menashe always believed that toward the End of Days, white men would restore their “holy book” and, when British missionaries arrived in the early 20th century with the biblical stories they were familiar with, many converted to Christianity. In the early 1950s, after the establishment of the states of India and Israel, there was a Jewish revival, and a group of Bnei Menashe, apparently believing the coming of the messiah was at hand, began marching on foot to Israel. They didn’t get very far, but the Jewish revival gathered pace. The movement of return to what Bnei Menashe saw as their Jewish roots was encouraged by Israeli emissaries and resulted in the dribble of immigration to Israel starting in the early 1990s.
But how likely is it that Shinlung tribesmen from northeast India really are members of a lost biblical tribe? Freund, who has been to Mizoram and Manipur several times over the past few years, says that initially he did not buy into the lost tribe story, but that after seeing how the Bnei Menashe live and listening to accounts of their rich oral tradition, he does. He bases his belief on the religious practice of the Bnei Menashe before the coming of the missionaries and the startling similarity between some of their rituals and those of the biblical Israelites.
“Basically when the first British missionaries arrived 90-odd years ago, the Bnei Menashe were, to all intents and purposes, living biblical Judaism. They were performing sacrificial rites on the festivals, they were keeping the Sabbath as the seventh day, circumcision on the eighth day, they established cities of refuge, they practiced Levirate marriage [where a widow marries one of her late husband’s brothers] and they believed in one God they termed Yah [the way God is referred to several places in the Torah, including Exodus 15:2]. The missionaries themselves actually called them ‘Lu-Shai,’ a Burmese term which means ‘the ten tribes.'”
Freund was particularly impressed by the similarities between a Bnei Menashe spring festival called Chapchar Kut and the Jewish Passover: “The village priest would slaughter an animal and put the blood on the doorpost of his home. He would then separate the meat from the bones very carefully, because if one bone were to break it would invalidate the offering, all of which is straight out of the Torah’s laws for the Passover sacrifice. Then, as he offered the animal up on the altar, he would recite a series of prayers and chants, describing how Bnei Menashe’s ancestors had left Egypt. It was effectively their Passover Haggada,” he asserts.
There are other similarities: As with Judaism, a recurrent theme in the Bnei Menashe oral tradition is the yearning for return to a promised land. Over the centuries, one of the revered Shinlung forefathers was called “Manasia,” whom they now identify with the biblical Menashe.
As impressive as such parallels may be, there is no DNA or other direct evidence of Jewish tribal descent. Shalva Weil, a Hebrew University anthropologist, offers an alternative, more prosaic explanation for the evolution of the Bnei Menashe connection to Judaism. In a paper entitled “Lost Israelites from the Indo-Burmese Borderlands,” published in The Anthropologist in July 2004, she suggests that the lost tribe notion was probably introduced by Christian missionaries, something they had elsewhere in the belief that discovery of such “lost tribes” would hasten the Second Coming of Jesus. She notes, too, that the customs and rituals of the Shinlung did not always correspond to Jewish practice. For example, they ate pork. “An important part of the Chapchar Kut festival includes the hunting and eating of pig,” she observes.
Weil attributes the Jewish stirrings in the early 1950s to an unease among non-Hindus in newly independent India coupled with a new national alternative in newly independent Israel. The Shinlung could then look back to pre-Christian customs in structuring a Jewish identity, linked through Manasia to the tribe of Menashe.
The name Bnei Menashe came some time later, given by an Israeli emissary, Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, reinforcing the lost tribe narrative. On a philosophical level, the Bnei Menashe sense of belonging to the wider Jewish people with a millennarian tradition satisfied yearnings for immortality. “The Judaizing Shinlung managed to dovetail a claim of affiliation to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, a common myth in Judaism and Christianity, with millenarian beliefs,” Weil writes. And when the Bnei Menashe started coming to Israel in the early 1990s, those millenarian beliefs dovetailed with the Jewish settlers’ messianic outlook. As the newcomers were directed to settlements like Kiryat Arba, initial early backers reportedly included right-wing Orthodox American Jews, like Florida tycoon Irving Moskowitz, who had backed Jewish settlement projects in Jerusalem for the same millenarian reasons.
Israelis on the secular left have tended to be highly suspicious of the Bnei Menashe saga, arguing that linkage of a Sino-Tibetan tribe to biblical events 2,700 years ago defies belief. Dror Etkes, director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch, describes the lost tribe story as a “political, religious and historical farce.” “Discovering more Jews may serve Israeli society’s demographic pathology, but the fact that a modern state endorses such nonsense is absurd,” he charges.
Etkes sees in the Bnei Menashe immigration a right-wing project to strengthen the settler movement. Indeed, he maintains that directing the Bnei Menashe to the settlements was very convenient for all concerned. “The settlements had empty homes and a need for workers,” he says. “They also got funding and provided a homogenous absorbing society that would give the Bnei Menashe the kind of indoctrination their right-wing backers wanted.”
Furthermore, the International Fellow- ship of Christians and Jews has committed $1.5 m to fly the Bnei Menashe to Israel and to pay for their support during their initial period here.
Though the first Bnei Menashe came to Israel in the early 1990s, the project only really got off the ground when then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a letter in 1997 from the community in India asking for help in organizing their immigration. Freund, then an aide to Netanyahu, reached an agreement with the Interior Ministry under which 100 Bnei Menashe would be allowed into Israel every year as tourists, and undergo a process of conversion and naturalization here. That arrangement continued until 2003, when the newly appointed interior minister Avraham Poraz of the secular Shinui party stopped it on the grounds that Israel shouldn’t be “scouring the Third World to find Jews”; that all the conversions the Bnei Menashe underwent in Israel were Orthodox, and that all the newcomers were being directed to settlements across the Green Line.
After failing to move Poraz, Freund tried a different tack. He approached Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, asking him to study the community and to issue a halakhic ruling on their status. In August 2004, Amar sent an investigative panel of rabbinical judges to India and, in March 2005 formally recognized the Bnei Menashe as descendants of the Children of Israel. The next step was to send rabbis to India to carry out conversions. They flew to Mizoram where they converted 216 members of the community in September 2005. In the intervening year, two babies were born, making up the 218 recent newcomers.
At this point, though, there was a major hitch. The large Mizoram Christian community claimed that the Jews were poaching their believers and complained to the central government. The Indian authorities objected to further conversions on Indian soil. The Israelis tried to explain that the Bnei Menashe were already practicing Jews and that the conversion was only a formal but necessary rite. The Indians remained unconvinced: If they are Jews, why convert them? they asked.
For now, the Israeli Foreign Ministry is advising all those concerned not to press the issue. “The Indians take great pride in their live-and-let-live approach to interreligious ties. And it seemed to them that Israel was upsetting the balance by encroaching on another religion,” a senior official told The Jerusalem Report.
So far, just over 1,000 Bnei Menashe have emigrated to Israel. An estimated 7,000 remain in India. Freund says Shavei Israel is considering various options regarding their emigration, but will do nothing that might compromise Israeli-Indian ties. One option might be converting groups of Bnei Menashe in a friendly third country, so that when they arrive in Israel it will be as Jews with full immigrant rights.
Freund argues that it is imperative not to abandon the remaining Bnei Menashe and says they have an important contribution to make to the Jewish people. Through their love of Israel and Zion, he maintains, the Bnei Menashe can help reinforce Jewish and Israeli self-belief. In this context, he rejects out of hand charges that their motivation for coming is economic betterment. “If they were economically motivated, they would perhaps look for greener pastures in Europe or North America. That has not been the case. Secondly, 99 percent of them remain religiously observant. If their motivation was solely economic, then once they get citizenship they wouldn’t need to go on practicing all the laws and rituals of Orthodox Judaism. But they do. And that shows their motivation is truly spiritual,” he avers. Freund also points to their readiness to make sacrifices for Israel: In the recent Lebanon war, 12 Bnei Menashe served in combat units, and one of them, Avi Hanshing, a 22-year-old paratrooper, was wounded in the fighting.
Besides the Bnei Menashe, Freund’s Shavei Israel organization works with other groups with historic connections to Judaism: Bnei Anousim (Sons of Conversos) in Spain, Portugal and South America; Subbotniks in Russia and the Ukraine; “Hidden Jews” in Poland; the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng. Bnei Anousim are descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity during and the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions; the Subbotniks are descendants of Slavic peasants who converted to Judaism in the early 19th century; the hidden Jews are descendants of Jews who “hid” their religious affiliation to escape Nazi or Communist persecution; the 500 or so Jews of Kaifeng, in Henan Province in Central Chian, are the remnants of a once thriving Jewish community more than 1,000 years old. The idea is to create conditions for all people of once-Jewish descent to return to the Jewish fold. “The best revenge for the Inquisition and Nazi Europe would be to welcome our lost brothers and sisters back into our midst,” Freund declares.
At the absorption center in Karmiel, Dagan Zoag Kinli Ala Zolat, 40, is enjoying the winter sun. Despite the long El Al night flight from Bombay, he shows no sign of fatigue. In Mizoram he drove a truck, worked as an electrician and owned his own bakery. In Israel, he says, he is ready to do any kind of work. He knows it won’t be easy. There is the language barrier, finding a job, living among hostile Arab neighbors. “But,” he says without the slightest trace of irony or apology, “since we are Bnei Menashe, Eretz Yisrael has long been our goal. This is where we want to be because this is the chosen land for the chosen people.”