Bnei Menashe: The Jews Of North-East India

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Image Credit: Ilan Asayag, Haaretz
For the Bnei Menashe, Jews of North-east India, reclaiming their Jewish heritage has been a story of challenges and triumphs.

On April 2, less than two months since arriving in Israel, ten couples of the Bnei Menashe tribes from the North East Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur were married in a Jewish ceremony in Kfar Hasidim.

In Israel, like in India, they are labelled ‘Chinese’ on account of their appearance. But the times have been changing – and Israel has begun to recognise them as Jewish citizens with rights.

Some of the couples who were in their 70s would only have been practising Jews for the past 30 years. But they all claim a legacy that spans 27 centuries – the lineage of the ten lost tribes of ancient Israel.

It’s yet another sign from Israel that those who reclaim their Jewish heritage are welcome in the state. 70 years ago, rabbis were barred from conducting marriages of the Bene Israel Indian immigrants – who had left India following independence to settle in the ‘promised land’. Facing discrimination, they were eventually repatriated to India following hunger strikes and protests.

The case of the Bnei Menashe is even more intriguing. For, though the Western Indian claimants of Jewish ancestry can rely on a proven history of Jewish immigration, those in the North-East have only oral histories to tell their tales. According to the Bnei Menashe website, their story begins, like that of all the lost tribes, with the exile of ten Jewish tribes after the Assyrians invaded ancient Israel.

Fleeing East, their travels took them through Persia, Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush and Tibet – culminating in the Chinese city of Kaifeng in 240 B.C. Here again, they were killed and forced to flee. Some headed South East, down the Mekong river to Vietnam, Philippines, Siam, Thailand, and Malaysia, while others set for Burma and then to India. In this period, they often lived in caves – earning the name “Shinlung” or “cave-dwellers”.

In India, they are the Shinlung, Kuki, Mizo, Lushai or Mar tribal communities. They had only an oral recounting of their stories until 1894 when Christian missionaries brought them back into the Judeo-Christian fold. It was at this point that they began re-exploring their Jewish heritage – rediscovering their ancient customs. They have always observed Passover, on the basis of a song that was passed down across generations – as well as other practices such as circumcision of their children.

Journey to the Promised Land

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Image Credit: Ilan Asayag, Haaretz

It all started with a letter that was sent in 1997 to Michael Freund, then Israel’s Deputy Communications Director. In it, the Bnei Menashe made their case – claiming lineage from Menashe, one of the twelve sons of the Jacob (patriarch of the Israeli people).

Theirs wasn’t the only such claim. Across the world, communities claim descent from these tribes – from Pakistan to India and even Vietnam. The organisation “Shavei” was started with the aim of repatriating those who would return to Israel. Since 1995, over 2000 Bnei Menashe have made the ‘aaliyah’ journey to Israel.

They’ve managed to bring a little bit of home with them as well. Manipur is famous for its ‘Ghost’ pepper – the hottest pepper in the world. When Yitzhak Eicoff married Hadassa, his Bnei Menashe wife, he found it introduced into his diet. Writing on the Shavei website, he says:

The first time I tasted Hadassa’s food, my hair nearly popped off my head…But Hadassa has had kindness towards me and she makes the food a little less spicy so I can handle it.

Integration into Israel has been a rough road but it has its success stories. In 2011, Shalem Gin became the first Israeli Defence Force (IDF) officer from the Bnei Menashe community. He won’t be the last, as Israel’s mandatory military conscription will see every adult from the community sign up for service as the years go by. And the numbers can only go up – as over five thousand still remain in India, many of whom seek to emigrate.

The success of the Bnei Menashe getting recognised as a Jewish people has influenced other communities in India. In the South-Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, 300 ‘Telugu Jews’ from the Guntur district identify themselves as the Bnei Ephraim. They too date their heritage to one of the children of Jacob, Ephraim. But in India, their treatment was anything but just – since the medieval period, they were considered as Dalits – excluded from the caste system. Today, they are from one of the poorest regions in the state, working as farmhands in a region frequently struck by drought.

For them, the Promised Land could be a much-needed respite. Writing in the Washington Post, Chandra Sekhar Angadi says:

They are among the poorest of Jews in the world. They are desperate for the recognition by Israel’s chief rabbinate simply to be guaranteed a passport from that country where they can lead a much better life — away from this life of poverty and hunger.

As more communities stake their claim to a Jewish heritage, researchers have begun looking up the genetic evidence that proves that they are Jewish. It’s a controversial science – as it presents a biological certification for historical identities, a task not always possible or indeed ethical. In the case of the Bnei Israel, the tests have shown linkages to Jewish ancestry – going back 3000-4000 years. But for the Bnei Menashe, tests turned up inconclusive – though researchers admit that it was not possible to test each and every one of them, any of whom could carry the significant linking gene.

Israel seems not to mind – for it’s a growing nation seeking newer demographics. This too has raised controversy, both for the amounts needed to house poorer immigrants and the land allocated to them. While members of the Bnei Menashe have been settled in Nazareth, they were initially settled outside of the Green Line (Israel’s formal borders with her neighbours based on the 1949 Armistice) – what many call Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian territory. A Haaretz report says the Bnei Menashe have since been relocated within the Green Line territories.

That the Bnei Menashe have been permitted to settle is also seen as a sign of bias – as Ethiopian Jews were denied the same privilege. It doesn’t help that the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office has kept their reasons for permitting the Bnei Menashe to come in as a ‘secret’.

Whether immigration is the Israeli state’s latest tool to expanding its territory is another question. For the Lost Jewish Tribes of India and the world, the Aaliyah is both a homecoming and an assertion of identity.

On Wednesday, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel, he will address up to 5,000 Indians in Israel at a rally in the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. Among them will include members of the Cochin Jews, Bnei Israelis, Baghdadi Jews of Bombay and the Bnei Menashe – as well as other Indians residing in Israel. In any case, it will be yet another example of Indo-Israeli cooperation he needs to talk about.

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