//India's "lost" Jews set for homecoming

India's "lost" Jews set for homecoming

Mon Nov 13, 2006 

By Sunil Kataria

AIZAWL, India (Reuters) – Dalia Doliani Sela sits in her simple house pouring over the Bible and learning Hebrew, dreaming of a life of piety and a family reunion with her children in the Promised Land.

Sela is an Indian by birth, part of a community in the country's remote northeast who says they are one of the "lost tribes of Israel", exiled from their homeland 2,700 years ago.

"I want to be there when my last days come. Because Israel is the land of Sarah. It's the first place where she will come," she said, referring to the wife of the biblical patriarch Abraham.

Sela, a 63-year-old mother of 10, is among the first group of India's Bnei Menashe community to settle in the Holy Land since rabbinical leaders in Israel formally recognised them as Jews and carried out a mass conversion ceremony in India last year.

"It is the Promised Land of God and we can properly carry our religious duties over there. Here it is difficult to practice Judaism properly, so far away," Sela told Reuters in the Mizo capital, Aizawl.

Sela is one of 218 Bnei Menashe, or the "Children of Menashe", due to emigrate in November. She will join 1,000 of her community already in Israel, among them nine of her own children.

JEWISH? WELL, MAYBE

The tale of how the community's ancestors supposedly came to this thin slice of land sandwiched between Bangladesh and Myanmar is grand in its sweep of history, but short on scientific support.

Exiled from ancient Israel by the Assyrian empire around 730 BC, a tribe is forced east and travels through Afghanistan and China before settling in what is now India's northeast.

Their language, history and traditions forgotten, they now look like their Mongoloid neighbours, speak a Tibeto-Burmese language, rear pigs and eat pork.

What's left is a name — Manasseh, Menasia or Manmase, an ancestor whose spirit the community invokes to ward off evil.

In 1950, a holy man from a remote village in Mizoram said the Holy Spirit had appeared to him in a vision, to explain that the "children of Manasseh" were in fact the children of Menashe, a forefather of the Israelite tribe of Menashe.

The tribe was one of the biblical "Twelve Tribes of Israel", ten of which disappeared after the Assyrian invasion.

Gradually his ideas took hold among a people converted to Christianity a few decades before. Today, nearly 7,000 Bnei Menashe live in Mizoram and neighbouring Manipur, hoping for their chance to join the rest of the community in Israel.

Zaithanchhungi, a Christian woman who has researched and defended the Bnei Menashe claims, says that many of their customs are very similar to those of the ancient Jews.

Some of the practices involved in animal sacrifice were similar to ancient Hebrew traditions, while an ancient song among one tribe talked of "crossing the Red Sea," with enemies in chariots at their heels, she said.

The search for conclusive proof of these claims goes on.

Calcutta's forensic science laboratory found no trace of a typical Jewish genes in the male Y chromosomes of the Kuki, Chin and Mizo people who inhabit the area, but found some evidence of a possible, but diluted, maternal link to the Near East.

Israel's Technion institute is also carrying out research but said it was too early to comment on results.

MIRACLE WORKER

Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organisation which has been locating descendants of the lost tribes of Israel and bringing them home, says the Bnei Menashe's return is a miracle.

"Next month (the group) will at last return to Zion. They will return to the land of their forefathers — the place from which their ancestors had been exiled over 27 centuries ago. This is a miracle of biblical and historic proportions," Shavei Israel's chairman, Michael Freund, said in Jerusalem.

"This is the first time they will be coming here as Jews fully recognised as such by the Israeli rabbinate and the Israeli government," he added.

The 218 newcomers will move to the northern Israeli towns of Karmiel and Upper Nazareth — areas which were hard hit by rockets fired by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hizbollah this summer during a 34-day conflict with Israel.

In the past, Bnei Menashe members had come to Israel in small groups on tourist visas and converted to Judaism in a deal reached by Jewish supporters and the country's interior ministry.

When the arrangement ended in 2003, Freund approached Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar for help. In March 2005, Amar formally recognised the Bnei Menashe as descendants of the Jewish people and, in September 2005, the 218 were converted.

But more conversions are unlikely to follow any time soon as the Israeli government banned such mass conversions in India following complaints by Indian authorities.

"Absolutely nothing will be done in the future to infringe upon the sovereignty of the Indian government, nor will anything be done that could cause any type of disruption or issue between India and Israel — that is in no one's interests," an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman told Reuters.

India said it had no problem with genuine Jews leaving for Israel, and Freund said he was confident the remaining 7,000 Bnei Menashe would be brought there.

"We are committed to finding a solution," he said.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in Jerusalem)

© Reuters 2006.