Tuesday, March 5, 2024

The Indian ‘lost tribe’ that wants to move to Israel, even ‘fight Hamas’ | Religion

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Aizawl, India – Joseph Haokip, an undergraduate student in Manipur, is excited at the thought of going to Israel. He is ready to join the Israeli army to fight Hamas in a war in which Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza has killed more than 26,000 people, mostly women and children.

The 20-year-old and his family have recently returned to their home in the Kangpokpi district of Manipur after five months in the neighbouring state of Mizoram where they had fled when an ethnic conflict broke out in Manipur last year.

“I stayed in a makeshift camp with the other members of the Bnei Menashe community since August last year and have just returned a few days ago. But I want to go to Israel and connect with my lost tribe. I also want to join the [Israeli army] and help them in fighting against Hamas because I belong from that land,” Haokip told Al Jazeera.

Rafael Khiangte, 37, a taxi driver in Aizawl, Mizoram’s capital, wants to move to Israel along with his wife and toddler to connect with his ancestral roots and reunite with his mother.

Khiangte’s mother Sarah Pachuau, 58, relocated to Israel along with her brother in 1993. “I belong from the lost tribe and want to stay with my mother and also provide a better future to my daughter … I want to reunite with the land from where we got separated over 2,700 years ago,” Khiangte said.

The lost tribe

Rafael Khiangte, a taxi driver in Aizawl, says his roots are in Israel [Gurvinder Singh/Al Jazeera]

Khiangte and Haokip are among about 5,000 people living in the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram who believe they are the descendants of the Manasseh, one of the biblical lost tribes of Israel exiled in 722 BC by Assyrian conquerors and commonly referred to as the Bnei Menashe community, or Hebrew for the children of Manasseh, the first son of Joseph.

PC Biaksiama, a Christian researcher based in Aizawl, told Al Jazeera that several members from the Chin, Kuki and Mizo ethnic groups believe themselves to be the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.

During the ancient times, Israel was divided into two kingdoms. The southern one was known as the Kingdom of Judah and mostly comprised the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, while the northern part was made up of the so-called 10 tribes, he said.

The Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom and exiled the tribes living there. Several of them fled and settled in different parts of the world. According to the Bnei Menashe, they were dispersed to China from where they ended up in northeast India.

Israel’s 1950 Law of Return allowed Jews, people with one or more Jewish grandparent and their spouses the right to relocate to Israel and acquire citizenship there. It also opened the doors to bring the lost tribes back.

In India, claims of being a descendant of the lost tribes began in 1951 when a tribal leader, Mela Chala, had a dream that his ancient homeland was Israel. Since then, many people in northeast India, mostly in the states of Manipur and Mizoram, have embraced Judaism and its customs and traditions.

Relocating to Israel

Ngaikhochin Kipgen with her teenage granddaughter Naokim and one-year-old grandson Shaior Kipgen
Ngaikhochin Kipgen with her teenage granddaughter Naokim and one-year-old grandson Shaior Kipgen [Gurvinder Singh/Al Jazeera]

Professor Shalva Weil, a senior researcher at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera that she had introduced Israeli Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail to the Bnai Menashe tribe for the first time during their visit to India in 1980.

“I had introduced him with the community though I was not very much convinced of their claims of the lost tribe as they had no documentary evidence to support it apart from their religious rituals like maintaining Sabbath and legends that they had crossed the Red Sea and originated from the 10 lost tribes,” Weil said.

But the Bnei Menashe started coming to Israel in the 1980s. In 1991, when Weil opened an exhibition on the legend of the 10 lost tribes at the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora – today called the Anu Museum – in Tel Aviv, 12 people from the community turned up, she recalled.

“Slowly, the numbers started swelling, which rose further after the chief rabbinate of Israel accepted them as Jews in 2005. Around 3,500 have already arrived from India in the past three decades,” she added.

For those hoping to “return” to Israel, they have to first make the aliyah – Hebrew for “ascent” or “rise”, but used to mean “a move to Israel”. The first aliyah – which mainly involves Israeli authorities checking documents including a conversion to Judaism certificate issued by a rabbi and interviews before qualifying to shift to Israel – took place in India in 2006. In the last aliyah in 2021, 150 people went to Israel.

While all Jews are eligible to make aliyah, the final decision on whether to absorb them depends on the government of Israel. In September 2023, a committee of the Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset, debated the delays in allowing the Bnei Menashe to make aliyah. In the past five years, 1,421 members of the community have moved to Israel. And committee chair Oded Forer pressed the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu why the remaining members of the community were not being helped to make aliyah.

The government responded that it had set up an inter-ministerial committee to prepare a plan for the immigration of the Bnei Menashe to Israel, and that it was supplying humanitarian aid to the community as it tries to survive the clashes in Manipur.

But the delays haven’t dampened the enthusiasm to move to Israel for Leah Renthlei, 52, who resigned from her teacher’s job in Aizawl about 10 years ago because it required her to work on Saturdays and so, “prevented me from following my religious practices like Sabbath,” she said.

“My two sisters have already gone to Israel during the previous aliyahs,” Renthlei said. “And I have been waiting for my turn.”

Ngaikhochin Kipgen and her family fled Manipur when the ethnic conflict broke out on May 3. For the past seven months, she has been living on a college-campus-turned-refugee-camp in the Kolasib district of Mizoram, approximately 80km (50 miles) from Aizawl.

The 70-year-old is staying there with her teenage granddaughter Naokim and one-year-old grandson Shaior, while the rest of her family has gone back to Manipur.

Despite being safe in Mizoram, she said she longed to go to Israel and spend the final years of her life there, as she also claimed to be a member of the Bnei Menashe.

“I want to go to Israel and reunite with Israelites with whom we got separated several centuries ago,” she told Al Jazeera.

Conversion to Orthodox Judaism

Thansima Thawmte, chairman of Bnei Menashe Council (BMC), Mizoram offering prayers in a synagogue
Thansima Thawmte, the chairman of the Bnei Menashe Council, says every member of his community is praying that Israel allows them to move there soon [Gurvinder Singh/Al Jazeera]

Weil said that shortly after they arrive in Israel, the Bnei Menashe have to convert to Orthodox Judaism, learn the Hebrew language and follow the religious rituals of the community.

The organisations in Israel working to unite the Bnei Menashe with their country did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for information. But those from the community already in Israel have embraced the society, even the country’s mandatory military service, said Weil.

“They have shown much devotion and have got assimilated with the Israel society and are settled everywhere in the country,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that about 200 members of the community had so far joined the Israeli military. “They also enjoy better economic conditions in Israel, but the cost of living is higher than in northeast India,” she added.

PC Biaksiama, the Aizawl-based researcher, however, feels that the community is “misguided” in its approach.

“The Bnei Menashe should not try to move out from Mizoram or elsewhere as it has been their birthplace and they should be proud of it. They can settle here and can still practise their religion,” he said. “Economic benefits seem to be a major reason for going to Israel,” he added, referring to the higher income levels in Israel.

But the Bnei Menashe members assert that the sole reason for going to Israel is to connect with the land.

Thansima Thawmte, the chairman of the Bnei Menashe Council (BMC) in Mizoram, said that every individual from his community is waiting for an aliyah. “We are desperately waiting to reunite with the land of our ancestors. It all depends on Israel, when they allow us to enter their land and we can only pray that it happens soon,” he said.

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