Rabbi backs India's 'lost Jews'

http://www.bbc.co.uk

Bnei Menashe say they are one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel
One of Israel's chief rabbis has recognised an Indian tribe as lost descendants of ancient Israelites.

The Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic Jews, Shlomo Amar, has informed members of the 6,000-strong Bnei Menashe community in India's north-east of his decision.

The ruling will ease the tribes' emigration to Israel from the states of Manipur and Mizoram.

Bnei Menashe members welcomed the announcement, saying they could now "go to the Promised Land".

'Detailed investigation'

The chief rabbi is now planning to formally convert the Bnei Menashe members to Orthodox Judaism.

Lalrin Sailo, convenor of the Singlung-Israel association, an organisation representing the "Jews of Mizoram" said: "We have always said we are descendants of Menashe (son of Joseph) so it is great to hear our claims have been authenticated."

According to the community, the Bnei Menashe are one of the lost 10 tribes of Israel who were exiled when Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th Century BC.

The community's oral tradition is that the tribe travelled through Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China and on to eastern India.

The Bnei Menashe represent only a tiny fraction of India's north-eastern Christian community.

Lalrin Sailo told the BBC's Subir Bhaumik in Calcutta that the chief rabbi had made his ruling after "detailed investigations" lasting several years.

A team of rabbinical judges will now be sent to north-east India to formally convert the tribes to Orthodox Judaism.

Once converted, the Bnei Menashe can apply for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return, without needing authorisation from the country's Interior Ministry.

Elizabeth Zodingliani, who edits Israel Tlangau (Israel News) in Aizawal, capital of India's north-eastern state of Mizoram, said: "We will now all go to the Promised Land, to Israel. I hope we can settle down in Jerusalem."

DNA tests

A key date in the recent history of the Bnei Menashe was 1951, when a Pentecostal minister named Tchalah, acting he said on a prophecy from God, called for a return to the Holy Land. However, the links were not then approved.

In the 1970s, when the Bible was translated into the local language, similarities with the customs and practices of Israeli people were noticed, Bnei Menashe members say.

A researcher of the Mizo tribe, Zaithanchuungi, developed the lost-tribe claims in 1981 and presented papers to various seminars in Israel.

Some Israeli groups like the Amishav, now known as Shavei, which helps Jews move to Israel, supported the claim and says it has brought 800 people from the Bnei Menashe to Israel.

Other Israeli groups have dismissed the claim as "historically untenable." DNA studies at the Central Forensic Institute in Calcutta suggest that while the masculine side of the tribes bears no links to Israel, the feminine side suggests a genetic profile with Middle Eastern people that may have arisen through inter-marriage.

Israeli social scientist Lev Grinberg told the BBC last year that right-wing Jewish groups wanted such conversions of distant people to boost the population in areas disputed by the Palestinians.

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India's 'lost Jews' wait in hope

By Geeta Pandey
BBC correspondent in Imphal, Manipur

A team of senior Israeli rabbis is due to rule soon on whether thousands of Indians who say they are members of one of the lost tribes of Israel can settle there.

Shlomo Amar recently led a delegation of rabbis to the north-eastern Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram where members of the Benei Menashe tribe live and practise Judaism.

At the Beith-el Synagogue in the Manipur capital, Imphal, nine men wearing knitted skull caps read silently from the Old Testament.

Four others stand on a wooden platform in the centre of the room as a young man reads from the holy book under the supervision of an elderly priest.

These people claim to be one of the lost tribes of Israel.

Recent discovery

Tongkhohao Aviel Hangshing is the leader of the Benei Menashes in Imphal.

"We are Benei Menashe, because we belong to the Menashe tribe," he says.

"Menashe is the son of Joseph, who was one of the 12 sons of Jacob. So we are the lost tribe of Israel."

Mr Hangshing says for thousands of years they did not know they were lost.

"We found out only 27 years ago," he says.

"When the Bible was translated into our language, in 1970s, we studied it.

"And we found that the stories, the customs and practices of the Israeli people were very similar to ours. So we thought that we must be one of the lost tribes."

Saturdays are observed by Jews the world over as the Sabbath, the day of rest, and the members of the Benei Menashe community meet for morning prayers at the synagogue in Imphal.

A lamb-skin scroll of the Torah, is unrolled and then rolled up again as each reader finishes his part.

Hope

There are more than 300,000 Benei Menashes in Manipur but most of them follow Christianity.

Only about 5,000 have converted to Judaism, most of them during the 1970s.

Mr Hangshing says although India has treated them quite well, they do not consider it their home.

The recent visit by a delegation of rabbis from Israel has given new hope to the members of this community.

Caleb, a 24-year-old college student, wants to go to Israel because he says it is the land of his forefathers.

Amram is studying to be a lawyer. He says Israel is the promised land, for him and the others too.

"In Israel it will be easier for us to practise our religion."

In a chamber partitioned from the main prayer hall, about a dozen women join in the Sabbath prayers.

Lucy Vaiphei is the caretaker of the synagogue.

Her parents and six siblings have emigrated to Israel in the last few years and she is now looking forward to making the move herself.

Michael Freund, director of Amishav - an organisation that helps Jews move to Israel - says he firmly believes that Menashe is one of the lost tribes of Israel.

"We have brought over 800 of them to Israel," he says, "and the remaining people also want to emigrate".

Mr Freund says that last year the new Israeli interior minister, Avraham Poraz, suddenly declared his opposition to bringing the Benei Menashes into Israel.

"But I'm confident that if the chief rabbi issues a ruling saying that the Benei Menashes are indeed descendents of the Jewish people and should be allowed back home, then he will have no choice but to let them in."

So while the rabbis in Israel take a decision on whether or not to grant the right to emigrate to Israel to the Benei Menashes, this community here is waiting with bated breath - and praying.

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