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E-Pao! Opinion - The lost and found Jews in Manipur and Mizoram.

The lost and found Jews in Manipur and Mizoram

By: Isaac L. Hmar *



It was heart-breaking news when the chief Rabi of the Sephardic Jews, Shlomo Amar, eventually declared members of the 6,000 B'menashe communities in Northeast India as lost descendants of ancient Israelites. Yes, it was good news for all those who are in the process of Israelization and now gearing up for migration to the so-called Promise Land of milk and honey.

"I can only say Halleluiah to this exciting news," excitedly said Zaithangchungi, a Mizo researcher and author of one of the earliest books on the subject called 'Israel Mizo Identity'' written in the eighties in Mizo language. She said that there was no mistaking the 'similarities in rituals, legends and songs," between the Mizos and the Jews.

"Now people will know that what I have been saying all these years is not some fairy tale but the truth," she told this reporter over phone by the time this piece was being written. She felt that the recognition of the Mizo as the Lost Tribe of Manashe by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is 'the greatest happening in the history of the Mizo," and that this event will change a lot of things in future including 'how people relate to us." This was her recent interview with some news reporters.

Recently some Israeli scholars who are specialized in genetic research have thoroughly studied Mizo-Jews and found that the claimed has lacked scientific basis. On top of that, their top genetic scientists have done a DNA test and it has turned out to be negative. The Jewish DNA technicians have also tended to dismiss the findings made by the forensic laboratory in India.

But in a historical decision, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has officially decided to recognize the Mizo-Kuki-Chin people claiming Jewish descent as the lost descendents of Menashe, one of the mythical Lost Tribes of Israel. The Chief Rabbinate is the top authority on this issue in Israel. This decision follows an official team of Rabbis sent last August to Mizoram and Manipur by the Chief Rabbinate to investigate the claims of Lost Tribe ancestry, which have so far been propounded only by extreme Zionist groups like the organization Amishav led by Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail.

Out of great confusion I sent an urgent mail to Hillel Halkin to clarify the chief Rabi`s announcement saying "I browse internet and found some interesting news from various websites. It appears that the Rabbinate finally recognizes "The Manmasi tribe(Kuki-Hmar-Mizo)" as descendants of Israel. When I go through these websites carefully it doesn't mention on what ground the Rabbinate recognizes the B`nei Menashe as descendants of Israel, except the fact that their rituals were of Jewish origins.

And also once converted, the Bnei Menashe can now apply for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return, without needing authorization from the country's Interior Ministry. 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."

Without any further delay, I got quick response from Hillel Halkin and his statements are as follows; "I don't think Rabbi Amar and his colleagues' decision was taken on particularly logical or scientific grounds. The Rabbis from Israel who visited Mizoram and Manipur last summer, as well as others, who preceded them, were impressed with the Jewish devotion and intensity of the B'nei Menashe community, and I imagine that they thought: "Nobody who does not have a Jewish soul and Jewish ancestors could possibly behave so Jewishly."

This is of course naive, but it was in a way a naive decision, although one that I personally was happy to see. Basically, this is the same thing that happened with the Ethiopian Jews in the 1970s; then, too, a rabbinical ruling that they were descendants of a "lost tribe" --- that of Dan -- first began to open the gates of immigration to Israel to them.

The difference is that the identification of the Ethiopians with Dan was purely fanciful, whereas, as you know, I truly think there is a historical link between the "children of Manmasi" and the biblical tribe of Manasseh. The fact is that even before this ruling any B'nei Menashe who converted to Judaism by an Orthodox conversion in India could have entered Israel under the Law of Return as a Jew.

The problem was that there were no rabbis in India to perform such a conversion. The significance of Amar's decision, therefore, is that the Israeli Rabbinate will now take it upon itself to send rabbis to NE India who can do this. It will be interesting to see what position, if any, the Indian government takes toward this. As for the Calcutta study, Professor Skorecki, as I've written to you, does not think it was methodologically sound -- which does not mean that its conclusions are necessarily wrong, but simply that they are not fully persuasive at the moment.

So far Skorecki has been unable to get the additional data that he needs from the CSFL people. If we could go back to the schools where the samples were collected and re-collect them, he could analyze them on his own. But it is important to realize that the results are of purely historical importance and have nothing to do with the status of the B'nei Menashe in Israel. The Rabbinate -- and rightly so -- does not recognize DNA testing as having any bearing on the Jewishness of anyone, and from its point of view, DNA results make no difference one way or another. I hope that answers your questions."

Halkin's love affair with the story of the lost 10 tribes goes back to his childhood. "I grew up in Manhattan, in a largely Irish neighborhood, and the Irish kids always made trouble for us," he says. "We would run away from them, or else we would fight with them and lose. Once, one of my friends told me that there was an enchanted place called Brooklyn, where Jewish kids beat up gentiles.

I decided that at the first opportunity I would run away there. Therefore, when at the age of 12 or 13 I encountered the legend of the 10 tribes, I already knew what a `lost tribe' was. Altogether, as a romantic soul, I found this legend very attractive".

Hillel Halkin, on the very first trip to Manipur and Mizoram he heard about a number of special prayers in which they call themselves "the children of Manmasi" - i.e., Menashe. Halkin noticed that the very name itself does not follow the rules of the Kuki's everyday language, "and also those prayers were recited in special circumstances, such as lunar eclipses or dangerous situations." They also mention the "old God" Ya.

But despite it all, Halkin continued to suspect that these things could be attributed to influences instilled in them by the Christian missionaries, "who were familiar with the `Old Testament' and perhaps caused them to believe that they were descendants of the ancient Hebrews." In Manipur, Halkin met Dr. Khuplam Lengthang, an elderly member of the Kuki people who had studied primitive medicine way back in the 1930s and for many years worked as a licensed doctor.

At the same time, as someone who from childhood loved his people's folk tales, he decided to devote himself to collecting those traditions and in fact was the only person to have done so in a systematic way. "He too collected mainly prayers, in which the names of the patriarchs are repeated, as well as the expression in which they call themselves `children of Manmasi.' Among other things, the word `sela' appears repeatedly - a word that also appears in the Psalms and is a mystery to Bible scholars to this day.

As in the Bible, with them too this word also appears at the end of a prayer or at the transition to a new segment. "Khuplam explained that for them, the meaning of the word is an instruction to the priest to recite the segment again, and this could also suit the biblical meaning. After all, originally the Psalms were sung and it is possible that there too this is an instruction to repeat the segment".

Even though he does not recommend embarking on conversion efforts, Halkin has come to several practical conclusions: "First of all, a very admiring recognition of the strength of the Jewish faith - that with all the historical reversals, and even after the missionary efforts of the last century, this group still preserves traditions that clearly link it to ancient Jewish history. Secondly, their story is very significant for Bible research.

After all, we are accustomed to hearing claims that the stories in the Bible did not happen at the times attributed to them and they are just a much later revision of history, which took place before the destruction of the First Temple. Because they were cut off from the Jewish people back in the 8th century B.C.E., it's clear that the traditions that exist among them had existed in the hearts of the people even before that period." Hillel Halkin, before hunting for samples of Kuk-Mizo DNA, he stresses in advance that "Even if a genetic match is not found, this would not refute my belief in this connection. The textual findings are simply too strong."

The mission to India established sufficient credible links to allow the conversions by a rabbinical court. One of the team, Rabbi Eliyahu Birnboim, said: "We know they're descendants of the Jewish people, and we want the state of Israel to help them move here." Rabbi Avichail pointed out that the conversions would be necessary, not because of uncertainty over their claim to be Jewish descendants but simply because of social traditions they observed. "The conversion is necessary, not because there's any doubt that they are descendants of Manasseh, but because of complex religious rules about the relations of men and women".

In conclusion, majority of the Kuki-Mizos are Christians belonging primarily to the Presbyterian and Baptist Church and this very new development is likely to have a enormous blow as the society is currently entangled in the debate over their Jewish ancestry, which major churchmen of Manipur and Mizoram have been opposing. And also looking at the present political condition in Israel and Palestine, we have to view from different aspects.

Discovering lost tribes may not be a politically neutral activity, for it promises to achieve the ideological goals of the Israeli far-right wing and settler movement. Were several million newly discovered Jews suddenly to immigrate to Israel and vastly increase the Jewish population of the West Bank and Gaza, the tables in the demographic "War" against the Palestinians would be turned.

Indeed, those members of the Kuki-Mizo who have duly converted to Judaism and made Aliyah have gone to live exclusively in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli government has recently approved the evacuation of the illegal Jewish settlements in Gaza and the settlers and their supporters are extreme right-wing-Zionists whose fanatical views are not shared by many Israelis. The Kuki-Mizo Jews migration is also being financially supported by American fundamentalist Christians who are eager to hasten Armageddon.


Isaac L. Hmar,a research scholar at Dept. of History, M.U., writes regularly to e-pao.net
He can be reached at [email protected]
This article was webcasted on April 21st , 2005.


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