India's "lost" Jews set for long-awaited homecoming

By Sunil Kataria
2 hours, 51 minutes ago
Dalia Doliani Sela sits in her simple house poring 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 be allowed to settle in the Holy Land since
rabbinical leaders in Israel formally recognized the community 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 neighbors, 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 neighboring 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 organization which has been locating
descendents of the lost tribes of Israel and bringing them home, says
the Bnei Menashe's return is a miracle.
“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
recognized 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 Hezbollah 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 recognized 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,” Freund 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 added.
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