|Regions with significant populations|
|Thado, Mizo, Hebrew|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Mizo, Kuki and Chin people|
The Bnei Menashe (Hebrew: בני מנשה, "Sons of Menasseh") are a group of indigenous people from India's North-Eastern border states of Manipur and Mizoram who claim descent from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Since the late 20th century, they have been studying and converting to Judaism from Christianity, which most of their ancestors had adopted in the nineteenth century. The Bnei Menashe are a small group of people who have been practicing Judaism for more than 40 years because they believe that they have in fact returned to the religion of their ancestors. They call themselves Bnei Menashe, and claim to be descended from the Tribe of Manasseh.
The Bnei Menashe are made up of the Mizo, Kuki and Chin peoples, who all speak Tibeto-Burman languages, and whose ancestors migrated into northeast India from Burma beginning 6,000 years ago. They are called Chin in Burma. Prior to their conversion to Christianity by Baptist missionaries in the 19th century, the majority of Chin, Kuki, and Mizo followed animism and practiced ritual headhunting.
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|Jews and Judaism|
In the time of the first Temple, Israel was divided into two kingdoms. The southern kingdom, known as Judah, was made up mostly of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levy. Most Jews today are descended from the southern kingdom. The northern kingdom of Israel was made up of the remaining ten tribes. In approximately 721 B.C.E., the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom, exiled the ten tribes living there and enslaved them in Assyria.
The oral history of Bnei Menashe that was passed down for 2,700 years describes their escape from slavery in Assyria to Media/Persia. From there they moved on to Afghanistan, mostly through less-traveled areas, ever on the lookout for kings or powerful people who might drag them back to slavery. From Afghanistan they traveled toward Hindu-Kush and proceeded to Tibet, then to Kaifeng, reaching the Chinese city around 240 B.C.E. The Bnei Menashe believe that while in China their ancestors were enslaved yet again.
During their years there, large numbers of the Israelites were killed and their assimilation started. These events caused the Israelites to flee and live in caves. The group was expelled in 100 C.E. and their "leather scrolls" were confiscated and burned. At that point different groups went in various directions. Some went down the Mekong River into Vietnam, the Philippines, Siam, Thailand and Malaysia, while some of the Israelites moved to Burma and west to India. Till today, some people refer to these people as "Shinlung" the "cave dwellers."
Today, the descendants of those Israelites who settled in India and Burma have different names depending on where they live. Some are known as Shinlung, some Kuki, Mizo, Lushai or Mar. In 1894, Christian missionaries arrived to the Manipur area of North East India, intent on converting the local population. The Kukis, having been brought up with an oral history of their link to their ancestor "Manmaseh" and other stories, recognized some of the Bible stories. They eventually converted to what they thought was the religion of their ancestors and began practicing Christianity. One Bnei Menashe song, which had been handed down and carried throughout their travels, describes part of the Exodus from Egypt.
The Bnei Menashe have come to believe that the legendary Kuki-Mizo ancestor Manmasi was the Hebrew Menasseh, son of Joseph. The Judaic group was named Bnei Menashe by Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, founder of Amishav, dedicated to finding the Lost Tribes and facilitating aliyah, who investigated their claims in the 1980s.
In the late 20th century, many of the Bnei Menashe started studying normative Judaism and hundreds went to Israel, some completing conversions there. Critics thought their being settled in the unstable Judea, Samaria and Gaza Strip was part of a recruiting campaign to help increase Israel's population; others said the people were economic migrants, and not true Jews. In 2005 the Chief Rabbi accepted them as Jews due to their devotion, but still required formal ritual conversion. Later that year, Israel began to refuse to issue the people visas after India objected to Israeli teams entering the northeast states to perform mass conversions and arrange aliyah.
Prior to their conversion to Christianity in the 19th century, the Chin-Kuki-Mizo were animists who practiced ritual headhunting. Depending upon their affiliations, each tribe identifies as Kuki, Mizo, or Chin. The people identify even more closely with their subtribe of the villages, each of which has its own distinct dialect and identity. They are indigenous peoples, who had migrated in waves from East Asia and settled in what is now northeastern India. They have no written history but their legends refer to a beloved homeland that they had to leave, called Sinlung/Chhinlung. The various tribes speak languages that are branches of Tibeto-Burman.
Influence of revivalism
During the first Welsh missionary-led Christian Revivalism movement, which swept through the Mizo Hills in 1906, the missionaries prohibited indigenous festivals, feasts and traditional songs and chants. This policy was abandoned during the 1919–24 Revival, and the Mizos began writing their own hymns and incorporating indigenous elements. They created a unique form of syncretic Christian worship.
Dr. Shalva Weil, a senior researcher and noted anthropologist at Hebrew University, quoted Steven Fuchs in her paper, Dual Conversion Among the Shinlung of North-East (1965):
"Revivalism (among the Mizo) is a recurrent phenomenon distinctive of the Welsh form of Presbyterianism. Certain members of the congregation who easily fall into ecstasy are believed to be visited by the Holy Ghost and the utterings are received as prophecies." (1965: 16).
McCall (1949) had recorded several incidents of revivalism, including the "Kelkang incident," in which three men "spoke in tongues," claiming to be the medium through which God spoke to men. Their following was large and widespread until they clashed with the colonial Superintendent. He put down the movement and removed the "sorcery." (1949: 220–223).
Weil wrote that "although there is no documentary evidence linking the tribal peoples in North-East India with the myth of the Lost Israelites, it appears likely that, as with revivalism, the concept was introduced by the missionaries as part of their general millenarian leanings." In the 19th and 20th centuries, Christian missionaries "discovered" Lost Tribes in far-flung places; their enthusiasm for such peoples was related to the desire to speed up the messianic era and bring on the Redemption. In China, for example, the Scottish missionary Rev. TF Torrance entitled his 1937 book, China’s Ancient Israelites, expounding the theory that the Qiang people were Lost Israelites.
Some of the Mizo-Kuki-Chin say they have an oral tradition that the tribe travelled through Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China and on to India, where it eventually settled in the north-eastern states of Manipur and Mizoram. According to Tongkhohao Aviel Hangshing, leader of the Bnei Menashe in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, when the Bible was translated into local languages in the 1970s, the people were able to study it. They had adopted Christianity in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hangshing said, "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." They had largely converted to Christianity since the late nineteenth century, but kept some traditional practices as well. After making contact with Israelis, they began to study normative Judaism and have established numerous synagogues. The Chief Rabbis of Israel investigated the tribe and in 2004, members were awaiting their conclusions. Hundreds had already emigrated to Israel, where they followed the formal process of conversion to Judaism, required because of the lack of documentation of their history.
Amishav and Shavei Israel
In the late 20th century, the Israeli Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail founded Amishav (Hebrew for "My People Return"), an organisation dedicated to locating the lost tribes of Israel and assisting aliyah. He learned of the group in northeastern India in 1983, after meeting Zaithanchhungi, an insurance saleswoman and former teacher. She had traveled to Israel in 1981 to present papers at seminars about her people's connection to Judaism.
During the 1980s, Avichail traveled to northeast India several times to investigate the claims. He helped the people do research and collect historic documentation. The people were observed to have some practices similar to Judaism:
- Three festivals annually similar to those of Jews (but many religions observe seasonal festivals).
- Funeral rites, birth and marriage ceremonies have similarities to ancient Judaism.
- Historical claim of descent from a great ancestor "Manmási", whose descriptions are similar to those of Manasseh, son of Joseph.
- Local legend describes the presence of remnants of the lost Jewish tribe of Menashe more than 1,000 years ago in a cave in southwestern China, whose members migrated across Thailand into northeastern India.
Convinced that the people were descendants of Israelites, Avichail named the group Bnei Menashe and worked to teach them normative Orthodox Judaism. He prepared to pay for their aliya with funds provided by groups such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. This US-Israeli organisation raises funds from evangelical Christians for Jewish causes.
Several years later, the Rabbi stepped aside as a leader of Amishav in favour of Michael Freund, a younger man who was a Jerusalem Post columnist and former deputy director of communications and policy planning in the Prime Minister's office. After the two men quarreled, Freund founded another organization, Shavei Israel. Each of the two men have commanded the support of some of the Bnei Menashe in Israel.
"Kuki-Mizo tribal rivalries and clans have also played a role in the split, with some groups supporting one man and some the other." Shavei Israel is helped by Freund's private fortune, and it has helped support Jewish education for the B'nei Menashe in Aizawl and Imphal, the capitals of the two Indian states.
In mid-2005, with the help of Shavei Israel and the local council of Kiryat Arba, the Bnei Menashe opened its first community centre in Israel. They have built several synagogues in India. In July 2005, they completed a mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, in Mizoram under the supervision of Israeli rabbis, to be used in the formal process of Orthodox conversion to Judaism and Jewish practice. Shortly after, a similar mikvah was built in Manipur.
2003–2004 DNA testing results
There was anticipation that DNA testing might indicate whether there was Middle Eastern ancestry among the Bnei Menashe. In 2003 the author Hillel Halkin, who had written about the Bnei Menashe in his Across the Sabbath River (2002), helped arrange genetic testing of Mizo-Kuki peoples. A total of 350 genetic samples were tested at Haifa's Technion – Israel Institute of Technology under the auspices of Prof. Karl Skorecki. According to the late Mizo research scholar Isaac Hmar Intoate, who was involved with the project, researchers found no genetic evidence of a Middle-Eastern origin for the Mizo-Chin-Kuki.
In December 2004, Kolkata's Central Forensic Science Laboratory posted a paper at Genome Biology on the Internet. They tested a total of 414 people from tribal communities of Mizoram (Hmar, Kuki, Mara, Lai and Lusei). They found no evidence among the men of Y-DNA haplotypes indicating Middle Eastern origin; rather, the haplotypes were of East and Southeast Asian origin. Among the 50 women whom they tested for MtDNA, they found some evidence of Middle Eastern origin, which may have been an indicator of intermarriage during their migration period. The paper did not undergo peer review. While DNA is not used as a determinant of Jewish ancestry, it can be an indicator.
Professor Skorecki said that the Kolkata geneticists "did not do a complete 'genetic sequencing' of all the DNA and therefore it is hard to rely on the conclusions derived from a `partial sequencing, and they themselves admit this." He added that
"the absence of a genetic match still does not say that the Kuki do not have origins in the Jewish people, as it is possible that after thousands of years it is difficult to identify the traces of the common genetic origin. However, a positive answer can give a significant indication."
BBC News reported, "[T]he Central Forensic Institute in Calcutta suggests 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". In a reflection of the political aspects of the "discovery" of Lost Tribes and their "return" to Israel, the social scientist Lev Grinberg commented that "right wing Jewish groups wanted such conversions of distant people to boost the population in areas disputed by the Palestinians."
In November 2006, an Indian historian claimed to have found a genetic link between his Northern Indian Pathan clan and the Lost Tribe of Ephraim. The author Hillel Halkin said, "[T]here's no such thing as Jewish DNA. There is a [genetic] pattern which is very common in the Middle East, 40% of Jews worldwide have it and 60% do not have it. But many non-Jews and people in the Middle East have it also."
In April 2005, the Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of Israel's two chief rabbis, accepted the Bnei Menashe as descendants of one of the lost tribes, after years of review of their claims and other research. His decision was significant because it allows all Bnei Menashe to immigrate as Jews to Israel under aliyah, or the nation's Law of Return for Jews. He has required them to undergo formal conversion to Judaism, however, because of their long interruption from the people.
Most ethnic Mizo-Kuki-Chin have rejected this claim of Jewish origin. Academics in Israel and elsewhere have serious questions about it. Bnei Menashe who wish to affirm their connection to the Jewish people have had to undergo education and the full, formal process for Orthodox conversions.
By 2006, some 1,700 Bnei Menashe had moved to Israel, where they were settled in West Bank and Gaza strip (before disengagement). These areas offered them cheaper housing and living expenses than some others. They composed the largest immigrant population in the Gaza strip before Israel left the area. Learning Hebrew has been a great challenge, especially for the older generation, for whom the phonology of their native Indic & Sinic languages makes Hebrew especially challenging. Younger members have had more opportunities to learn Hebrew in comparison. Some have gained jobs as soldiers, and nurses' aides for the elderly and infirm.
Political issues in Israel and India
The mass conversions of Bnei Menashe after their immigration to Israel became controversial. In June 2003, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz Shinui halted Bnei Menashe immigration to Israel. Shinui leaders had expressed concern that "only Third World residents seem interested in converting and immigrating to Israel." In the previous decade, 800 Mizo had immigrated, followed by conversion in Israel. A group from Peru had also recently immigrated.
Ofir Pines-Paz, Minister of Science and Technology, said that the Bnei Menashe were “being cynically exploited for political purposes." He objected to the new immigrants being settled in the unstable territory of the Gaza Strip Gush Katif settlements (which were evacuated two years later) and in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, a rabbinical judge dealing with the conversion of Bnei Menashe, accused the Knesset Absorption Committee of making a decision based on racist ideas. At the time, Michael Freund, with the Amishav organization, noted that assimilation was proceeding and the young men of the Bnei Menashe served in Israeli combat units.
The rapid rise in conversions also provoked political controversy in Mizoram and with the Indian government, as the changes were considered destabilizing in an area already characterized by separatist unrest. Dr Biaksiama of the Aizawl Christian Research Centre said,
“[T]he mass conversion by foreign priests will pose a threat not only to social stability in the region, but also to national security. A large number of people will forsake loyalty to the Union of India, as they all will become eligible for a foreign citizenship”.
He wrote the book, Mizo Nge Israel? (2004) (Mizo or Israeli?), exploring this issue. He does not think there is a legitimate basis to the people's claims of Jewish descent. Leaders of the Presbyterian Church in Mizoram, the largest denomination, objected to the Israelis' activity there.
In March 2004, Dr Biaksiama appeared on television, discussing the issues with Lalchhanhima Sailo, founder of Chhinlung Israel People's Convention (CIPC), a secessionist Mizo organization. Sailo said that CIPC's goal was not emigration to Israel, but to have the United Nations declare the areas inhabited by Mizo tribes to be an independent nation for Mizo Israelites. The region has had numerous separatist movements and India has struggled to maintain peace there.
Following Rabbi Amar's pronouncement in 2005 that the Bnei Menashe would be accepted as a lost tribe and Jews after completing conversion, the immigration issue appeared to be reduced. The plan was for the Bnei Menashe to undergo conversion while living in India, at which time they would be qualified for aliyah. In September 2005, a task force from the Rabbinic Court travelled to India to complete conversion for a group of 218 Bnei Menashe. India expressed strong concern to Israel about the mass conversions, saying its laws prohibit such action. It wants to avoid proselytizing and religious conflicts in its diverse society. In November 2005, the Israeli government withdrew the team of the Rabbinic Court from India because of its strained relations with India.
Some Bnei Menashe supporters said that Israeli officials failed to explain to the Indian government that the rabbis were not proselytising, but formalizing the conversions of Bnei Menashe who had already accepted Judaism. Some Hindu groups criticised the Indian government, saying that it took Christian complaints about another faith proselytizing more seriously than theirs. They have complained for years about Christian missionaries recruiting their members without receiving any governmental response.
In July 2006, Israeli Immigration Absorption Minister Zeev Boim said that the 218 Bnei Menashe who had completed their conversions would be allowed to enter the country, but "first the government must decide what its policy will be towards those who have yet to (formally) convert." A few months later, in November 2006, the 218 Bnei Menashe arrived in Israel and were settled in Upper Nazareth and Karmiel. The government has encouraged more people to settle in the Galilee and the Negev. The next year, 230 Bnei Menashe arrived in Israel in September 2007, having completed the formal conversion process in India.
In October 2007, the Israeli government said that approval of travelers' entry into Israel for the purpose of mass conversion and citizenship would have to be decided by the full Cabinet, rather than by the Interior Minister alone. This decision was expected to be a major obstacle in Shavei Israel's endeavours to bring all Bnei Menashe to Israel. The government suspended issuing visas to the Bnei Menashe.
In 2012 Israel passed a resolution to resume allowing immigration of Bnei Israel. Fifty-four entered the country in January 2013, including the 2000th immigrant, according to the Shavei Israel organization.
The Bnei Menashe have come to believe that the traditional Hmar harvest festival(Sikpuiroui) song, "Sikpui Hla (Sikpui Song)," which refers to events and images similar to some in the Book of Exodus, is evidence of their Israelite ancestry. Studies of comparative religion, however, have demonstrated recurring motifs and symbols in unrelated religions and peoples in many regions. In addition, other Mizo-Kuki-Hmar people say that it is an ancient song of their culture. The song includes references to enemies chasing the people over a red-coloured sea, quails, and a pillar of cloud.
Translation of the lyrics:
While we are preparing for the Sikpui Feast,
The big red sea becomes divided;
As we march along fighting our foes,
We are being led by pillar of cloud by day,
And pillar of fire by night.
Our enemies, O ye folks, are thick with fury,
Come out with your shields and arrows.
Fighting our enemies all day long,
We march forward as cloud-fire goes before us.
The enemies we fought all day long,
The big sea swallowed them like wild beast.
Collect the quails,
And draw the water that springs out of the rock.
Michael Freund, the director of Shavei Israel, wrote that the Bnei Menashe claim to have a chant they call "Miriam's Prayer." By that time, he had been involved for years in promoting the Bnei Menashe as descended from Jews and working to facilitate their aliyah to Israel. He said that the words of the chant were identical to the ancient Sikpui Song. The Post article is the first known print reference to Miriam's Prayer aka "Sikpui Hla."
- 1894: Christian missionaries began work among the tribal populations in the territories now known as Manipur and Mizoram. Most of the population of Mizoram was Christian by the mid-20th century; the tribal population in Manipur, around 30% of the people, were also Christian.When the Christian missionaires came to Manipur, the Kohanim clothes were burnt
- 1951: A tribal leader named Challianthanga had a dream in which his people returned to Israel, and shared it with his community, which led some members of the tribe to adopt Jewish traditions, combined with faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
- 1975: Several hundred Bnei Menashe begin practicing Judaism, learning from books.
- 1980s: Israeli rabbi travels to northeast India to investigate group's claims of Jewish connection. First contact with Israel made.
- 1994–2003: with the help of Jewish organizations, 800 Bnei Menashe make aliyah to Israel, most settle in Jewish settlements.
- 2003: Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz freezes their immigration indefinitely.
- August 2004: Israeli Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar sends a rabbinical fact-finding committee to investigate the Bnei Menashe claims to Jewish ancestry.
- March 2005: Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recognised the Bnei Menashe as part of the lost tribe of Menashe, enabling them to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, but only after completing formal conversion to Judaism, because they had been separated from Judaism for millennia.
- August 2005: 146 Bnei Menashe are forced to evacuate the Gaza Strip along with other settlers, as part of Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan. 
- September 2005: A beth din fully converts 700 Bnei Menashe to Judaism (219 from Mizoram) . An estimated 9,000 people still await conversion.
- November 2005: Israel agrees to halt converting the Bnei Menashe after pressure from the Indian government. The entire rabbinical team is pulled out of the country.
- November 2006: First group of 100 Mizoram’s ‘lost Jews’ leave for Israel
- August 2007: More than 200 Bnei Menashe arrive in Israel
- January 2009: More than 200 Bnei Menashe make aliyah.
- January 2010: The Israeli government announced that the remaining 7,200 Bnei Menashe would be accepted for aliyah within a 1–2 year period after they completed formal conversion in Nepal. This location was selected in order to avoid problems with India.
- Shavei Israel
- Jews in India
- Jews of Kolkata
- Bene Ephraim
- Biblical zionism
- Gathering of Israel
References and notes
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- Quest for the Lost Tribes. (2000) Directed by Simcha Jacobovici.
- Return of the Lost Tribe. Directed by Phillipe Stroun
- This Song Is Old  (2009), Directed by Bruce Sheridan
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