Dotted across villages on the slopes of mountains that make up the lower Himalayan ranges in northeast India, thousands of Indians are adopting and practicing Jewish traditions in the hope of one day officially converting to Judaism and immigrating to Israel. In the states of Mizoram, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland along the Burmese border, these Jews-in-waiting form a community that has come to be known as the Bnei Menashe - alleged descendants of the lost tribe of Manasseh that was exiled along with nine other Israelite tribes from Samaria when it was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE.
Some 2,700 years later, the descendants of the tribe of Manasseh spend their weekends in dozens of synagogues, community centers and ritual baths in this remote region, thousands of miles away from present-day Samaria. Many of them pray three times a day, and there are children among them who can recite psalms and other prayers by heart.
According to representatives of Shavei Israel, an organization working to sustain their Jewish faith and bring all of them to Israel, there are 7,232 Bnei Menashe in all four states, including some 200 across the border in Myanmar.
In Jerusalem, the Interior Ministry's policy, under Minister Meir Sheetrit, is not to approve their mass aliya, but to continue bringing a small number here every year for conversion. Sheetrit believes the Bnei Menashe, and the many other peoples across the globe that claim ancestry from the 10 Lost Tribes, are not Jewish and have no business immigrating to Israel.
In October 2007, Sheetrit drew widespread criticism for warning the Jewish Agency's board of governors not to "go finding me any lost tribes, because I won't let them in any more. We have enough problems in Israel. Let them go to America."
Since then Sheetrit has faced pressure from many directions, including the Prime Minister's Office, Diaspora Jewish leaders and NGOs, such as Shavei Israel and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, to change his stance. As yet, he has steadfastly refused.
The argument over whether or not the 7,000 or so Bnei Menashe are really our lost Jewish brethren is controversial enough, but what is materializing on the ground is the specter of an untold number of Christians and so-called Messianic Jews in northeast India who also consider themselves to be Bnei Menashe, and while wanting to keep their faith, this very large group of people very much aspires to immigrate. What started off as an independent awakening of Judaism among a very small segment of ethnic Kuki and Mizo Indians, supported by Jewish outreach and messianic groups from Israel, has metamorphosed into a self-powered and locally-run outreach program as Bnei Menashe bring relatives into the fold.
Since the publication of a blog on jpost.com in mid-November detailing my travels to meet the Bnei Menashe, and as a reaction to some of the findings published in it, Sheetrit has postponed a deal reached between the Prime Minister's Office and the Jewish Agency for some 150 Bnei Menashe who were approved for aliya in early November. These people are now in limbo, having sold their property and many of their possessions. Most of them are living in Shavei Israel compounds scattered across Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland. Most of the Bnei Menashe in Nagaland live in the capital, Kohima, which is a fascinating and beautiful part of northeast India. It is here that British and Indian forces stopped the advancing Japanese army in 1944 in the Naga hills on the one side and the Chin mountain range, an extension of the Himalayas, on the other.
BNEI MENASHE do not arrive in Israel under the Law of Return, but on tourist visas, and are not entitled to immigrant benefits and cannot bring the contents of their households with them.
Until Avraham Poraz's tenure as interior minister in 2005, the policy was to quietly bring 100 Bnei Menashe per year on aliya. They would arrive and undergo conversion here. After a trial period of several months during which their observance of Orthodox Judaism would be examined, they would get citizenship. Poraz, of the Shinui party, shut down that operation once he took over the ministry, saying that the Bnei Menashe were being used as pawns in the religious Zionist grand plan of increasing the Jewish population in Judea and Samaria.
The vast majority of the Mizo and Kuki people were converted to Christianity beginning in the first decades of the 19th century. Until 100 years ago, the Bnei Menashe, like other peoples in northeast India, were animists. They practiced their ancient religions and had their own customs, including ritual sacrifice. At the end of the 19th century, Christian missionaries arrived, and with them came the New Testament, with its descriptions of Jewish faith, rituals and history. According to local folklore, in the 1950s two Kuki men who had been converted by the missionaries each had separate visions telling them that they were the lost Israelite tribe of Manasseh, and that they must return home to Israel. They started spreading their vision among the Kuki and Mizo people, who gradually started calling themselves Manmasseh - Bnei Menashe.
Slowly, thousands of people started keeping the Sabbath on Saturday and not Sunday. They also started circumcising their baby boys on the eighth day.
Once they got organized in the late '50s, they started sending letters to Israel, asking for recognition as one of the Ten Lost Tribes. And with that recognition, they asked to be brought back to their ancient homeland. Nobody really took this correspondence very seriously in Jerusalem, and the letters piled up at the National Library. It was only in the late '80s that a curious librarian brought the letters to the attention of Rabbi Eliahu Avichail, who has devoted his life to retracing the steps of the exiled tribes.
For decades Avichail traveled the world looking for peoples who, though not formally Jewish, observe some Jewish customs and believe that they have some connection to ancient Israelites. He is convinced he has found millions of people who are descendents of the lost tribes, and he is determined to bring them back to Zion. To this end he set up the Amishav (my people returns) organization that sends out representatives to "awaken and return" the tribes. Avichail started working with the Bnei Menashe in India in the late '80s, and he is largely responsible for founding the earliest communities and training their leaders in the traditions of Judaism.
A decade later, much of the work was taken over by Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization run by Jerusalem Post columnist Michael Freund.
Shavei Israel has managed to organize the communities into self-sustaining Jewish entities, largely around synagogues called Beit Shaloms. Most of the Bnei Menashe who make aliya do so through Shavei Israel's apparatus.
DEPENDING ON whom you speak to, there are currently somewhere between 7,232 Judaism-practicing Bnei Menashe in northeast India (according to Shavei Israel) and 30,000 according to one local official, who is regarded as a leader of the community. Whatever the true number, it is undeniable that Judaism is growing among the Bnei Menashe. A souvenir booklet commemorating 25 years of Judaism in northeast India from 2001 gives 2,300 as the number of practicing Jews. According to even the lowest estimate, that number has now jumped threefold (not including the 1,500 who have already made aliya). This is more than natural growth.
Shavei Israel's plan to bring the Bnei Menashe here has been repeatedly stalled by various interior ministers whose main concern is that once the gates are opened to these people, their numbers will be unlimited - something akin to the situation regarding the Falash Mura in Ethiopia.
Many of the Mizo and Kuki people, some three million people, are considered by the current local Bnei Menashe leadership to be descendants of the tribe of Manasseh. Even though only a tiny minority of them have embraced Judaism and want to make aliya, they are all potential converts and Israeli citizens. While this scenario is not currently in the cards, the constant and growing attraction of Judaism in this region could mean the expansion of the pool of potential new Jews, and new olim, to unimaginable numbers.
Most of the Judaism-practicing Bnei Menashe have at least one relative who has decided to stay Christian. This phenomenon cuts across communities and families. Once fervent Christians, many in these communities are attracted to Judaism, and some see immigration to Israel as a winning ticket out of an hopeless cycle of poverty. Northeast India is largely underdeveloped, and opportunities for self-betterment are rare. The vast majority of the population are subsistence farmers and menial laborers. As word spreads about Judaism and Israel, increasing numbers are showing interest in the faith and its promise.
The potential number of converts to Judaism among the Kuki tribe is huge.
The Kuki are staunchly Christian - and they love Israel because they have been told that it was the birthplace of Jesus Christ. But as the practice of Judaism spreads among the Bnei Menashe Kuki, they are drawing others into the fold; they say they go from village to village spreading their message, just like the good evangelical traditions in which they were initially trained by missionaries.
At a meeting with a group of Christians, led by anthropologist Dr. Khuplam Milui Lenthang, I was given a memorandum to take back to Israel. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Khuplam affirmed that the group behind the memorandum is Christian evangelical Kuki, and that its members want to move to Israel.
In addition to the Christian Bnei Manmasi Messianic Council, there are at least 12 Messianic Jewish congregations in Manipur alone. There are many more in Mizoram and in Nagaland. They are now organizing themselves under one umbrella - the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations of Northeast India. Lienboi Gangte, the new umbrella's general secretary, says his congregation "has a right to make aliya," even if they're not currently planning on it.
"Regarding aliya, it is not that we overtly want to immigrate; but it is our right, if I am not mistaken, to migrate to the land of our forefathers. Yes, there are many who want and need to migrate to Eretz Yisrael. For this we have sent representations to the Israel government in the form of memorandums and letters, which have been left neglected. Indeed, Israel realized that there are lost Jews in northeast India through us, the Messianics," he says.
In recent years the government has all but closed the door to Falash Mura aliya, because that pool of potential converts and immigrants somehow always grows. Hoping to stave off a similar edict for the Bnei Menashe, Shavei Israel hopes to bring the remaining Indian Bnei Menashe here as soon as possible, before their numbers swell. Freund says he has drawn the line at 7,232.
BUT WHATEVER Freund believes from his office in Jerusalem, the Shavei Israel program he created in northeast India has a life of its own, with its own selection process for who is to be converted, and more subtly, outreach activity among the Christian Kuki. While he says Shavei Israel is not a messianic organization, the Bnei Menashe in India believe in the messianic overtones of their story. They believe that thousands of years ago they made the great trek from Samaria as part of the tribe of Manasseh all the way to northeast India and now they want to come back home. They believe that in the end of days, all the houses of Israel will be reunited in the Holy Land, and that then the messiah will come.
"I'm confident that it's not out of control. There are various safeguards in place to prevent a loss of control. You have to go to synagogue for at least one year; you must get circumcised. There are hurdles a person must overcome before he is brought into the pool of potential olim. There are no masses of Indians breaking down the doors of the Beit Shaloms in Mizoram and Manipur to convert to Judaism and make aliya. There has never been a mass rush, even in the days when aliya was up," Freund says.
The local community leaders decide who is taking Judaism seriously and who is not. "The Christians who say they are Bnei Menashe and who want to make aliya are not among the Bnei Menashe we deal with. There is no operative plan to convert the Christians outside of the community of 7,232 that we have defined," Freund says. "We have made it clear to the Bnei Menashe people in the Shavei Israel community in northeast India not to start going out into the wider Mizo and Kuki community and missionize.
"But what if one morning 100,000 Swedes decide they want to be Jewish and make aliya? What does the government of Israel do then? How is the government going to deal with cases of people who want to tie their fates with Jews and move here?
"Obviously the longer the government lets a problem fester, the more complicated that problem becomes, and as long as the nucleus of Bnei Menashe remains in India, the greater the chance that more people from the wider Mizo-Kuki community will want to join them."
In other words, according to Freund's thinking, the longer the government doesn't allow the 7,232 Judaism practicing Bnei Menashe to make aliya, the higher the chances that one day the Interior Ministry will be facing immigration requests from a vastly larger number of people.
"The governments in Israel let the Falash Mura problem in Ethiopia fester for over 20 years and they were surprised when the numbers changed. The Bnei Menashe are not the Falash Mura though. We have a well-defined number this time with clear boundaries. Besides steady natural growth, there is no issue of tens of thousands of them jumping on the aliya bandwagon," Freund says. "And any way, what would be so bad if in 50 years there were 50,000?"