An ever-expanding pool of would-be immigrants

It's not only the new-old Bnei Menashe who want to make aliya.

bnei menashe 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bnei menashe 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Until 100 years ago the Bnei Menashe, like other peoples here in the Northeast of India, were animists - they believed that nature and animals had spiritual qualities. They practiced their own ancient religions and had their own time-honored customs, including ritual sacrifice. At the end of the 19th century, Christian missionaries got to them, and with these missionaries came evangelical fervor. According to the story here, in the 1950s two men from the Kuki clan each had separate visions telling them that they were the lost Israelite tribe of Menashe and must return home to Israel. When they awoke from their sleep, they started spreading their vision amongst the Kuki. Slowly people started calling themselves Bnei Menashe, and the practice of Judaism started competing with Christianity. Speaking to the Bnei Menashe here in Kangpopki, I am told something that I didn't fully grasp before, but which is quite startling: All of the Kuki in Northeast India - as well as elements of the tribe in neighboring Myanmar, totaling some three million people - are considered, by the two men who had the visions and by the current leadership, to be Bnei Menashe. So even though only a tiny minority of the Kuki tribe have embraced Judaism and want to make aliya, they are all potential Jewish converts and Israeli citizens. All three million of them. The vast majority of the Kuki throughout this region were converted to Christianity beginning in the first decades of the 19th century. There are currently some 7,200 who practice Judaism (according to the Shavei Israel organization, which assists "lost Jews" seeking to return to the Jewish people), or 30,000 (according to the chairman of the Kuki Cultural Welfare Committee in Kohima). The souvenir booklet commemorating 25 years of Judaism in Northeast India puts the number of practicing Jews at 2,300. It was published in 2001. Seven years later, with 1,500 from the community having since moved to Israel, even the lowest estimate is more than three times that high. Whatever the true figure, it is peanuts compared to the potential number of converts. This is not to say that there is a secret plan to convert them all, or that Shavei Israel, Amishav (a Jerusalem-based organization that works to find descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes and reconnect them with the Jewish people) or anybody else is actively working to make inroads into this community for potential conversion. Remember, Judaism is a religion that forbids proselytizing. In general, the Kuki are staunchly Christian. They love Israel because they have been told that Israel was the birthplace of Christianity. But as the practice of Judaism spreads amongst the Bnei Menashe Kuki, they themselves are drawing others into the fold. They say that they go from village to village spreading their message, following the good evangelical traditions in which their parents and grandparents were schooled by the missionaries. This evangelical spirit also explains other aspects of the Bnei Menashe mind-set. When you ask them about who they are and where they're going, they answer largely in slogans and programmed responses. Question: Why do you want to move to Israel? Answer: It is the land of my forefathers and I want to pray three times a day; I want to be able to practice Judaism in the land of Jacob and Isaac... Scratch a little beneath the surface, and they tell you they are fed up with India, with the poverty, with being different from the others, with feeling insecure about their identity. And they tell you they believe that Israel is a kind of paradise - a holy land filled with opportunities. And here is a real kicker: It's not only those Bnei Menashe who practice Judaism who want to make aliya. There are an untold number of Kuki Evangelical Christians from this area who most certainly want to stay Christian but also see themselves as descendants of the Menashe tribe... and who also want to move to Israel. The plot thickens. Today we met a group of Christians, led by a famous anthropologist from these parts, a Dr. Khuplam Milui Lenthang. The group came to our hotel after traveling from the Burmese border - a trip that took them two days on difficult roads. They must have thought it really important to come and see us. First they performed a traditional song-and-dance routine for us, where a man and a woman danced in a circle like two birds. They also gave us shawls - what they called their traditional shawls. These are quite similar to ones we had earlier received from the Bnei Menashe, except that they more closely resemble the tallit, with its horizontal stripes toward the bottom and string edges. The uncanny resemblance raised many eyebrows among our group. Then they produced a declaration, which they gave us to take back to Israel, and which I'll partially quote: "From the Office of the B'nei Manmasi Messianic Council, General Head Quarters India, a Goodwill Memorandum. "We, the descendants of the lost Manasseh Tribe, would like to present our earnest message to the Govt. of Israel: "A. We fervently pray to the Govt. of Israel to duly recognize, acknowledge and full assist [sic] the person who has toiled to gather and protect the history and cultural traditions of the lost sons of Manasseh for 50 years, Pu Khuplam [the anthropologist]. He deserves meritorious awards and assistance. "B. We are the true followers of the Israeli nation having common faith, culture, tradition, astronomical expertise, holy or rest day, clean diet, act of circumcision. Hence the indelible bond between us across the seas and rivers through the ages. "C. Even if the whole of our creed here may not be followers of Judaism, we pray to the Govt. of Israel to allow us to settle down in Israel by accepting us officially as one of the 10 lost tribes "Since we believe that the words of Israel gov't. [are] as good as that of the Gods of Israel, we pray for direct communication in due course for sake of one Israeli nation in flesh and spirit. "In conclusion, we fervently pray to the highest Israeli authority to honor our pledge so as to bring back the lost children of Zion under one official entity. The Court of Rabbinical Council are our only true hope and final destination to do the needful for the ultimate Day of Reckoning. We sincerely expect an immediate positive course of action for the prophetic salvation and geo-politico-religious building of New Israel unitedly. Please, as true brethrens, fail us not." So in essence, these are Christian evangelical Kukis, and they want to move to Israel. We have no firm idea of how many of them there are. One of them tells me, when I ask him how many people this group represents, that there are several thousand. But it could be more. I wish the Israeli ministries of Immigrant Absorption and the Interior good luck with this one. For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs