From India to Israel

Bnei Menashe Jews are stymied by rules in their homeland and Promised Land

December 30, 2006

Ron Csillag

Special to the Star

Shimon Gante has been mistaken as Filipino, Japanese, native Hawaiian, and a kung fu master. "If someone met me on the street, they would never think I'm Indian," he says with a shrug. "You learn to take everything in stride."

All in a day's work for a member of one of the Bible's 10 lost tribes.

Once an out-of-control teenager in his native India, Gante's parents persuaded him to go live in Israel in an effort to curb his rowdy behaviour, which included fighting and getting banged up in motorcycles races. "They told me, `If you continue to live in India, you're not going to see past 25.'"

He arrived in the Jewish state in 1993 and "it worked." Now 33, the former medical student is a soft-spoken rabbi in Israel, ministering to his fellow Bnei Menashe Jews, both in the country and those effectively stranded back home.

Gante wasn't in Toronto this month to knock Israel but to raise funds for and awareness of the Bnei Menashe, who claim to be descendants of the biblical lost tribe of Manasseh. About 1,000 of them live in Israel, with many Jews (and evangelical Christians) happily viewing their arrival as fulfilling prophesies that the "in-gathering of the exiles" heralds the messiah's appearance.

Still, Gante finds Israel's policy on the Bnei Menashe "silly" and "puzzling." On the one hand, these Jews clamour to come, and the country's rabbis want them to do so, but the government has all but shut down their emigration.

Late last month, four planeloads of 218 Bnei Menashe arrived in Israel, the youngest born just two weeks earlier, while the oldest was 84-year-old Sara Haunhar, whose lifelong dream had always been "to set foot on God's Holy Land before I die."

They may be the last such exiles to arrive for a long time.

It's a story rife with drama and romance – of a people who improbably but passionately claim to be descendants of the ancient Israelite tribe of Manasseh, one of the 10 tribes of northern Israel exiled by Assyrian conquerors 27 centuries ago and supposedly lost to history.

And of all places to surface: the remote northeastern Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram, both of which border Myanmar (Burma). There, some 1.5 million hill people collectively call themselves the "Children of Manmasi" or "Menmasseh. Though converted to Christianity by British missionaries from the 1850s to about 1910, their oral history, songs and traditions were clearly derived from the Hebrew Bible. They believed the tribe meandered through Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet and China, before settling in northeast India.

Then, in 1953, a tribal leader named Challianthanga had a dream in which his people returned to Zion. That led to a breakaway group of about 10,000 Bnei Menashe, who have hewed to strict Jewish customs as best they could, including observing dietary laws, keeping the Sabbath and circumcising baby boys. Buffeting the legend was their belief that the legendary Kuki-Mizo ancestor Manmasi was one and the same with Manasseh, one of Joseph's sons and Jacob's grandson.

Synagogues sprang up in the 1970s. By the 1980s, contact was made with Israel, and between 1990 and 2003, roughly 800 Bnei Menashe trickled in on tourist visas. They studied for conversion, and usually within a year of their arrival, were accepted as Jews and citizens. For the most part, they have adjusted well.

But romanticism doesn't cut much political ice. In 2003, Israel's Interior Minister, Avraham Poraz of the anti-clerical Shinui Party, shut down the operation, citing complaints from India and concerns at home that the Bnei Menashe were of dubious lineage and were simply exploiting their lost tribe legend to escape poverty.

"Well I can testify to the fact that I didn't come to escape poverty," Gante says firmly. "My father was mayor of the city. We had four servants in the house fulltime. I had cable TV in my room. I had a motorcycle when I was 16. And there were a lot of people like me."

Israel has a Law of Return on its books, which stipulates that anyone born a Jew or converted to Judaism has the right to immigrate to it. The only thing preventing the Bnei Menashe from converting in India was the absence of rabbis to perform the procedures.

So in 2005, Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, recognized the Bnei Menashe as indeed descended from the lost tribe of Manasseh and therefore eligible to immigrate to Israel. Only, they first had to be converted because they had been isolated for so long. Last autumn, Amar dispatched a beit din (rabbinical court) where the 218 Bnei Menashe who arrived last month were formally converted to Judaism.

This time, India protested, citing a law on its books forbidding mass "missionizing." The rabbis were told to leave, and the Israeli government pulled them out.

That's where things now stand. Between 8,000 and 9,000 Bnei Menashe in India find themselves in a kind of catch-22: They would have to go to Israel to formally enter the Jewish fold – but Israel has barred them from entering unless they are already converted.

"If the Indian government would only allow the rabbinical court to go back there and convert them, that would be the best solution," Gante says. "We have to make the (Israeli) government aware of how critical the need is for the Bnei Menashe to come back.

"But if that can't happen, then we're back to the status quo," which is to bring them in as tourists and convert them after a course of study. "That's still the back-up plan."

Of course, nothing is preventing the remaining Bnei Menashe from continuing to practise their Judaism. But Gante notes that's "very, very hard." There are no rabbis or kosher food but there is a self-taught mohel (ritual circumciser), with home-made implements. And some communities "are really far off in the jungle. You would have to trek half a day."

Meantime, while Mizoram is relatively peaceful and stable, the state of Manipur is home to an insurgency between the rival Naga and Kuki tribes. Jews belong to the latter, and many have been killed in tribal fighting. Jews on the repressive Burmese side of the border are generally left alone.

Gante says that genetic testing on the community has confirmed Semitic markers in their DNA.

But are they "lost?" Not everyone thinks so. Mark Leuchter, a University of Toronto PhD in ancient Israelite religion who now teaches at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., has propagated the theory that the 10 lost tribes simply settled in southern Judea and reintegrated into the Jewish population, with smaller numbers staying in Samaria. His theory is based partly on censuses, which Leuchter has used to show that within 20 years of the Assyrian exile, the population of Jerusalem tripled.

If true, the controversial theory would certainly go against the commonly held belief that Jews today descend from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

Gante has a simple desire: "I wish the (Israeli) government would go there and see for itself the kind of Judaism these people are practising without any help, without any hope for being brought to Israel. And still you seem them praying, you see them learning, you seem them doing everything they can. It's an amazing thing."

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Ron Csillag is a Toronto writer. Email