Bnei Menashe: The ‘Lost Jews’ Of India?

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Israeli media recently reported on the arrival of a group of about four dozen “Bnei Menashe” at the international airport in Tel Aviv. This tribe, hailing from northeastern India, is allegedly descended from one of the ‘lost tribes’ of ancient Israel.

One of the Bnei Menashe 20-year-old Zimra Danapa, told Israel’s Ynet newspaper: "I have fulfilled my dream. After many years of hoping to arrive in Israel, I am very excited to be here. We plan to build our life here and bring more family members here.”

Another new arrival, Ben Asher, gushed: “Israel is my heritage and religion. Israel is everything to me. We are very happy. We've been waiting for this moment for hundreds of years. I want to serve my country in any way possible.”

Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jewish organization that helps repatriate Jews from other parts of the world, said hundreds more of the Bnei Menashe tribe will journey to Israel in the coming weeks.

"The members of this tribe have never forgotten where they came from and we are excited to be able to help them come back," he told Agence France Presse.

BBC reported that the latest arrival of Bnei Menashe was spurred by the Israeli government’s lifting of a visa ban  -- there are now some 1,700 tribe members settled in Israel of a total population of some 9,000. Many work in the agriculture sector or in the military.

In the 1970s an Israeli rabbi named Eliyahu Avihayil visited the Bnei Menashe tribe in India and noted their similarities to the practices of traditional Judaism. His efforts to convince the Israeli government to recognize them as Jews and allow them to immigrate to Israel failed.

But by 2005, Israel’s Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic Jews Shlomo Amar officially recognized the community as one of the legendary ‘Lost Tribes’ of Israel, providing them with the right to settle in the Jewish state and gained Israeli citizenship under the ‘Law of Return.’ However, two years later the government ceased providing visas to this Indian tribe, before changing the policy yet again recently.

But are these people from remote northeastern India really Jews? Or are they merely pretending to be Jewish in order to opportunistically escape poverty?

Bnei Menashe members claim that their ancestors were exiled from Israel 700 years before the birth of Christ when the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel. From that date, according to their oral tradition, the tribe migrated eastward along the Silk Route for centuries before ending up in the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram, which borders Bangladesh and Myanmar (more than 3000 miles away from present-day Israel).

Stephen Epstein, writing in Bneimeshase.com, noted that “evidence of their Jewish roots is very strong with customs such as performing circumcision on the eighth day following birth, honoring levirate [where the brother of a dead man must marry his brother's widow] marriages, offering sacrifices on altars and wearing shawls that resemble the Talit [prayer shawl].”

Freund, an American-born Zionist, himself voyaged to India in the 1990s.

“Something pulled me there,” he told Israeli media. “And when I met them and saw the similarities between their customs and beliefs and the biblical Israelites, I was convinced that these are indeed descendants of the lost tribes.”

Many are skeptical of these claims.

For example, the Central Forensic Institute in Calcutta conducted DNA studies which revealed that Bnei Menashe men had no genetic links whatsoever to Israel, although some female members of the tribe apparently shared some DNA with Middle Eastern peoples, most likely through intermarriage.

In Israel, the immigration of Bnei Menashe has become politicized.

Tablet Magazine reported that Meir Sheetrit, a member of the Knesset and a former Interior Minister, told army radio that the arrival of Bnei Menashe “endangered the Jewish identity of the state” and suggested that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu may be making a cynical ploy to generate more electoral support, ahead of general elections.

“Apparently, there are those in government who think that if they come to Israel and convert to Judaism, maybe they will vote in future elections,” Sheetrit said.

Similarly, readers comments to the arrival of Bnei Menashe in the Haaretz newspaper, revealed some deep cynicism over their alleged Jewish identity.

One reader quipped: “Have they found any Martian Jews yet? from the lost tribe of skywalker?” and another lamented: “Absurd. Another weird attempt at altering demographics.”

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