The Benei-Menashe of North-East India
By Myer Samra
While Jews have been a small but ever-present strand within the fabric of Indian society for perhaps over 2,000 years, remarkably, today the largest group practising Judaism in the country, with around 7,000 adherents and over 30 congregations spread across the North-Eastern states of Manipur and Mizoram, and outliers in Assam and Nagaland, is a community whose existence was unknown before the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, until then they had not seen themselves as part of the Jewish people, though today they are emphatic about this identity. These are the Benei-Menashe, recognised for their fervent attachment to Judaism and their love for Israel.
The Benei-Menashe have emerged from the constellation of Chin-Kuki-Mizo tribes which straddle the India-Myanmar border regions. Even within the smallish populations of the North-Eastern states, the Benei-Menashe numbers are minute, although many of their Christian kinsmen share the conviction that they are descendants of the Lost Tribes of ancient Israel – tribes which disappeared from the pages of history following the conquest of the northern Israelite kingdom (known variously as Israel, Samaria and Ephraim) by the Assyrian Empire more than 2,700 years ago.
The very existence of the Benei-Menashe has raised political controversy and hostility in India itself, in Mizoram, and in Israel; while they may simply be interested in following their chosen religion, almost inevitably this has raised accusations and suspicion, and fears from segments in each of these societies.
One cannot speak of the origins of the Benei-Menashe without reference to the role of Christian missionaries, who commenced their activities in Manipur, Mizoram and Myanmar’s Chin territories in the 1890s. The missionaries were very successful in converting the tribal populations to Christianity, to the extent that in Mizoram, it is almost unthinkable for someone to be a Mizo and not a Christian. Along with faith in Jesus as Saviour, the missionaries introduced modern medicines, western education and a written script for Mizo and other languages of the region. Today, Mizoram has one of the highest levels of literacy in India.
In bringing Christianity to the tribals of this region, the missionaries inevitably introduced them to the Bible, with its focus on the history, beliefs and practices of the ancient Israelites, the religious forebears of today’s Jews. Some Christianised Chin-Kuki-Mizos detected similarities between their pre-Christian practices and those of the biblical Israelites. Identifying themselves as descendants of those Israelites was a development supported by the apparent similarity between the name Menashe (Manasseh), ancestor of one of the Israelite tribes, and Manmasi/Manasi. To protect themselves whenever they faced danger, the Chin-Kuki-Mizo people would declare they were descendants of Manmasi/Manasi.
Also at play were the visions of a number of local prophets in the 1950s, particularly of Challianthanga from Buallawn in Mizoram, who proclaimed they were in fact Israelites and obliged to follow the practices ordained in the Bible – such as observance of the Sabbath and festivals, sacrifices, and refraining from eating pork – and to return to the land of Israel to escape the impending apocalypse. Additionally, some groups were influenced by Sabbatarian sects who suggested that the Christianity taught by the missionaries was a false religion, since the mainline Christian denominations had corrupted the express commandments of the Bible, particularly by observing Sunday rather than Saturday as the Sabbath.
Challianthanga’s followers were the first to identify themselves as Israelites and proclaimed this message throughout the region. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of groups considering themselves to be Jews had sprung up, particularly in Churachandpur, Manipur. These groups, from Buallawn on, combined their Judaic practices with an enduring faith in Jesus.
Only after members of these groups, in particular Thangkholun Lhungdim (who took the name T. Daniel), made contact with Jews in Bombay and Calcutta did they realise that Jews did not follow Jesus. Those who chose then-on to adopt Jewish practices – without Jesus – have come to be known as the Benei-Menashe, separating from their fellows who continued in that faith.
At a time when Israel and India did not have full diplomatic relations, groups in India who were hostile to Israel condemned the Benei-Menashe, accusing Israel of attempting to create a fifth column in India who would promote Israeli interests. For its part, Israel was also wary of these Judaising groups and banned the entry of people from Manipur and Mizoram, even if simply coming as tourists.
Israel, and particularly Jerusalem, is the focus of Jewish prayer and yearning, the land where Jews had their own nation in biblical times, and today the only state in the world where Jews form a majority of the population, where the calendar follows the Jewish Sabbath and festivals, and where kosher foods (ritually fit for Jewish consumption) are freely available. Under Israel’s Law of Return, all Jews have a right to claim citizenship there. It is small wonder then that the Benei-Menashe, like the established Jewish communities in India before them, saw settlement in Israel as the fulfilment of their religious aspirations. However, as we have seen, Israel was not keen to have them.
The Benei-Menashe were fortunate to make contact with an Israeli Rabbi, Eliyahu Avichail in 1979, who, through his organisation Amishav, was searching for the Lost Tribes and accepted the Benei-Menashe claims. Rabbi Avichail became their religious guide, instructing them in Judaism. From 1989, Rabbi Avichail was able to persuade the Israeli government to allow small numbers to enter the country on tourist visas, study for conversion to Judaism, and remain as citizens once they had completed the process.
Israelis looked upon these early Benei-Menashe settlers with fascination, people who dressed like religious Jews though their East-Asian features were so different from Jews from Europe and the Middle East. The fact they claimed and were promoted by Rabbi Avichail to be descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel inspired messianic hopes among religious Jews, for the return of the Tribes is associated with the coming of the Messiah.
However, this favourable image was punctured in 1994, when a secret cable from Israel’s ambassador in Delhi reported that he had received a delegation from a Dalit group from South India, claiming to be descendants of the tribe of Ephraim. Their suggestion that all Dalits could in fact have originally been Israelites led to fears that thirty crore of Indians might soon be knocking on tiny Israel’s door, seeking the right to settlement under the Law of Return. Consequently, the visas of those who had been selected by Rabbi Avichail but not yet in Israel were temporarily suspended.
Rabbi Avichail was able to persuade the government to allow him, once again, to select and bring in up to 100 Benei-Menashe per year. However, as they did not have the rights of citizens when they arrived and might take some time to convert, they were not entitled to the support and privileges and financial support available to Jews who come to Israel as settlers. Consequently, they were placed in townships that were willing to accommodate them, which happened to be in religious Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which Israel had captured during the Six Day War of 1967. This in turn created negative feelings towards them among secular Jews and those politically inclined to the left in Israel. When the Gaza settlements were forcibly evacuated by the Sharon government in 2005, the largest foreign-born group to be displaced were Benei-Menashe from India.
In 2003, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, a left-wing politician, who had raised concerns that the Benei-Menashe were essentially economic migrants claiming to follow Judaism as an easy way to escape poverty in India and to get to the West, blocked the entry of further Benei-Menashe.
Meanwhile, Amishav was succeeded by Shavei-Israel in 2004, formed by Michael Freund who successfully located townships inside the pre-’67 borders which were prepared to welcome Benei-Menashe and offer them work, thus ameliorating the suspicion that they were the pawns of right-wing religious settlers.
Freund was also able to persuade Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to send a rabbinical delegation to Manipur and Mizoram to investigate the Benei-Menashe claims, and in March 2005, Rabbi Amar declared they were descendants of Jews, who should be formally converted and brought to Israel. This led to hostile attacks against Israel from Communist parliamentarians in India, while Mizo church leaders sought to refute the Rabbi’s claim.
Later that year, to enable Benei-Menashe to reach Israel with the rights and privileges of Jewish immigrants, a rabbinical delegation visited India to conduct conversions there. This created a diplomatic incident between the two countries. 218 people were converted in Mizoram, but the rabbis’ permits for Manipur were withdrawn. Israeli authorities have undertaken not to conduct future conversions in India; however, Shavei-Israel has been successful in persuading Israel’s parliament (Knesset) to allow substantially more Benei-Menashe into the country, with increased supports. At present there are around 3,000 in Israel, and hopes that in future, any Benei-Menashe who wish to settle in Israel would be permitted to do so.
Myer Samra is an anthropologist and lawyer, employed by the Department of Family and Community Services and an Accredited Specialist in Children’s Law. He edits the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies. He has conducted research on Sephardi Jews in Australia and the Benei Menashe of North East India.
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