Thursday, November 09, 2006

India's Bene Menashe making aliyah - but not publicly

218 members of the Bnei Menashe community in India are moving to Israel starting next week, but apparently the major media event that was to accompany them was quashed by India.

According to "Arab Monitor" (note the spin):
Three days before it was to be implemented, the government of India, acting through the Indian aviation authorities, revoked permission for a spectacular Israeli Zionist public relations action to take place. On 12th November an Israir charter flight, hired by the Jewish Agency and funded by US Evangelical Christians, was to airlift a group of 812 [sic] Indians who had converted to judaism, to Tel Aviv within the frame of the Zionist "return to Israel" paradigm. The Indian converts had undergone their judaization process about a year ago under the supervision of emissaries of the Chief Rabbinate, who had heceforth recognized them as members of the biblical lost tribe of Bnei Menashem. Having been officially recognized as Jews, the Indians automatically were eligible to become citizens of Israel under the Zionist "Right-of-Return"-law and the Jewish Agency in Israel had already prepared for the settlement of the new immigrants in Carmiel and Nazareth, where they were destined to boost the Jewish presence in an Arab Palestinian environment. The US-based Friendship Fund of the Evangelical Christians, who funded the project of mass immigration of allegedly Indian Jews to Israel, had prepared for a spectacular mass-media covering of the organized departure of the group from India on 12th November and of the celebrations planned to greet their arrival in Israel. Concerned about the negative repercussions that an action designed to appear as a "rescue campaign for Jews" would have, India took steps to prevent the Zionist scoop by forcefully grounding the Israir machine and requesting that converts willing to emigrate to Israel should do so on an individual basis and booking regular El-Al flights.
Of course this article is a bit inaccurate: the Bnei Menashe identify themselves as being Jews for millenia, and the Israeli rabbis only formally converted them to erase any Jewish legal problems.

In fact, a genetic study did find evidence of commonalities between these Indian Jews and those of Uzbekistan:
Bhaswar Maity, a research scholar at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Kolkata, had begun the DNA typing of samples (100 male and 80 female) taken from the Mizos in March 2002. "Studies on the Y chromosome [male] did not return the Cohen modal haplotype, which is present in most Jewish males around the world," says Dr V.K. Kashyap, director of the laboratory. (Tracing the male chromosome is difficult because most Mizo men, who migrated from elsewhere, wed women along the way and the Y chromosome is lost every time a female child is created.) "But of the mitochondria DNA [female samples], a few Kuki samples returned the unique haplotype [genetic sequence code] found in the Jewish community in Uzbekistan."

This is a clear indication that there was a Jewish female founder effect in the Kuki community. "It is scientifically impossible to have the same genetic sequence in two populations living so far apart if they did not originate from a common stock who historically inhabited a common space," says Maity. He also found a specific mutation in some Lusei and Kuki samples that is also present in Indian Jews.

If these Indian Jews indeed descended from the biblical Menashe, none of the males would have the Cohen haplotype - because that would be reserved for those descended from Levi.

The article from 2004 continues with some fascinating background:

There are also historical pointers to this claim. Zaithanchhungi, a scholar who has been studying the Mizo claim to Israeli ancestry for over 20 years, is convinced that all Mizos are descendants of the Menashe. "The Menashe were enslaved by the Assyrians and taken there [Assyria] when Jerusalem fell," she says. "From there they migrated to the Afghanistan region. During Alexander’s invasion they were driven further on to Mongolia through the Kashmir region and Tibet plateau, and they settled in the Chhinlung region of China. They entered Mizoram about 300 years ago from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Burma."

This puts the Indian government on a sticky wicket as the United Nations has said that a country cannot rule over people other than its own. The government has more reason to be worried because the Aizawl-based Chhinlung Israel People’s Convention, an organisation of 2.5 lakh members who believe they are descendants of the Menashe, has begun preparations for realising their dream of a "New Jerusalem". This correspondent even stumbled upon a new flag for the "country of the Menashe people" as Lalchhanhima Sailo, the chairman of the convention, put it.

The organisation had submitted a memorandum to the UN in 1998 to recognise the Chhinlung people as a lost tribe of Israel. "We are now awaiting Israeli recognition," says Sailo. "Once it comes through, we will have an independent country in the northeast of India." Sailo feels this is a very real possibility because there are Chhins in parts of Manipur, Burma, Bangladesh and Assam.

It is difficult to ignore the similarities that exist between the lives of the Jews in Israel and those of the Mizos. According to Zaithanchhungi, there are anthropological perspe-ctives. The Mizo burial ritual is similar to that of the Jews. Secondly, though the Mizos migrated to Mizoram through lands where Buddhism was the dominant faith, it left no influence on them. Even in the first half of the 20th century, they sacrificed animals to Pathian (Jehova). "They had the sacrificial altar on a hillock and a cross similar to that of David was drawn on the altar," she says. "Only men were allowed to witness the sacrifice. This is more than sheer resemblance."

Another resemblance is between the Mizo ritual of Cawngpuisial and the Jewish Sabbath. Sabbath starts when the stars appear on a Friday evening and ends with the same on a Saturday evening. In Mizoram, during the Cawngpuisial, villagers are restricted from going out of the village (and strangers from entering it) after the stars appear on a Friday. The curfew is lifted on Saturday after the stars appear.

Shaina, a student from Raanana near Tel-Aviv, who recently visited the Amishav Hebrew Center in Aizawl—an Israeli government agency tracing lost Jewish tribes—found the "similarities between the people of Israel and Mizoram simply too stark to be neglected".

Allenby Sela, principal of Amishav, was one of 900 Mizos who converted to Judaism to settle down in the Gaza Strip. He returned to Mizoram to make the people aware of their history. "We should know who we are, where we came from, what our roots are," he says. "Faith can’t be recognised by blood tests. It’s a spiritual thing. Our history is oral and there is no clinching evidence. But this is not enough for Israel to accept." Israel recognised the Black Jews of Ethiopia and the Fallasahs of South Africa as lost tribes without any tests.

A stroll down the roads of Aizawl—with signs Moses Snack Centre, Nazareth Medical, Israel Stores, Zion Street—is enough to understand its connection with the Promised Land. "The Torah [Jewish Bible] states that there shall be one Holy Land in the west and one in the east," says Sailo. "I’m convinced this is it. The Torah also mentions that the descendants of Abraham shall be as plenty as stars in the heaven and the sands of the earth. Though the population of Israel is only five million, if you include all the Chhinlung people, you will find the true meaning of the prophecy."

The Wikipedia article on the Bnei Menashe adds much more information.