India is home to the Bnei Menashe, a community that traces its ancestry to the Biblical tribe of Manasseh. But, in Israel, the opinion remains divided.

For a remote mountain hamlet of barely two dozen households in a predominantly Hindu and Christian region, Thinghejang in Manipur seems an unlikely setting for a synagogue resonating with Hebrew chants. Unlikelier still is the carnival spirit that sweeps nearby villages like Matiyang, a cluster of 150-odd residents, when hundreds of people converge to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.

At play here is the curious lore of the Bnei Menashe, a community of around 9,000 people who trace their ancestry to the tribe of Manasseh, one of the 10 tribes of Israel lost to history over 2,700 years ago. What began a few decades ago as a search for their theistic moorings has since turned into a quest for a new national identity. “Israel is our home, our Promised Land,” gushes Leah, a student in Aizawl. “Residing in Israel is a must for every Jew,” says Khizkiyah Menashe, a law graduate from Lunglei. Those already there, such as Avishai Guite and Mirna Singsit, affirm that the greatest longing of their people back in India is to return to their ancestral land. For Shalem Gin, becoming the first Bnei Menashe officer in the Israeli defence force in 2011 marked the fruition of a childhood dream to serve as an Israeli combat soldier.

At Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, every touchdown of the Bnei Menashe waving Israeli flags is imbued with emotion. Around 2,000 Bnei Menashe have already migrated to Israel. Those eagerly awaiting their turn erupted in tears and jubilation recently after the Israeli government passed a resolution paving the way for another 899 to return to Israel.

The Hebrew nation, claim the Bnei Menashe, was their home until their ancestors fled eastwards to escape the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom circa 722 BCE. Pushed further out by the marauding armies of Alexander the Great, they ended up in China nearly five centuries later. When their faith was persecuted there, nearly two generations were forced to seek refuge in lonesome caves, earning the name Shinlung (cave-dwellers). After the Chinese found them, they fled south to Indochina, before migrating to their present-day habitats some 600 years ago.

All along, the community held on to the oral history, songs and traditions handed down by their ancestors. Yet it wasn’t until they were introduced to the Bible in the 19th century by Welsh evangelists seeking to convert them to Christianity that the Bnei Menashe identified Manmasi or Menasia, a legendary ancestor of theirs, as the Biblical Manasseh, the son of Joseph.

“My grandfather was full of anecdotes about community elders uncovering the parallels between our customs and those of pre-rabbinical Judaism,” says David Yambem. “It must have been quite a revelation for the missionaries that our community would celebrate a springtime festival by singing songs about crossing a sea although we lived nowhere near one and by eating unleavened bread although our staple is rice.” The missionaries are said to have acknowledged the community’s Israelite origins when they saw them observing Sabbath and the laws of Kosher, circumcising new-born boys on the eighth day, and invoking Mount Sinai, Mount Moriah and Mount Zion in sacrificial ceremonies performed on altars reminiscent of the ancient Jewish Temple.

The community’s belief in a Jewish identity was reinforced in the early 1950s when Mei Chalah, a revered Pentecostal minister from Buallawn in Mizoram, dreamt that his people belonged to Zion. “Uptil the generation of my grandparents, the community yearned for Zion, but thought that was in heaven,” says Binyamin Haokip. “That changed after we learnt about the state of Israel.”

Realising the dream to migrate to Israel has not been easy. In 1955, a few Bnei Menashe set out on foot to Israel, but were turned back by Indian authorities. In the 1980s, after having started living according to halacha (Jewish laws), they reached out to organisations in Israel to make their case for aliyah (return of the Jewish diaspora to Israel) in fulfilment of a Mitzvah (a Jewish commandment) that calls upon all Jews to come home to Zion. “We couldn’t study for conversion in India for want of a Rabbi, so some of us decided to travel to Israel in the 1990s on tourist visas,” says Haokip.

In 2005, one of Israel’s chief rabbis recognised the Bnei Menashe as the lost children of Israel and made them eligible for aliyah. However, for that to materialise, Israel’s law required them to first convert to Judaism. “That was far from easy in India where proselytisation is a touchy issue,” says Yambem. Matters came to a head later that year, when an Israeli rabbinical court’s visit to India for mass conversion triggered a diplomatic row between the two countries. “The Bnei Menashe now undergo the process of returning to the Jewish people only after they arrive in Israel,” says Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organisation that helps descendants of lost Jewish tribes return to their roots. Interestingly, it was a Bnei Menashe plea for help with aliyah that inspired Freund to form Shavei Israel a decade ago.

In the complex mosaic of faiths and ethnicities that is the north-east of India, one’s religious identity is often a matter of social adjustment and assertion. “We were always acutely aware that we were different from the others around us,” says Leah. “Be it observing Saturday as a weekly day of rest and worship, or adhering to the strictures of Kosher food, pursuing a Jewish way of life is not without its difficulties here,” adds Liyon Fanai, a Mizo Bnei Menashe leader based in Zarkawt, Aizawl.

Nonetheless, it is possible today for the Bnei Menashe to announce their religious identity by wearing kipots (skullcaps), tzitzit (ritual fringes) and tassels on their person or writing “I am the son of Manasseh” in Hebrew or Latin on their houses without turning heads or raising eyebrows. “It is a testimony to India’s greatness that unlike most Jewish communities in the diaspora, the Bnei Menashe do not suffer from any hostility or discrimination,” says Freund.

In October 2012, the Israeli government revoked its predecessor’s suspension of the aliyah programme. Yet, opinion on the Bnei Menashe claim continues to be divided within Israel. “There are no scientifical proofs of Israelite affiliation, but narratives that are spun and sometimes take hold. This is true of the Bnei Menashe, as others,” says Dr. Shalva Weil, anthropologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “There are neither Biblical nor rabbinical tractates on their existence. Historical myths are authentic for the people who believe in them and become realities for those who listen.”

Many in Israel also fear that allowing migration on the basis of historic legends may snowball into a serious immigration challenge. They feel that the Bnei Menashe might be using Israel as a way out of economic hardship in India. Israel’s former interior minister Avraham Poraz once called the Bnei Menashe “peasants seeking to escape poverty”. “That is incorrect,” counters Jeremiah Hnamte, who runs a successful bamboo business in Aizawl. “Most of us are educated and make a decent living in India”. A case in point is Azriel Hmar, a government employee, and his wife Mayian, a teacher, who are willing to give up their comfortable lives in Aizawl to be in Israel. “It is not as though we are going to heaven,” says a Bnei Menashe youth. “We will still have to work hard, perhaps even harder than in India. We may not be as well off as the Israelis, but it is unfair to label us economic migrants.”

“I know the community well,” says Zaithanchhungi (Zaii), Aizawl-based researcher and author of the book Israel-Mizo Identity. “Their decision to migrate to Israel is indeed driven by faith.” Fanai avers, “People can think or say what they like, but India is our second home and will always be a part of us.” That was evident when the Bnei Menashe performed Mizoram’s Cheraw folk dance during India’s Independence Day celebrations in 2013 in Herzliya, Israel.

Many like Poraz and social scientist Lev Grinberg even view conversions as a right-wing game-plan to boost Jewish majority in disputed territories, an issue brought back into sharp focus by Israel’s recent approval to build nearly 1,200 apartments there. “In Israel,” writes journalist-activist Mike Marqusee in If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew, “champions of the Bnei Menashe openly describe their immigration as part of the solution to the ‘demographic problem,’ that is, the numerical preponderance of non-Jews in Palestine.”

Freund dismisses that view. “The Bnei Menashe immigrants to Israel are spread out across the country, from north to south. Israel, like India, is a free country and the Bnei Menashe are free to choose where they wish to live. Those who criticise their immigration do so largely out of ignorance tinged with a whiff of racism.”

The quirks and demands of starting all over again in a new land are no deterrents for the Bnei Menashe. For Menashe Lhundgim, Gidonmung Khongsai and Hila Singson, migrating to Israel has been an experience in contradiction. While the tranquillity of their life in Manipur and Mizoram did little to assuage their inner turmoil, they claim to be at more peace even amid the occasional blasts of Qassam rockets and Grad-type Katyushas in their neighbourhoods in Sderot and Kiryat Arba, even as they go about their lives in the eye of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

To many in Israel, the suggestion of a racial kinship with the Bnei Menashe seems far-fetched: the balance is often tipped more towards the differences in their Semitic and Mongoloid traits than the quiet similarities in their ritual observances. “We were often told we didn’t look Jewish and we didn’t quite understand what it meant to ‘look’ like one,” says Amos. “We felt like outsiders in India because of our looks. In Israel, we get mistaken for Filipinos and Chinese,” laughs Yitzhak.

“Like any immigrant community, the Bnei Menashe who come to Israel must learn to adjust to a new mentality, a new language and a different way of doing things,” says Freund. “Being an immigrant is never easy and it does not matter if you originate in India, the U.S. or elsewhere. But the Bnei Menashe absorption in Israel has been successful.”

As it turns out, Thinghejang and Matiyang are as much about the Bnei Menashe’s long wait at the intersection of faith and history, as about the beginning of a journey that seems no less exhilarating than the destination.

(Some names changed on request)