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The lost Jews of Churachandpur

“So far, around 3,000 people from Manipur and Mizoram have already emigrated to Israel after embracing Judaism.” Bnei Menashe boys whose parents wish to go to Israel

“So far, around 3,000 people from Manipur and Mizoram have already emigrated to Israel after embracing Judaism.” Bnei Menashe boys whose parents wish to go to Israel   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Arguing that they are the Bnei Menashe, one of the ten lost tribes of Israel, a section of Kukis wants to emigrate to Israel. But they cannot do so unless they formally embrace Judaism. Prafulla Das reports on the strange predicament of people torn between a contested history and an uncertain future

Seventy-year-old Avihu Singsit, a native of Churachandpur district in Manipur, is excited about migrating to Israel. “I have been waiting to go to the holy land which God chose for my ancestors,” he says. He is among the thousands of tribal people of Manipur keen to leave India for Israel.

Although their Jewish connections became apparent in the 1950s, Singsit and others began practising Judaism in Manipur sometime in the 1970s, after coming to know that they were the ‘Bnei Menashe’ (Hebrew for ‘the sons of Manasseh’), descendants of the tribe of Manasseh, which is one of the 10 ‘lost tribes of Israel’ that were exiled by the Assyrian empire more than 2,700 years ago.

Singsit and his wife Zivah Singsit (65), who have lived all their life in Manipur, embraced Judaism formally in 2009, four years after he retired as a Zonal Education Officer at Kangpokpi. Both adopted Jewish names after converting to Judaism — Avihu Singsit was earlier Thangkam Singsit and Zivah Singsit was Aneng Singsit.

The lost Jews of Churachandpur
 

So far, around 3,000 people from Manipur and Mizoram have already emigrated to Israel after embracing Judaism. But there are still more than 7,000 Bnei Menashe living in India and practising Judaism, nearly all of whom wish to immigrate to Israel. A batch of 162 persons from Churachandpur, who had been shortlisted in 2014, moved to Israel a few weeks ago, attracting prominent coverage in the Israeli press.

The fabled past

Singsit had heard his grandfather tell him stories about their ancestors who lived in caves before fleeing to India. While there is no historical record of this mass migration, the Bnei Menashe tribe believes that they settled in northeastern India and in countries adjoining the region several centuries ago, and that, while passing through China, they lived in caves to escape religious persecution.

A section of the Kuki population living in the hilly areas of Manipur believe they are the Bnei Menashe just as some of the Mizos in neighbouring Mizoram do. It is believed that they practised their ancient Jewish traditions for centuries, unaware that they were the descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel. A majority of them converted to Christianity in the 19th century. It was only after they were introduced to the Bible that the Bnei Menashe identified Manmasi or Menasia, a legendary ancestor of theirs, as the Biblical Manasseh, the son of Joseph.

The community’s belief in a Jewish identity was reinforced in the early 1950s when Mei Chalah, a priest in Mizoram, dreamt that his people belonged to Jerusalem. According to veteran Kuki leader P.S. Haokip, president of the Kuki National Organisation (KNO), all the Kuki tribals are Bnei Menashe with Jewish roots, and about 90% of those in Manipur are Christians. He claims that “they were brothers and descendants of Manasseh, as God clearly revealed to His servants, Rev. Chomlhum and Pastor Hnamthinkhum, in 2011”. Before converting to Christianity, these tribal people who followed Jewish customs were worshippers of nature, of pythons, lakes, and hills, he adds.

The long wait

While they await the green signal from the Israeli government, Singsit and Zivah have shifted to a rented accommodation in the district headquarters town of Churachandpur.

In their home, the Star of David hangs on the wall. Singsit wears the Kippah, like many others in Churachandpur, which indicates that they are followers of Judaism. They have given up eating pork, a dietary mainstay of the tribal community, and have switched to chicken, beef and vegetables. They also recite their prayers in Hebrew thrice a day, and observe Sabbath on Saturday, in keeping with the faith.

Their two older sons have not embraced Judaism and live in their village Keiphelmandi, in Kangpokpi district, about 100 km away. But they are not alone as their third and youngest son, Naomi Singsit, and his wife, Meir Singsit, have embraced Judaism and are living with them. “We love India as we were born and educated here. But we want to go and live in Israel, the land of our forefathers,” says 31-year-old Naomi.

Members of the Bnei Menashe
Council in Kangpokpi district, Manipur.

Members of the Bnei Menashe Council in Kangpokpi district, Manipur.   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

 

Some of their relatives are already living in Israel. While Aviala, the widowed daughter of Singsit and Zivah, emigrated to Israel along with her son and daughter in 2007, Zivah’s father and brother have also moved to Israel. Aviala’s son has already joined the Israeli defence service after completing his military training, as it is mandatory under law to join the armed forces on turning 18.

Uncertainty, however, prevails over the Singsit family’s planned move to Israel as they have not been shortlisted so far, even as those shortlisted two years ago are yet to leave. The process of immigration is a complicated one involving extensive counselling of the Bnei Menashe and intense scrutiny of their religious orientation by a rabbi sent by Shavei Israel, an Israel-based voluntary organisation that facilitates the immigration of the followers of Judaism.

Strengthening the ‘living link’

After verifying the applicants’ ability to recite prayers in Hebrew and observe the tenets of Judaism, the Bnei Menashe Council and Shavei Israel shortlist the names of those who qualify for immigration. Shavei Israel facilitates the entire process of immigration in coordination with the Israeli government, and arranges funds for aspiring emigrants. Those shortlisted by Shavei Israel in 2014 are now leaving in phases.

While taking care of his family with his pension money, Singsit spends time at Bnei Menashe Council India, which operates from the premises of the Shavei Israel Hebrew Centre in Churachandpur town. Other followers of Judaism, including women and children, offer prayers at the synagogue there. The Bnei Menashe Council observed its silver jubilee in 2001.

The Shavei Israel Centre, founded in 2004 by Michael Freund, Chairman of Shavei Israel, claims that it does not proselytise or support any form of missionary activity. But it does sponsor rabbis and teachers to work with various groups of lost Jews in places as far as India, and in many other countries where the ‘lost tribes’ have been found to be living.

As conversion to Judaism remains a precondition for the Bnei Menashe tribals to immigrate to Israel, Shavei Israel offers various educational options in Israel, including Machon Miriam, the only Spanish-language conversion and return institute in Jerusalem.

For the past 15 years, Shavei Israel has been assisting members of the Bnei Menashe community of northeastern India to fulfil their dream of returning to the Land of Israel, according to Freund.

In an email interview, Freund said: “Shavei Israel invests a great deal of time, energy and resources in helping the Bnei Menashe with their absorption in the Jewish state and we will continue to do whatever we can to facilitate this process. As relations between Israel and India continue to grow stronger, I am confident that the Bnei Menashe will play an increasingly important role in bringing our two countries even closer together.”

Observing that the Bnei Menashe people are a living link between two great countries and civilisations, Israel and India, Freund pointed out that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel earlier this year in July, hundreds of Bnei Menashe immigrants gathered to greet him, along with other Indian Jews living in the country.

“This is a tangible sign of how the Bnei Menashe people help deepen the bond between our countries. It is a testament to India and its democracy that the Bnei Menashe people are free to practise their faith openly. Unlike Jews in Europe, who are experiencing a growing wave of anti-Semitism, the Bnei Menashe have not experienced any discrimination or hatred in India, and we are grateful to the Indian government for enabling the Bnei Menashe to observe the tenets of Judaism without fear,” said Freund.

The Bnei Menashe people who have immigrated to Israel receive Israeli citizenship and new immigrant status after completing various bureaucratic processes that could take several months. “The pace of the immigration as well as various other aspects is decided by the Israeli government, not by Shavei Israel,” he clarified. “Judaism is not a missionary religion. Hence, Shavei Israel works only with those Bnei Menashe who observe the tenets of Judaism.”

He added: “At the current pace, it could take over a decade for the immigration to be completed, which is far too long. I hope that the Israeli government will speed up the process so that the Bnei Menashe can return to the land of their ancestors as soon as possible.”

The reluctant non-converts

As uncertainty haunts the followers of Judaism, about 100 km from Churachandpur, a large group of people offering prayers at the Bnei Menashe Messianic Council synagogue at Kangpokpi tell this correspondent that they too wish to immigrate to Israel, but are stuck as they don’t want to convert to Judaism.

More than 40 people from Kangpokpi immigrated to Israel between 1997 and 2017, after they accepted Judaism as their religion. About 200 people who have started practising Judaism are waiting for their turn to go there, says T. Menashe, president of the Messianic Council. While he says that Christians are abandoning Christianity and embracing Judaism in the hope of a better quality of life in Israel, other locals claim that they are leaving only because of their conviction that they are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.

Pointing out that those who follow Judaism believe in the Old Testament of the Bible and don’t accept the inspiration of the New Testament, Menashe says that the members of the Messianic Council in Kangpokpi, numbering about 1,000, who follow some Jewish traditions but are actually followers of Jesus Christ, cannot go to Israel unless they change their religion from Christianity to Judaism.

“Although many messianic people have been living in Israel, the messianic tribal people of Manipur wanting to return to the land of their ancestors are unable to go because the Shavei Israel organisation is not accepting them or facilitating their immigration. We have given several memorandums to the Israeli government and Shavei Israel to take us to Israel without requiring us to convert to Judaism,” he says.

“As a lost tribe of Israel, we long to go back to our promised land. We envy those of our brothers who have immigrated to Israel. The reason we cannot go is our faith in Yeshua (Jesus Christ), our adherence to Christianity,” says Joel Janglun, a senior member of the Messianic Council. His daughter, Kimeha, married to a rabbi of the locality, immigrated to Israel with her husband and has been living there for the past eight years.

While some Kukis who embraced Judaism in recent years have immigrated, and many are eagerly awaiting their turn to leave, there are lakhs of Kukis in the hill districts of Manipur who have no plans to leave India.

According to Haokip, the hopes and aspirations of this vast majority flow in a different direction. They are more interested in fighting for a separate State for the Bnei Menashe tribal people within the framework of the Indian Constitution, he says.

“We are descendants of Manasseh, but don’t want to immigrate to Israel. We are happy as Indians,” says Haokip. He, however, is not opposed to any member of the Kuki tribe embracing Judaism and emigrating to Israel. “I don’t oppose those emigrating to Israel. It’s a question of faith and religion.”

Claiming that there are about six lakh Kuki tribal people in Manipur, Haokip says that he wants the establishment of a Kuki State comprising the six hill districts of Churachandpur, Chandel, Tengnoupal, Kangpokpi, Pherzawl and Kamjong.

The KNO is not the only organisation of Kuki tribal people fighting for a separate State. Many Kuki outfits that have been fighting separately for long are now coming together to take up this demand and put an end to the economic disparity that exists between the valley and the hilly areas of Manipur. They point out that the valley and the hills are yet to have a rail link connecting them despite the fact that it was the latter that contributed the Manipuri classical dance to the country and polo to the world, and continues to supply jawans and officers to the Indian defence forces and officers to the police service.

Haokip has been organising Kut, an annual festival of brotherhood in Manipur where Bnei Menashe tribes from different northeastern States and neighbouring countries are invited. The festival aims to promote unity among the Bnei Menashe descendants.

“It is sad to see one-sided news reports, and news channels claiming that there are only 8,000 people in Manipur and Mizoram who belong to the lost tribes,” says Caleb Boigund, a Manipuri Christian whose father, Khuplam Milui Lenthang, has written a book on tribes in northeast India with Jewish links. “In fact, there are several lakhs of Kuki-Mizo (Menashe) tribal people in northeast India, where 7,000-8,000 people have converted to Judaism. But migration to Israel requires unnecessary conversion into Judaism. I believe in my own faith and I am also happy being an Indian. Until conversion to Judaism and an immigration trial cease to be preconditions for the Menashe tribes to immigrate to Israel [which is unlikely], I will happily live here,” Boigund says.

Says Rebecca Jubai, a young girl from Kangpokpi town: “We don’t wish to emigrate to Israel since we were born as Indians. But we have come to know of the religion that our forefathers used to practise, and we are now doing the same.”

A matter of identity

George T. Haokip, assistant professor of Political Science and Human Rights at the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University, echoes her sentiments. “I am a Christian with Jewish roots. But I do not think it is obligatory or necessary to emigrate to Israel as a Jewish descendent. There are Jewish populations everywhere. It is a matter of one’s identity, history and origin. Some Kukis who are adopting Orthodox Judaism would think of Israel as their religious ‘original home’ or Zion. It is their individual faith and conviction. Having Jewish ancestrydoes not mean that Kukis are refugees in India. In Manipur, Kukis are as old as the land itself and they have their own right to self-determination,” he says.

He, however, observes that the ‘lost tribe fever’ has overwhelmed the Kukis of Manipur, particularly in recent years, sparking claims and counterclaims between pro-Jewish and Christian groups.

“Though all the Kuki people agree that they are the descendants of Israel, there is a division among them,” George says. “This is seen in the adoption of different religions. No Christian can immigrate into Israel. It requires a rigorous study of the Hebrew language and conversion rituals. There are many Christians in Manipur who believe that converting to Judaism in order to immigrate to Israel is an attempt to escape poverty. Pro-Jewish groups, however, justify emigration as the fulfilment of a dream they have carried with them during their exile.”

In the lush green valleys and hills of Churachandpur, the disengagement of the state with its people becomes apparent. In 2006, it was categorised as one of the country’s most impoverished districts by the Central government. The vast majority of its population, the Kukis, depends on agriculture and the forest for their livelihood. For many of them, Israel is not only the land of their ancient past but also a metaphor for a better future.

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 12:59:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/the-lost-jews-of-churachandpur/article21244204.ece

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