On March 30, 2005, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, then-Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, published a ruling determining that the members of the northeastern-Indian group calling themselves Bnei Menashe were descended from the original tribe of Menashe (Menasseh), the son of Joseph. This paved the way for members to undergo conversion under the auspices of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, and to be considered eligible for immigration to Israel.
The people identifying as Bnei Menashe come from the Mizo, Kuku and Chin peoples, who live in what are today the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram. Though these tribes have no written history, oral traditions say they had to leave their original homeland, called Sinlung or Chhinlung. Anthropologists believe this was in what is today the Chinese state of Hunan, and that their exodus to the southwest began some 6,000 years ago. Their languages are Tibeto-Burman in origin.
In the 19th century, the region where the Mizo, Kuku and Chin now live was frequented by Christian missionaries, who converted most of them. Previously, they had been animists; their new religion combined elements of both their native traditions and Christianity.
Hebrew University anthropologist Shalva Weil has suggested the idea that their origins were in the Lost Tribes of Israel – who were sent into exile at the time of the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel, in the eighth century, B.C.E. – was adopted by the Bnei Menashe after their exposure to the Bible. They could have been encouraged in the belief by the fact that Christian missionaries were often on the lookout for communities that could be remnants of the Lost Tribes. Genetic testing done a decade ago, however, did not suggest a Middle Eastern origin for members of the Bnei Menashe.
More recently, when Israeli rabbi Eliyahu Avichayil made his initial visits to the region of India near the border with Burma (or Myanmar), he observed similarities between their traditions and the three pilgrimage festivals of Ancient Israel, as well as in customs related to birth and death. It was Avichayil who suggested calling them “Bnei Menashe,” in consideration of the pre-Christian tradition among some of the group that they are the descendants of a forebear named Manmasi.
Additionally, the Hmar spring harvest festival (the Hmar are a sub-tribe of the Mizo, Kuku and Chin peoples) has long been accompanied by recitation of a song that describes events bearing similarity to the biblical Exodus from Egypt. The “Sikpui Song” begins, for example, with the following lines: “While we are preparing for the Sikpui Feast / The big red sea becomes divided; / As we march along fighting our foes / We are being led by pillar of cloud by day…”
When Rabbi Avichayil, founder of the organization Amishav – which seeks out other communities with claims to Jewish heritage and a desire to adopt normative Orthodox Judaism and move en masse to Israel – came to Manipur and Mizoram states, he began helping them prepare for formal conversion. The 2005 ruling by Rabbi Amar gave an impetus to the process, and led to the construction of several synagogues and mikva’ot (ritual baths) in their villages. More recently, the Shavei Israel organization – led by Michael Freund, a former colleague of Avichayil’s – has been very active in working with the Bnei Menashe.
In the 1990s, some 900 Bnei Menashe had made aliyah, but the process came to a standstill in 2003, after then-Interior Minister Avraham Poraz decided to disallow them from immigrating. That decision was reversed by successive governments, and by January 2013 there were some 2,000 Bnei Menashe living in Israel, with up to another 7,000 in India said to be studying for conversion and preparing for aliyah.
Many of the new immigrants have been sent directly to West Bank settlements. Before the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Bnei Menashe made up the largest group of immigrants in the Strip’s Gush Katif settlements.
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