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Bring the Bnei Menashe Home to Israel
By Michael Freund
Courtesy: Jerusalam Post July 24, 2002



Several time zones away, in the northeastern reaches of India, live thousands of men and women longing to join the Jewish people. Scattered throughout the towns and villages of the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, they follow Jewish law, observe the Sabbath and festivals, and even pray in Hebrew, turning their faces, and dreams, toward Zion.

Known as the Bnei Menashe, or “children of Manasseh”, they believe they are descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Menashe, which was exiled by the Assyrians from the Land of Israel over 2,700 years ago. Despite centuries of wandering, they preserved fragments of their ancient Jewish heritage, and now they wish to return to their people.

Earlier this year, together with Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum of the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail of the Amishav organization, and Rabbi David Avichail of Mitzpe Ramon, I traveled to India to visit the community and see firsthand how they live. What we found was nothing less than an inspiring lesson in the power of Jewish memory.

Though British missionaries arrived in the area over a century ago and succeeded in converting them, the Bnei Menashe’s Jewish consciousness remains strong. Customs practiced until the missionaries’ arrival included circumcision on the eighth day after birth, levirate marriage, and sacrificial rites tantalizingly close to those of ancient Israel.

An elderly man whose uncle had been a priest prior to the arrival of British missionaries described a spring-time sacrifice in which the meat had to be carefully removed from the bones lest any of them break, something that would invalidate the offering. Blood from the animal’s carcass was smeared on the doorposts. Needless to say, the similarity with the laws of the ancient Passover sacrifice is striking.

The man also recited some of the sacrificial chants he had been taught as a child, songs which lauded the exodus of his ancestors from Egypt, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and, of course Manasseh, who is viewed as the Bnei Menashe’s forebear.

Even the Christians in Mizoram, such as the storekeepers, merchants and professionals whom we encountered, all acknowledge their Israelite ancestry.

Rabbi Avichail is the Bnei Menashe’s spiritual mentor and guide. He first learned of them over two decades ago and, after carefully investigating their claims, came to the conclusion that they were in fact “lost Jews”. After our recent trip to the area, Rabbi Riskin, Rabbi Birnbaum and myself all came away equally persuaded.

Don’t forget – this would not be the first time that a lost tribe has been found. Take, for example, the Ethiopian Jews, whose aliyah to Israel was nothing less than a modern-day miracle. When the Chief Rabbinate ruled in 1973 that they were Jews, the decision was based in part on the belief that the Ethiopians were descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Dan.

Since that historic ruling, tens of thousands of Ethiopians have come to Israel, bolstering the country and adding some much-needed demographic reinforcements to its Jewish population. There is no reason for the Bnei Menashe to be treated any differently.

Indeed, over the past decade, some 600 Bnei Menashe have managed to come to Israel. All have undergone formal conversion by the Chief Rabbinate to remove any doubts about their status, and all have received Israeli citizenship. They serve in the army, live observant Jewish lifestyles and are productive members of Israeli society.

One member of the community recently received rabbinical ordination and now works in Jewish outreach, while another is a certified religious scribe whose quill has produced beautiful Scrolls of Esther. Still another has enlisted in an elite combat unit, risking his life in defense of the Jewish state.

Two years ago, the Interior Ministry inexplicably decided to freeze the Bnei Menashe aliyah. After intense lobbying of senior government ministers and high-level bureaucratic officials, Rabbi Avichail and I recently succeeded in getting the Bnei Menashe aliyah reinstated, and 100 of them are slated to arrive in Israel later this year.

But there are still thousands of others waiting to join their family and friends in the Holy Land. At the rate of just 100 per year, it will take decades to bring them all here. That is neither fair nor reasonable.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly spoken of the demographic challenge facing Israel in the next decade, one that will require a massive influx of Jews from abroad to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish state. With aliyah from the former Soviet Union drying up, and only small numbers of Western Jews making the move, the long-lost Jews of Mizoram and Manipur might just provide the answer.

The Bnei Menashe will be loyal citizens and good Jews. They are kind and soft-spoken people, with strong family values and a deep abiding faith in the Torah. They are hard-working and earnest, and the arrival of thousands of them will be a true blessing for Israeli society.

The time has come to bring Manasseh’s children home. The time has come to bring the Bnei Menashe to Israel.


The writer served as Deputy Director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Prime Minister’s Office from 1996 to 1999.

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