Tuesday December 18, 2018

Bnei Menashe: India’s Jewish “Lost Tribe” comes across tough times in Israel

Supposedly, Bnei Menashe is one of the lost tribes of Israel, with a Jewish lineage

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The Western Wall of Israel. Image Source : Wikimedia Commons
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  • Hanoch Haokip, who belongs to the Bnei Menashe tribe, claims that his tribe is one of the lost tribes of Israel, with a Jewish lineage
  • These people who belong to Bnei Menashe live in the West Bank of Israel, where they are treated with contempt and have to face racism
  • There is the Shavei Israel, who aid the immigration of these Bnei Menashe members along with the Jewish Agency

Hanoch Haokip belongs to a small tribe of indigenous people in East India. He claims that he is the descendant of one of the lost tribes of Israel, with a Jewish lineage. Even though ethnographers are not entirely sure of the claim, Haokip is certain. He made that clear in an interview in Akko town of Israel, his current residence. He said that they were time and again questioned by the rabbis of Israel during their official conversion.

The Haokip family. Image Source : shavei.org
The Haokip family. Image Source : shavei.org

“Of course, you understand that the rabbinate, the government, needs to do these things,” said Zeev Wagner, a member of an Orthodox social welfare group associated with Shavei Israel, to Forward.com. This organisation is responsible for bringing Haokip and other members of his group to Israel, right after they had claimed to be a part of Israel’s lost tribes.

Haokip seemed worried about the influence of Israel’s secular society on his young children. He says that the government should try to bring them closer to their culture and how they often are confronted with racism. Haokip stressed on the fact that he identified with Zionism and he had come there along with his people to become Jews and not Israelis.

The Akko tower, where families like that of the Haokips live. Image Source : Wikimedia Commons
The Akko tower, where families like that of the Haokips live. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Jewish Agency which is the organisation widely known for arranging for immigration for the Jews sided with the Shavei Israel for the Bnei Menashe immigration. The Shavei Israel is accused of exploiting the Bnei Menashe people and settling them down on the Jewish West Bank where they consider the group as illegal since they derive their support from Israel.

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The major portion of the Bnei Menashe residents in the Jewish Western Bank is made up of youths whose parents are absent. Thus they have to work long hours and become easily exposed to drugs and alcohol. Haokip believes that about 90% of Bnei Menashe youth have “lost their way” basically because they are confused about which culture they should follow.

Rabbi. Image Source : feujn.org
Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail. Image Source : feujn.org

Originally, the Bnei Menashe identified themselves as descendants of one of the sons of Joseph. Their culture is about 2,700 years old. Some of the distinct groups of this tribe are Mizo, Kuki and Chin peoples, a conglomerate of different tribes speaking various dialects of Tibeto-Burman languages. It was about 400 years ago that this community came to settle down in Manipur and Mizoram in India. In India, they were converted twice. Once when Christian missionaries forcefully converted many people into Protestant Christians and then again when they were encountered by an Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem, Eliyahu Avichail. He was the one who coined the name “Bnei Menashe” for them and encouraged their return to Judaism.

The members of the Bnei Menashe entering Israel in 2006. Image Source : ynetnews.com
The members of the Bnei Menashe entering Israel in 2006. Image Source : ynetnews.com

In the early 2000s, the immigration issue of the Bnei Menashe become very prominent and was backed by certain religious groups. In 2006, a huge number of the tribe came to Israel. Michael Freund has declared the group to be “seed of Israel” meaning that they are a group whose religious identity does not recognise them as Jewish but their proven links to Jewish ancestry has given them the right to immigrate to Israel. But again, in 2015, a report by Judy Maltz, a Haaretz reporter said that the Bnei Menashe have no proof of their connection to a Jewish ancestry.

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Since 2005, no organisation had supported the immigration of Bnei Menashe. “For a country struggling to find potential new sources of immigration,” Freund had explained to Forward, “groups such as the Bnei Menashe and others like them might very well provide the answer.”

The Bnei Menashe people were greeted heartily by Israel upon their arrival in 2006. Image Source : ivarfjeld.com
The Bnei Menashe people were greeted heartily by Israel upon their arrival in 2006. Image Source : ivarfjeld.com

Several genetic examinations have been done to find out the truth about the origin of Bnei Menashe. Karl Skorecki had conducted such a resource and had found no evidence that would link them to the Middle east origin. Further study was conducted in India where the Bnei Menashe’s claim was proven true. However, the Indian Centre has been accused of being careless with the DNA sequencing. But Karl Skorecki had admitted that sometimes it becomes impossible to identify a group with their ancestors when thousands of years have passed in between.

Goita, lighting a candle. Image Source : forward.com
Goita, lighting a candle. Image Source : forward.com

Many of the orphaned children of the Bnei Menashe community have said that their adoptive Israeli mothers take very good care of them and have saved them from an unhealthy lifestyle. “Since arriving at the age of 8, I’ve learned to connect with the land, to have the confidence to fulfil and defend the promises of Zionism,” said Goita to the Forward.com. “This is something that we were always yearning for back home in India.” He appreciates how social workers like Beit Miriam celebrate “Roots Night” for them to remember their cultural and religious heritage.

Shimrit Zentusawn Ngaihte, who is a 20-year-old Bnei Menashe member, is sad about the fact that she has a very limited vocabulary of Hebrew. So, in order to become better at her mother tongue, she had petitioned the government to increase their tenure of the Hebrew language classes from five to eight months. As the Bnei Menashe community continues to grow in Israel, with more and more immigrants coming in, this step taken by Shimrit has become essential.

-This article is modified by Aitreyee Sengupta, an intern at NewsGram.

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  • Aparna Gupta

    Tribes are always most vulnerable part of a community and this is prevalent in case of Bnei Menashe in Israel.

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Puja for The Spiritualism, Not for Vulgar Entertainment

The westerners practicing Hinduism have learned a pretty well from our "scriptures" and are becoming more spiritual while we just locked up those "holy books" only in the drawers of the altar. Thus we only love to shake our “butts to the boom-boom of Bollywood”.. right in front of the Gods' idols !!!

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Hinduism
he westerners practicing Hinduism have learned a pretty well from our "scriptures"

By Salil Gewali

Any auspicious days in Hinduism are expected to be observed with a complete purity of action and thought. The same holds true for other religions too. As per the Hindu scriptures, the believers are required to stay away from any kind of sense gratifications, particularly when the specific days are dedicated to Gods and Goddess such as Navratri, Laxmi Puja, Krishna Janmashtami, Shivaratri, to name a few. The pathway to devotion and spiritualism should not be “desecrated” by the blot of the brazen entertainment. The scriptures logically explain why it is antithetical, and its adverse consequences.

Hindusim
Incidentally, the Bhagavad Gita describes such situation as the rise of “tamasic vibes”.

 But, what a huge irony, rather a blasphemy that many people these days have started to choose the auspicious days of Gods to satisfy their base senses. Without a wee bit of regret, a certain class of people holds almost every auspicious day as the most “unmissable” occasion to booze with the friends, and what not, and stagger back home, lol! Such bizarre practices are fast catching now than ever.  Sadly, hardly any conscious people and spiritual organizations stand up and take the right measures to check such godless deviations.

What is quite unpleasant is that such a kind of unholy practices are often being facilitated by certain “Hindu intuitions” as well. On this past Laxmi Puja, the “propitious time” to perform the ritual had fallen between 6 PM to 7:53 PM. Yours truly decided to use that span of time for meditation. But hell broke loose. Apart from fireworks around, the Bollywood songs in high decibel burst forth from a certain Hindu institution quite frustrated the mission.

Hindusim
Sadhu Sanga Retreat, 2016

 One senior citizen laments – “Nothing could be irreligious than the fact that a favorable time for “puja” is also being used for the wrongful purposes. We rather expect the “Hindu institutions” to teach our children Bhajan, Kirtan, and other spiritual activities, not the loud and feverish parties and disturb others.”

Another college student adds “Having been much disturbed by the noise pollution, I have persuaded my parents to shift our place of residence to elsewhere, not at least near holy places with an unholy mission. I have started to see such institutions with the eyes of suspicion these says.” Is it that our institutions are unable to use their “discretion”, and as a result, they fail to differentiate between right and wrong?  One is deeply apprehensive that Bollywood songs and vulgar dances might as well be included as a part of the “puja ritual” as we have long accepted the fun of fireworks bursting as an integral part of Laxmi Puja which in fact is just an entrenched “misconception”.

Hinduism
Hinduism is expected to be observed with a complete purity of action

Needless to say, our roar for consumerism has almost drowned the whisper of inherent spiritualism. We are only just sending out the wrong messages. I’m afraid, the whole culture itself might be looked down with derision by other faiths. It might just become a subject of ridicule! It is no exaggeration, such negative notions against the “wrong practices” are all what we often read these days in several newspapers and social media. Do we want others to demean our profound spiritual heritage thus?  I believe it calls for a serious soul-searching.

Incidentally, the Bhagavad Gita describes such situation as the rise of “tamasic vibes”.  It warns in the strongest terms that mankind should absolutely be careful not to fall under the influence of any short-lived sense gratifications. Or else, our endeavor to “practice and preserve” the sanctity of a religion/spiritualism will be a futile exercise.

However, on the other hand, the westerners practicing Hinduism have learned a pretty well from our “scriptures” and are becoming more spiritual while we just locked up those “holy books” only in a drawer of the altar. Thus we only love to shake our “butts to the boom-boom of Bollywood”.. right in front of the Gods’ idols !!!

Salil Gewali is a well-known writer and author of ‘Great minds on India’.

Twitter:@SGewali.