Shimon Gangte looks Asian, speaks the English of the MTV generation and wears the black skullcap of an orthodox Jew. He grew up in a remote Hindu area on the border between India and Burma— where he attended a Catholic school. It may seem a confusing hybrid of identities. But Gangte, witty and confident at 24, has no doubts: he is a devout member of the B’nei Menashe (Sons of Manasseh), a Jewish community of 5,000 people found in the northeast Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram, as well as Burma, who believe they hail from one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. They are a sect within the region’s larger community of 1.5 million Menmasseh, who had folklore and observances that resembled Jewish customs long before the arrival of western missionaries in 1894 prompted a large-scale conversion to Christianity. For generations Gangte’s people have circumcised their sons, donned sacred fringed shawls similar to the Jewish prayer shawl, told legends and sang songs about a
holy scroll and a sea dividing, as in the biblical account of the exodus from Egypt.
“I remember being in the garden with my mother when I was about nine,” rabbinic student Gangte told Maclean’s in an interview while teaching at a Jewish seminary north of Toronto. “We felt an earthquake tremor and
she immediately faced toward Jerusalem and recited the prayer, We the sons of Menashe are still alive and here. God is looking for us.’ ” War appears to have found them first. Caught in Manipur’s ethnic violence between the Naga tribe and the Menmasseh, Gangte’s people have suffered many casualties, as well as the torching of several homes and at least two synagogues. “People are killed every day. Their status as outsiders is clear,” says Felix Golubev of Toronto, chairman of the newly formed Friends of B’nei Menashe, an ad hoc group of 10 Jewish Canadian activists who have sprung to their aid. Golubev was in Manipur in March, working with Toronto-based filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, who is preparing a documentary, Quest for the Lost Tribes, for broadcast on CBC television this fall. We realized that these people are in danger,” said Golubev. “It is urgent.” The Canadians were also moved by the level of religious commitment they witnessed. “These people felt very Jewish to me,” said Golubev. “My heart went out to them.”
Since April, the Friends have raised $6,000 in Canada which they are sending to an Israeli rabbi who has spent his career tracing and educating Jews who he believes were cut off from their brethren 2,700 years ago. Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail is investigating whether the Menashe (named for Joseph’s older son) are an offshoot of the Shinlung cave dwellers who, according to local oral traditions, arrived in Kaifeng, China, around 240 B.C. by way of Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet. In the 1950s, a spiritual leader of the by-then Protestant Menmasseh had a prophetic dream
about returning to the Jewish fold, and for the past decade the rabbi has been helping them do that. He has quietly managed to resettle more than 300 in Israel, taking them in on tourist visas a handful at a time and making sure they formally convert to Judaism to dispel any doubts about their origins. For Avichail it is part of a messianic destiny as written in Isaiah 27:13: “And they shall come who were lost in the Land of Assyria, and the outcasts in the land of Egypt.”
Now the Canadian Jewish Congress has picked up the gauntlet, lobbying to have the B’nei Menashe formally recognized by Israeli authorities so they can immigrate in larger numbers—much as 50,000 Ethiopian Jews, known as Falashas, were finally let in, many of them airlifted into Israel in 1983-1984 and 1991. Late last month, CJC President Moshe Ronen raised the B’nei Menashe’s plight in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and requested immediate visas for 211 young people from two villages in the district of Churachandpur that were attacked by Naga militants several months ago. Ronen says Netanyahu was “extremely sympathetic” but that the Interior Ministry is dragging its feet, mindful of difficulties Israel has had in absorbing both Ethiopian and Russian Jews in recent years. “This issue is relatively simple to solve for Israel,” says Ronen of the B’nei Menashe. “We are not talking about tens of thousands of people. But the Israelis are worried that this would be an opening for many more people seeking refuge.”
The issue strikes to the heart of the ‘Who is a Jew?” debate that has long raged both inside and outside Israel. In response to a history of persecution, modern Israel has a Law of Return that grants immediate Israeli citizenship and a benefits package to any Jew who immigrates. Until the 1980s, that meant mainly Ashkenazi Jews from northern Europe and Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. They tend to be descended from two of the biblical 12 tribes of Israel, the tribes of Benjamin and Levi—named after two sons of Jacob. But in 722 B.C., about 150 years before the ancestors of modern Jews were expelled to Babylon, the 10 northern tribes were dispersed to Assyria. Now, several groups around the world—in Ghana, Peru and Uganda among other unlikely places—claim to be Jews. The Ethiopians, for example, believe themselves to be from the lost tribe of Dan.
Tudor Parfitt, a University of London historian, has been testing DNAto find evidence of links to Jewish origins. He has found positive matches between the male Y chromosome of modern-day Jews descended from the priestly Cohen caste, and the Lemba tribe
of southern Africa as well as the B’nei Israel group of Jews living near Bombay, India. Parfitt was recently refused a visa into wartorn Manipur, where he hoped to test the B’nei Menashe, whose links to Jewish lineage he doubts, despite the sincerity of their faith. ‘We have no historic evidence to support their story,” Parfitt told Maclean’s. “All religions in the world are constantly evolving. These people are one of many groups.” Parfitt doubts there are lost tribes to be found, saying few people remained in exile after the expulsion to Assyria, and those who did likely assimilated quickly with the local population. But he finds it fascinating that 50 years after the Holocaust, a growing number of groups are claiming to be Jewish. “It’s an extraordinary development,” he says.
For the Israeli government, that trend is a mixed blessing. Bobby Brown, Netanyahu’s adviser on diaspora affairs, says that as Israel’s per-capita GDP has boomed to the level of the average European country, it has become “an attractive place for people in poverty.” Nobody in Israel expected that huge numbers of non-Jews would have to be accepted for family unification and humanitarian reasons after the doors opened to the Ethiopian and Russian Jews. ‘When you start, you don’t know where you’ll finish,” says Brown. ‘We have an interest, we want to help. But we want to approach this very carefully.” Besides, he says, the country’s absorption facilities are currently being stretched by the recent arrival of 4,000 Falas Mora, an offshoot of the Ethiopian Falasha community.
But resources are not the issue, says Ronen, who feels that the prime minister’s office could “pick up the phone” and clear the way
for B’nei Menashe visas if it felt sufficient public pressure. “If they say they don’t have the funds, I don’t buy that excuse,” says Ronen. “The United Israel Appeal could raise a few million dollars.” He also says that even though the B’nei Menashe are not as destitute, or facing as severe a threat as the faminestricken Falashas were in the 1980s, it is a “cop out” for Israel to withhold aid until their conversions are complete. Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Doron has already recognized their conversions and approved the entry of 211 new applicants under a Jewish law that mandates aid to needy “safek” Jews—those whose identity is not 100-per-cent clear.
Jacobovici, who made a movie about the Falashas 15 years ago, feels an alarming sense of déjà vu about the current Israeli approach. As for genetic testing, it “smacks of racism,” he says. “No one claims that Jews are genetically pure people,” he adds. “This group has maintained an Israelite memory, a tradition, an identification with an Israelite past. After 2,700 years they claim they are ready to re-enter the Israelite nation. That has to be taken seriously.”
Shimon Gangte, meanwhile, has returned to Jerusalem to complete his rabbinic studies after three months in Canada. “Now I speak Canadian, eh?” he jokes about the latest idiom he has added to his roster of Indian dialects, Hebrew, and a smattering of Yiddish. “I even like gefilte fish,” he says of the eastern European Jewish holiday dish. But when he thinks of home, Gangte turns serious. “I’m the first from my tribe to come this far,” he says. “I feel I could help them out.” His goal now: to return to Manipur as the first ordained rabbi from his community. “God willing,” he adds. □
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