.Posted: Jun 29 2000

India's tribal Jews
look to the promised land

India News

GUWAHATI, India, June 29 (AFP) - Thousands of people in India's far northeast are eyeing a possible future life in Israel, saying they are the direct descendants of one of the Biblical 10 lost tribes.

"I have found through exhaustive research that the Shinlung tribe, found along the Indo-Myanmar border, were descendants of the Manasseh tribe, one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel," said Zaithanchhungi (Eds: one name), a researcher and author of "Israel-Mizo Identity".

The local Mizos, the dominant tribe in Christian-majority Mizoram, are believed to be a branch of the Shinlung and "have very many things in common with the Jews in Israel," Zaithanchhungi added.

Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, who runs the private, Jerusalem-based Amishav Associaton, which deals with claims of descendancy from the 10 lost tribes, visited Mizoram in 1994 and claimed to have identified 3,500 tribe members who were practising Jews.

According to Israeli law every Jew enjoys the "right of return" -- or the right of abode in Israel.

"All the Mizo Jews have the cherished dream to migrate to Israel so that we can practice our religion correctly," said Rebecca Sala, a 32-year-old Mizo woman.

"Here you cannot expect to observe your religion in a proper manner," Sala told AFP by phone from the Mizoram capital, Aizawla.

"But now it is becoming very difficult to migrate to Israel as the government has become stricter. There is a lot more scrutiny and endless formalities to go through."

The problem for the Israeli authorities is the number of Mizos who may seek to take advantage of the "right of return."

A Mizoram-based group called the Shinlung-Israel People's Convention, submitted a report to the Israeli embassy here and to the United Nations, putting the number of Shinlungs in Mizoram at around 800,000.

The report said another 720,000 were living in the neighbouring states of Manipur, Assam and Tripura.

Israel has noticeably kept its distance from the issue, stressing it has done nothing to promote the conversion or migration of any tribals.

"The state of Israel is not behind the arrival of this community to Israel or the process of their conversion," said Dan Stav, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in New Delhi.

One embassy official, who declined to be identified, said the question of locating descendants of the 10 lost tribes was fraught with problems.

"It is always very difficult to validate such claims, because sometimes the motivation is more socio-economic than religious," the official said.

The Shinlung Jews are also not recognised by the mainstream Jewish community in India, which only numbers around 4,000.

"For the moment, the Jewish status of these tribals has not been clearly defined," said David Nahoum, a Jewish community leader in Calcutta.

An Israeli anthropologist currently visiting Mizoram said it was "almost impossible" to verify modern claims to descendancy from the lost tribes.

"One thing is for sure, the Israeli government has to be careful about admitting anyone on the basis of such a claim," said the anthropologist, who declined to be identified.

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