Israeli ‘Lost Tribes’ Living in W. Bank
SHAVEI SHOMRON, West Bank (AP) – Some 2,700 years ago, 10 of the 12 biblical tribes of Israel were driven from the Holy Land into exile and the mists of history. Now, a group claiming descent from one of the lost tribes can be found sitting in a bomb shelter in a West Bank Jewish settlement, learning Hebrew.
Members of the group from northeastern India call themselves the “Bnei Menashe,” or children of Menashe, and believe they are descendants of the Israelite tribe of Manasseh.
The return of the “lost tribes” to their ancient homeland is viewed by some as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and a herald of the Messiah.
Others see the return as an opportunity to boost the numbers of Jews living in Israel in what they see as a demographic war with the Palestinians.
However, the Israeli government, while also concerned about the demographic question, is equally perturbed by the thought of thousands of refugees from developing nations flooding into the country with dubious historical links to the Jewish people.
Leaders including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have talked of the necessity of pulling out of parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to ensure that a minimum number of Palestinians will end up under Israeli rule.
However, Michael Freund, who heads an organization responsible for bringing the Bnei Menashe and similar groups to Israel, feels Israel needs to be more creative in its efforts to enlarge the Jewish population instead of giving up land.
“Israel needs to think more creatively. We need to reach out to groups around the world who have a historical connection,” Freund said.
The Bnei Menashe claim this connection.
After the reign of the biblical King Solomon, the tribes of Israel split into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judea in south. In 723 B.C. the Assyrians conquered the kingdom of Israel and took the 10 tribes into exile, where they dispersed among the nations.
Living in the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, the Bnei Menashe, who number about 6,000, were originally animists who were converted to Christianity by British missionaries in the 19th century. In 1953, a tribal leader named Mlanchala had a dream in which his people would return to Israel, which led the tribe to adopt Jewish tradition.
However, their links to the Jewish people could not be proven, so they were not eligible to emigrate to Israel under Israeli law, which gives Jews the right to automatic citizenship.
Nevertheless, Freund’s group, Amishav – or “my people returns” – brought about 800 of the Bnei Menashe to Israel in the last decade and helped them undergo Orthodox conversions to Judaism.
Freund says he is convinced they are a lost tribe, pointing to many of their customs, including family purity laws, mourning rights and the use of a lunar calendar that closely mirror Jewish traditions.
Also, Freund says, the Bnei Menashe have ancient songs and chants that echo the Biblical themes of crossing the Red Sea and returning to Zion.
Finding a home in the West Bank settlement of Shavei Shomron – on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Nablus – the latest group of 80 Bnei Menashe to come to Israel have just completed their conversion course.
Now they spend most of their days studying Hebrew in a converted bomb shelter that serves as a classroom.
“It is a very hard language for us,” says Shimon Chenkwal, 25, an ambulance driver who came to Israel with his wife and three small children.
Sitting in the family’s simple prefab home, a map of Israel the only decoration on the bare walls, Chenkwal says the Bnei Menashe are content. “It is good that we are in the land of Israel, it is good for our souls.”
Not only are the Bnei Menashe a potential weapon in the demographic conflict, but they have also ended up strengthening the settlements.
Netanel Hnamte, 49, one of the newest arrivals, said he knew before he came that he would be going to a settlement and was not bothered by living near Nablus, despite frequent Palestinian attacks. Palestinians consider the settlements illegal encroachment on land they claim for a state.
“I am not afraid,” Hnamte said.
However, Freund said the decision to place the Bnei Menashe on settlements was not political, but economical. The settlements are the only communities willing to host the Indian settlers, who are getting no financial support from the government, he said.
After completing their conversion, the Bnei Menashe live observant Jewish lives. The men wear large skullcaps and traditional fringes on their shirts. The married women all have their heads covered with wigs or scarves.
However, this group could be the last to come to Israel. Six months ago, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz froze the program indefinitely.
Freund is determined to bring the rest of the Bnei Menashe to Israel in the next 10 years. “People speak with disdain about the Third World. People should not be judged geographically but by character,” he said. “If they have a sincere commitment to Judaism, the color of their skin does not matter.”
Tibi Rabinovitch, a spokesman for Poraz, said the minister needed time to examine the issue.
“When we get all the details we will make a decision,” Rabinovitch said, but conceded the ministry was concerned by an influx of people seeking Israeli citizenship through claims to an ancient connection.
“It is clear that Israel as a developed country is a very attractive place to people from the Third World,” Rabinovitch said.