´Lost Tribe´ Finds Itself on Front Lines of Mideast Conflict
The New York Times
SHAVEI SHOMRON, West Bank, Dec. 16 — Sharon Palian and his fellow immigrants from India are still struggling with the Hebrew language and remain partial to homemade kosher curry rather than Israeli cuisine.
But the 71 immigrants, who arrived in June with the firm conviction that they were descended from one of the biblical lost tribes of Israel, feel they have completed a spiritual homecoming.
“This is my land,” said Mr. Palian, a 45-year-old widower who left a lush rice farm and brought his three children with him from the Bnei Menashe community in northeastern India. “I am coming home.”
Yet by making their home here, over the hill from the Palestinian city of Nablus, they have thrust themselves onto the front lines of the Middle East conflict.
“Israel can bring lost tribes from India, Alaska or Mars, as long as they put them inside Israel,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. “But to bring a lost person from India and have him find his land in Nablus is just outrageous.”
The Indians arrived as work began on a Middle East peace plan that would require Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has indicated that Israel may have to abandon some settlements, if not through a peace deal with the Palestinians, then as part of an imposed decision. That could affect communities like the Bnei Menashe, who are among 6,000 people who consider themselves Jews in two states in northeast India, Mizoram and Manipur, which are near the border with Myanmar, formerly Burma.
Already, Israel’s interior minister, Avraham Poraz, has frozen the program that has permitted about 100 members of the Bnei Menashe community to immigrate annually. He is concerned that people from poor countries are coming to Israel to upgrade their standard of living, rather than because of historical and religious Jewish ties.
Those already here have their own concerns. Palestinian assailants have carried out frequent ambushes on the isolated roads outside Shavei Shomron and on occasion have even slipped inside the community, through a fence around the perimeter and despite an army encampment attached to the settlement.
While Israel has been building what it describes as a security barrier in the West Bank, the planned route will not quite reach Shavei Shomron. That would make the community, with its 600 residents, a prime candidate for dismantling if Israel does begin that process.
The immigrants, many of them farmers at home, wear Western clothes, and the men wear skullcaps. The married women cover their hair with knitted caps and wear long skirts, as they did in India.
They live a spartan existence in mobile homes, with much of their day devoted to language lessons. Some stay in the nearby settlement of Enav and commute to their classes in an armored bus.
They receive a monthly stipend from Amishav, an Israeli group that seeks out “lost Jews” and has been bringing in immigrants from Bnei Menashe for more than a decade.
But the immigrants do not yet have jobs, and with no sizable Israeli towns close by, they meet few Israelis and leave the small settlements infrequently.
On a sunny day here, they received their Hebrew lesson in a classroom that also serves as a community shelter in case of an attack.
“What do you want to study?” the teacher asked. One young woman replied, “I want to become a doctor.” But most of the Bnei Menashe never graduated from high school in India.
Most of the immigrants have recently completed a religion course and are now recognized as Jewish by the state, permitting them to become citizens. In the coming months, most are expected to leave Shavei Shomron, but they are likely to land in other settlements where they have relatives or friends.
The local Bnei Menashe now number about 800, with most of them clustered in three West Bank settlements and one in Gaza.
Michael Menashe, who was among the early arrivals from India in 1994, now works with the new Indian immigrants and is a shining example of successful assimilation.
His Hebrew is fluent. He has served in the military, worked as a computer technician and married an American immigrant to Israel. He is one of 11 siblings, 10 of whom have now immigrated.
“We begin at zero when we arrive,” said Mr. Menashe, 31. “It is difficult to go out and live a normal life. But we don’t have a choice. This is where we want to be.”
Amishav, the group that champions the Bnei Menashe, wants to bring all 6,000 of them to Israel.
“They work hard, serve in the army and raise good families,” said Michael Freund, director of Amishav, which means “my people return” in Hebrew. “They are a blessing to this country.”
Mr. Freund said he would gladly settle the immigrants wherever they could be accommodated. They gravitate to settlements because housing is cheaper, and the tightly knit settlement communities are prepared to absorb the newcomers.
But Peace Now, an Israeli group that monitors settlements, says the recruitment of far-flung groups with questionable Jewish ancestry is part of an effort to raise the number of settlers and to increase the Jewish population relative to the Arabs.
“This definitely contradicts the spirit, if not the letter” of the peace plan, “because these people will live in the settlements,” said Dror Etkes, a Peace Now spokesman.
Mr. Freund acknowledges that his group wants immigrants for demographic reasons. But he also insists that the commitment of the Bnei Menashe to Judaism is deep-rooted and predated plans to immigrate to Israel.
There is no proof, though, of historical links to the Manasseh, one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel driven into exile by the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.
But the group has long had traditions that resemble ancient Jewish practices, said Mr. Freund, a former prime ministerial aide.
The Bnei Menashe did not practice Judaism before British missionaries converted them to Christianity about a century ago. They followed an animist religion typical of Southeast Asian hill tribes. But that religion did seem to include some practices that were similar to Bible stories, said Hillel Halkin, an Israeli journalist who has written a book about them, “Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel.”
It is not clear what prompted the Bnei Menashe to begin practicing Judaism. In the 1950’s they were still Christians, but they began adopting Old Testament laws, like observing the Sabbath and Jewish dietary laws. By the 1970’s, they were practicing Judaism, Mr. Halkin said. There was no sign of any outside influence.
The Bnei Menashe wrote letters to Israeli officials in the late 1970’s seeking more information on Judaism. Then Amishav contacted them, and the group began bringing the Beni Menashe to Israel in the early 1990’s.