Jews From Northeast India Seek Asylum in Israel

The Bnei Menashe say they're descendants of a Tribe of Israel.

Religion Fellows 2013

By Nida Najar

February 11, 2014

Also published by Al Jazeera America

Abel and Sharon Hangsingh and their children and grandchildren all waited for the sun to set over the rusting steel roofs of their modest Buelah Lane colony. It is an early sunset, as always in the far northeastern states. They lit two white candles, and when they could distinguish the first few stars in the clear valley sky, they gathered in front of the flickering light on their small, folding Sabbath table and sang the weekly Shalom Aleicheim by heart, high childish voices mingling with faltering elderly ones in a language none could understand.

Yitzchak Goumuanlal, a member of the Bnei Menashe, reads a Shabbat Prayer in his home.

They are one of thousands of families in this overwhelmingly Christian region of India who, over the past three decades, have converted to a version of Orthodox Judaism. But the pressures of living in Manipur, a state ravaged by decades of ethnic conflict and stagnant development, has taken its toll on even the most devout converts. 

Jeremiah Hangsingh, called “Pau” for short, is Abel Hangsingh’s eldest son. Like so many of his generation in this town that borders the opium-producing country of Myanmar, he developed a heroin addiction 20 years ago and struggles with it to this day. Still, he never misses Friday’s Shabbat prayer. 

“My father always encouraged me to change my life,” Pau said. “He always told me, ‘We’ll make a passport and go to Israel.’”

Pau believes the move would represent the sort of life change he needs to kick his addiction.

The Bnei Menashe — as the Jewish members of the closely related Kuki-Mizo-Chin tribes of northeastern India call themselves — believe that they are descendants of the Menasseh tribe, which was lost when the Assyrians invaded Israel in the eighth century B.C. Until they make Aliyah — Hebrew for the journey to Israel — the Bnei Menashe are not technically Jewish; they are in the process of becoming Jewish and will engage in a conversion once they get there that lasts several months. There are now roughly 2,000 Bnei Menashe in Israel and 7,000 in India.

This year, 899 of the Bnei Menashe will be granted Israeli citizenship, thanks to an Israeli nonprofit organization called Shavei Israel, which has helped hundreds of Indian Jews immigrate to Israel in the past few years. One hundred sixty Jews from Mizoram, a state that borders Manipur, have landed in Jerusalem in the past month alone. The Manipuris are expected to travel there in the next few months. Their journey is complicated by skepticism over their claims among religious leaders and academics. They also face difficulty in adjusting from insular, inward-looking hamlets like Manipur to the larger world.

Manipur suffers from a perfect storm of hardships — decades of militancy, political corruption, a porous border with Burma leading to widespread heroin smuggling, and human rights violations at the hands of the armed forces dispatched to keep the region calm.

Among the more mundane yet fundamental results is a lack of jobs. A common complaint is that the only work available is low-level government positions with meager salaries. Several people interviewed for this article said that to get a job as a policeman or teacher, one must pay off politicians and bureaucrats, even selling family property in order to secure a future in the state. Widespread corruption and a lack of industry have helped create a class of young people with a certain degree of comfort, privilege and education, but nothing to do with their talents.

A member of the local 'Bnei Menashe' community exits the Beith Shalom Synagogue during a Sabbath at the Shavei Israel Hebrew Centre in Churachandpur.

Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

On the last day of Hanukkah, hundreds of Bnei Menashe gathered at the Shavei synagogue in central Churachandpur. The synagogue and cultural center, a vast cement compound with an open courtyard, was festooned with Israeli flags and rows of candles. The families who gathered said a prayer, then the festivities turned into a talent show in which religious rock groups, a staple in the northeast, played.

Yonathin Singson, a 23-year-old recent college graduate, break-danced to electronic music. He started slow, then took off his fedora to reveal a yarmulke beneath it. Women howled.

Sinsong said he was out of work but was not even looking for a job. He had moved back to Manipur to be with his family, but there was nothing else keeping him there.

“There’s no opportunity here,” he said. “It’s the government, the corruption, everything. Synagogue is the only redemption for us.”

Sinsong said that although the problems in Manipur had dulled his ambitions, his family’s real focus had been the move to Israel since it converted to Judaism. Gideon Zamthang Lulmeinsel, who graduated from college in August, said two of his sisters had already moved there. When asked what he wanted to do in Manipur while he waited for his own time to leave, Lulmeinsel looked surprised: “Nothing. We are just waiting for Aliyah.”

The reasons the Bnei Menashe give for having converted vary. Some say Judaism is the true root of Kuki culture and that converting allows them a stronger connection to their past than does the Christian culture that has been predominant in the Kuki hills for the past century. Others are simply drawn to the clarity of Jewish beliefs and rituals. But for many, the desire to go back to Israel was paramount.

Pau Hangsingh came of age in the bloodiest era of Churachandpur’s recent history. In June of 1997, when he was 22, Churachandpur plunged into a bloody conflict after Kuki militants attacked 11 Paite civilians, and armed groups on each side waged a brutal war. By the time the conflict waned, almost 400 people had been killed, educations and livelihoods had been disrupted, and Pau, for his part, was hooked on heroin.

“It is the land of the Jews,” Pau said simply, referring to Israel. “It will change my life. And there will be no drugs there.”

Jewish immigrants of the Bnei Menashe tribe reunite with relatives at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel.

Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Pau’s father is a bit more realistic in his hopes for Aliyah — he and the whole family, except for Pau, once traveled to Guwahati, the capital of Assam, over 300 miles away and not an easy trip for a family of limited means to make. “It’s not up to me,” said the elder Hangsingh. “It’s up to the religious leaders.”

Bensharon Haokip, 61, is now chairman of the main Shavei synagogue, which had the Hanukah celebration, but he resisted the faith and followed Christianity for years. His wife was the first convert — she ran a shop in town across the street from the Shavei synagogue and eventually started going to basic theology classes. On Fridays, she celebrated the Sabbath alone and even threatened to leave the family if they didn't convert to Judaism. Slowly, her children converted, and her husband, a teacher at a Christian school in a faraway village called Haipi, was the last holdout. But one day he had a dream that he was at a lavish feast, isolated from his family and forced to eat “unclean meat” alone. That dream, he said, convinced him to convert.

Following the faith was difficult in Haipi, a picturesque village in the northern Sadar hills, full of mango and orange groves, nearly 40 miles from Churachandpur. The school is Christian and Haokip was obliged to speak to the students in church, which with his newfound religion he found onerous. On Fridays he would come home from school, remove a small aluminum box from under his single bed. In it was his yarmulke, a candle and a prayer book translated into the Thadou-Kuki language. He would light the candle on a small wooden table by his bed, making sure the light didn't illuminate past the window, say an abbreviated, 20-minute prayer to mark the Sabbath and think of his wife doing the same 40 miles away.

When the headmaster of the school finally found out that he was Jewish, Haokip returned to Churachandpur and now devotes his life to the synagogue.  

“Right from our forefathers we know we are the sons of Menashe,” he said. “Menashe is the son of Judah, and Judah has a clear religion, and as he has a clear religion, we should follow it.”

Witnessing the customs of the Bnei Menashe, in this isolated corner of an isolated state, it is easy to see why a group of tribal minorities — outsiders in their own state and even more so in their native country — would identify with Judaism, a religion whose sense of being outsiders goes back to the beginnings of history itself. Yearnings for a home are common to Jews across the globe and to Kukis, who feel alienated both from Manipur from and India at large.

“When I studied (the) history of Kuki-Chin-Mizos, we live in different places —Assam, Bangladesh, Manipur,” said Haokip’s son, David. “We are scattered. We are lost.”

David’s younger brother will discontinue his university courses in his last year. He said he will likely join the Israeli Defense Forces and make a career defending his true homeland.

“It is a dream come true,” David said of their plan. “This is not the land that we belong to. We are not a part of India. We want to connect to Israel. We want to return.”

The reporting of this story was supported by International Reporting Project.