Jerusalem, Nov. 10: Members of a remote community of Indians who claim to be descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes of ancient Israel are resisting plans to carry out genetic tests to prove their Jewishness.
The group, which calls itself the Bnei Menashe (or children of the biblical tribe of Manasseh), fears that the plan by a group of American and Israeli scientists to carry out DNA tests may undermine its claims to Jewish ancestry.
Between 4,000 and 5,000 Bnei Menashe, who come from Manipur and Mizoram, have been living as Orthodox Jews since the early 1970s. They are members of the much larger Shinlung tribe but gave themselves their new name to reflect their belief in their roots.
Despite being converted to Christianity from animism a century ago and bearing Burmese-Tibetan physical traits, they followed religious rites strikingly similar to those of Judaism.
Among their traditions, for instance, was a male circumcision ritual on the eighth day after birth; a holiday on which unleavened bread was eaten — even though they were not otherwise bread eaters — and they used a language of prayer with numerous linguistic connections to Biblical Hebrew.
According to Hillel Halkin, an Israeli journalist who has researched the subject for four years, the group is a remnant of the 10 tribes of Israel that were “lost” after their exile from ancient lands at the hands of the Assyrians in 722BC.
With the help of Eliyahu Avichail, an Israeli rabbi and lost tribe hunter, groups of Bnei Menashe have periodically migrated the 3,500 miles from their homeland to Israel, where they are now about 700-strong. According to the tradition, they arrived in India via southern China, Mongolia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Before they are granted citizenship under Israel’s law of return, they must undergo full conversion to Judaism. The Indian immigrants, however, have struggled to gain acceptance in Israel, where some cynics have suggested that their claims to Jewish ancestry may owe more to fable than fact.
Many of the Bnei Menashe fear that the proposal that they should undergo DNA testing may further complicate their efforts to assimilate and to bring fellow members of the tribe to Israel. Rabbi Shimon Gangte, a Bnei Menashe leader who has lived in Israel for eight years and teaches Torah at a yeshiva (religious school) on the West Bank, argues that the thousands of Ethiopian Jews who emigrated to Israel did not have to undergo DNA tests.
He said: “Over a number of years, Jewish blood has mixed with non-Jewish blood in our community. So would the DNA test show that we are Jewish' Maybe not. So are people then going to say that we are not Jewish and dash the hopes of the rest of the community to move here' Even if it is not proven according to a DNA test, we feel Jewish and we will still be Jewish.”
The man behind the genetic testing plan is Halkin, who has just published a book on the community, Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel. He intends to lead a group of Israeli and American physicians to India to carry out DNA tests to see if the group has Jewish genes.
Even if they find one or two people with traces of eastern Mediterranean origins, Halkin says it would be a “sensational” development which could finally unlock the mystery of what happened to the lost tribes.
“If we find eastern Mediterranean genes where we would not expect to find them it would verify the theory in my book that there is a relationship between an ancient Israeli tribe and this community,” Mr Halkin said. “It would be the first case in history where a group of people living in a non-Jewish environment can be identified as a trace of a tribe that left Israel 3,000 years ago.”
Halkin’s main source of information is a manuscript of folk tales, chants, legends and practices of the Bnei Menashe. He is convinced that the texts and memories in the manuscript are genuine and predate the arrival of the first missionaries and cannot be attributed to Christian, Muslim or latter-day Jewish influences. Prayers said by the tribe invoke an ancestor named Manmasi who, he believes, was Joseph’s son Menashe.
Halkin, 63, began his explorations in India as a determined sceptic in 1998 but after three trips to the areas and extensive field research, he says that he became convinced by their story.