Siliguri (AsiaNews) The first group of Bnei Menashe, the alleged descendants of one of the ten tribes of Israel lost in the biblical Exodus, has left India to "return" to the Promised Land. From here they accuse Christian missionaries of having forcibly converted them.
The first 115 to arrive will be settled near Nazareth; the remaining hundred or so will go to live close to the Gaza Strip.
For Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel (an association devoted to locating "lost Jews" and assist them in returning to Israel), this is a "turning point", an historic event because members of the lost tribes are coming home after 27 centuries.
The Bnei Menashe formally converted to Judaism in India despite complaints, even diplomatic protests, from New Delhi. Rabbis sent to the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur by Israel's Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, followed the conversion of the tribe's members and called them "descendants of Jews".
The tribe numbers some 7,000 and a thousand were sent to settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Those who pleaded their cause before the Israeli and Indian governments argued that the reason for going to these settlements was practical, not political. Jewish settlers were the only ones willing to put up money for their "brothers to return home."
Mizoram is a predominantly Christian state, whilst Manipur is largely Hindu. In the early 1900s, the tribe converted to Christianity. Now that they are "back" in Israel, they accuse the foreign missionaries of striving "to eliminate all attributes of our Jewish identity and foisted Christian cultural traits upon us".
Martin Lalsawata, a local official associated with the Hebrew Centre in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram state, said that they "are the progenies of the Menashe tribe [. . . who came from] ancient Israel some 2700 years ago. [. . .]". Till "the 19th century our Jewish cultural ingredients had substantially survived. But the advent of the Christian missionaries in the region led to mass conversion of our people to Christianity. Since 1951 one of our local chiefs [. . .] revealed to his people that God had told him that his people should return to their original religion and land (Judaism and Israel) [and] there began a simmering movement to return to Judaism and Israel."
However, there "is no substantial evidence to claim that these converted Mizo Jews are descendants of the lost Jewish tribe," Cheng Kent, a local Catholic volunteer, said. "This is simply a hoax [. . .] to migrate to Israel where they hope to lead a better life than in India."