India’s ‘lost tribe’ of Israel hit hard by deadly violence

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A “lost tribe” of Israel in northeast India has been swept up in months of deadly ethnic violence, with at least one death, synagogues torched and hundreds forced to flee, members say.

Villages have been “razed to the ground”, with two synagogues destroyed and one death confirmed among the 5,000-strong community in India since fighting in Manipur state erupted in May, Lalam Hangshing, president of the Bnei Menashe Council, told AFP.

The Bnei Menashe community claims to have descended from the Manasseh — one of the biblical “lost tribes” of Israel exiled in 720 BC by Assyrian conquerors.

But they also belong to the wider ethnic group which includes the Kuki minority, who since May have been battling the Meitei majority in Manipur in armed clashes that have killed at least 120 people.

Conflict erupted from a mix of causes including competition for land and public jobs, with both sides blaming state and national government for failing to stop the violence.

Mainly Christian Kukis make up around 16 percent of Manipur’s roughly 2.8 million people, according to India’s last census in 2011, and the Meitei majority are mainly Hindu.

Proportionally, the Bnei Menashe are the worst affected.

“Out of 5,000 Bnei Menashe, I would say at least half of them would be seriously impacted,” Hangshing said from the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, adding his home in Manipur had also been destroyed.

“Many of them are in shelters… they’re looking at a blank future”.

Hangshing, a retired government tax officer, said one Bnei Menashe man “caught up in the riots” had died and others injured, but said more could also have been killed.

“When a Kuki dies, they do not mention whether he’s of the Jewish community,” he said.

The Kuki community held a memorial on Thursday for victims of the unrest and intends to stage a mass burial soon, with a Bnei Menashe representative expected to carry out rites alongside Christian priests.

But the ceremony has been opposed by the Meiteis, prompting a heated confrontation Thursday between members of the majority community and security forces near the state capital Imphal.

  • ‘Lost Jews’ –

Bnei Menashe oral history tells of a centuries-long exodus through Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet and China, all the while adhering to certain Jewish religious practices, like circumcision.

In India they were converted to Christianity by 19th century missionaries and, in reading the bible, recognized stories from their own traditions that convinced them they actually belonged to the Jewish faith.

From the late 1990s, groups of Bnei Menashe were brought to Israel where they formally converted and settled.

Hangshing, 65, who is also general secretary of the Kuki People’s Alliance, a political party in Manipur, said it was “ethnic conflict” and not anti-Semitic attacks.

“Most people don’t even know we exist — we are seen as part of the Kuki community,” he said. “You can call it collateral damage”.

But he noted some mobs had chanted slogans against them specifically.

“Some of the slogans say that… we don’t belong here, we are lost Jews who should go back to Israel,” he said.

  • ‘Peace is a far cry’ –

Isaac Thangjom, project director of the Israel-based Degel Menashe community support organization, said they were trying to provide aid to between 650 and 700 people.

“Those are people who have been totally displaced, with nowhere to go to — that is, with their property gone, jobs lost and houses destroyed”, said Thangjom, who was born in Manipur but now lives in Israel.

“People fled with little more than the clothes on their backs,” said Asaf Renthlei, 31, a sociology doctoral student and Bnei Menashe member based in the neighboring Mizoram state, where he works as a volunteer helping those displaced by fighting.

He began by helping provide wine, bread and candles so people could hold Shabbat celebrations, but after funds raised from Israel were sent, he now gives out rice and cooking oil as well.

Thangjom said the future is bleak and believes others would, like him, seek to come to Israel.

“Hatred has become too deep-seated,” he said.

“Peace is a far cry and most of those 5,000 people have relatives here in Israel — so it is natural people would want to be safe.”

Hangshing said many were talking about leaving for Israel, although several people had lost their identification documents when homes were burned.

“They’re hoping that they can go get to Israel, where maybe they can rebuild their lives”, he said.

©️ Agence France-Presse

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