By Mansheetal Singh
In the late 1970s, a few individuals from a small group located in North East India, began to research the origins of their religious traditions and their ancestry. Their research led them to discover an ancestral connection to Israel. This particular group, known as Bnei Menashe or ‘sons of Menashe’ are believed to be the descendants from the lost tribe of Menashe. In the early 1980s, members of the group made contact with an organization in Israel expressing an interest in returning to their ancient homeland.
On request of this tribe, the chief Rabbis of Israel investigated these people and found that they still observe Shabbat, maintain Kosher dietary laws, celebrate biblical fests, marry within their tribe and are clinging for a hope of returning one day to the land of Israel. After almost two decades of their recognition as ‘Jews’ from one of the lost tribes of Israel, they are still struggling to be accepted fully as members of the mainstream Israeli society.
Their story and struggles are not any different from the Jewish community from Ethiopia, called as Beta Israel. Although, the Beta Israel are large in proportion, they continue to face similar issues such as that of Bnei Menashe Jews. This particular Indian Jewish community is termed not only as ‘impure’, but continue to face discrimination on the basis of their religious identity and demographic background. Out of almost 11,000 Bnei Menashe Jews, only around 4,000 Jews have been able to immigrate to Israel, while about 7,000 of them are said to be waiting for immigration to the Jewish state. Bnei Menashe Jews in Israel have been allocated areas of highly unstable lands of West Bank where education, security and employment remains a major concern. A fair assumption can be made that the spatial segregation of the Bnei Menashe in West Bank was a result of their low socio-economic and educational status in contrast to the larger Israeli society.
Israel’s policies addressing issues of immigration, absorption and diaspora affairs have often placed the Jews coming from developing countries such as India and Ethiopia in the underdeveloped periphery, where scanty economic and inferior education opportunities have always been a bone of contention. Israel has witnessed several protests by vocal minority groups where demonstrators were found insisting greater equality and an end to discrimination by the Israeli government and wider society as a whole. A major question that arises is that are Bnei Menashe Jews like Beta Israel are only a tool to fulfill political agendas and for boosting the Jewish population, especially in the disputed territories of West Bank?
Jews of the Bnei Menashe community left India, hoping to unite with their ancestral homeland and with their Jewish brothers and sisters. For them, Israel is more than just a land of ‘milk’ and ‘honey’, but an opportunity to get immersed into the life of a Jewish state. Despite their expectations of a better life, they have been subjected to discrimination by other Jews in Israel’s society. They are racially discriminated and often separated from the mainstream Jewry by being categorized as ‘Chinese’. They are also religiously discriminated by other Jews due to the skepticism that still surrounds their claims of a past Jewish connection. Therefore the immigration of a ‘non-Halachic’ Jewish descent has remained a vexed subject in Israel with the right-wing invigorating it and the left-wing dejecting it, not only because they believe it would “contribute to further oppression of the Palestinians” but also because they tend to doubt the authenticity of the Bnei Menashe’s claim to lost tribe’s status.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel in July 2017, several members of the Bnei Menashe community gathered to greet him. Prime Minister Modi appreciated the contribution of Indian Jews to the state of Israel and for bringing the two societies closer. It was believed that the strategic partnership between India and Israel had reached a new height and the solution to the issue of Indian Jewish immigration to Israel will be addressed. But unfortunately, immigration of Bnei Menashe has by far remained too slow. Several policy analysts have therefore been raising questions on the reluctance of Israeli authorities instead of expediting the process of Bnei Menashe’s migration. They claim that the reason behind a slow migration may be their inferior skills and education. It is also believed that even after proving their Jewish identity, they are still considered as the lesser Jewish of all.
It took years of struggle for a few thousand Bnei Menashe Jews to settle in Israel but their living conditions has barely improved. According to a Knesset Research and Information Center report, most Bnei Menashe have been able to find employment quickly, but their wages remain meagre: at the minimum wage level, or below it. The study also discovered that they are more inclined to keep to themselves and not blend within the Israeli society. Isaac Thangjom, community leader of the Bnei Menashe in Israel mentioned that “It would not be an understatement to say we are the weakest and most miserable community in Israel.” However, the community refrains from raising these issues at the societal levels allegedly because of the fear that it could affect their chances of being reunited with their relatives. This is because the members of Bnei Menashe are concerned that their relatives will not be accepted as eligible for Israel’s immigration list.
After years of barring the Bnei Menashe from immigrating to Israel by the former governments, the Netanyahu government in 2012 passed the long-awaited resolution that restarted the aliyah of the remaining 7,000 Bnei Menashe Jews in India. However, it’s already 2020 and only about 4,000 Jews have been able to make aliyah to Israel while 7,000 Bnei Menashe Jews still remain in India. Clearly, the absorption policies for this Indian Jewish community has not reached its potential yet.