Pic: Shavei Israel

Article by Ruata Lungchuang

The history of Israel and the kingdom of Judea is one of the most well-known documented pieces of history on earth, well at least in a theological sense thanks to Christianity. The histories of the people of Israel is well detailed in the Bible and according to the Bible, soon after the death of King Solomon, Israel was divided into 2 kingdoms, namely Judae and the Kingdom of Israel.  Jew and Benjamin's tribe occupied Judae while the remaining 10 tribes occupied the Kingdom of Israel. Both the kingdom of Judah and Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire sometime around 597 B.C, the people were taken captive and were sent to various parts of the Empire. The Jew eventually made their return to Judae, but the other tribe that made up the Kingdom of Israel never seemed to have returned to the Homeland. The Kingdom of Israel seemingly became lost to history. What happened to the 10 tribes of Israel? Are they still out there or have they gone practically extinct? This is a question that has baffled historians and religious people alike. And then there is this.

What is going on?

Now If you are from the Northeast or someone who follows Northeast India, there’s a chance that you have come across this kind of news and articles once in every blue moon.

"The Bnei Menashe, the lost Israel tribe of Northeast India returning to their Homeland." You might be confused by the information presented to you and might even be amused, but I believe at some point you would have wondered if the claim of these people is legit or what the Lost tribe story is all about. In order to understand what this claim is about or what is going on to we first need to understand what the theory of the lost tribe is all about. As we have stated before, there is a theory of Lost Israel Tribe and both anthropologists and the government of Israel have been on the lookout for  Israel’s lost tribe supposedly scattered around the globe. Israel has a policy called the Aliyah which enables ethnic Jews to return to Israel, fulfilling the basic tenant of Zionism. Now, there is a Jewish organisation called Amishav and the Shavei Israel, that have particular interests in bringing back these so-called lost tribes into Israel and in the late 20th century, Israeli rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, of the group Amishav, named certain section of Mizo people the Bnei Menashe, based on their account of descent from Menasseh and have assisted the slow migration of these people into Israel. It is not entirely false to say that the organisation  Shavei Israel is largely responsible for the recognition of Mizo Jews as the lost tribe of Israel and their subsequent migration into Israel.

Now, Bnei Menashe is the Hebrew term for Children of Menashe. The term is designated to Chin/Kuki/Mizo or the Zo people who appear to have claimed descent from the Biblical figure Manasseh, the older son of Joseph, who together with Ephraim forms the tribe of Joseph. But why do Mizo Jews claim descent from Manasseh and not Dan, Simeon or any other Israel lost tribe?

Well, we’ll need to look at Mizo oral tradition to answer this question. You see, most Chin/Kuki/Mizo oral tradition maintains that the Zo people descended from an ancestor named Manasia, the name has slight variations among different zo languages some calls him, Manasia, Manmasi and Manusia. And among Zo people who do not have the figure Manasia in their tradition like the Paites,  they have another figure named Pu Zo. This figure Manasia or Pu Zo is almost universal among all the various Zo tribes including Mizos and form an important part of their identity. The name Manasia and Pu Zo are invoked in a lot of their ritual practices and also in times of hardship. Now the claim among some Mizos and Jewish organisations is that this figure Manasia is actually Manasseh found in the  Bible and Pu Zo or Grandfather Zo is Joseph, the father of Manasseh from whom the tribe of Manasseh have descended. Believers in the theory and sceptic agree that similarities in names can be of pure coincidence and that Mizo Israeli ancestry cannot be attested just because these names sound similar. But, there is more to this. Mizo tradition especially pre-Christian customs surprisingly have quite a few similarities with Judaism and when Christian missionaries encountered the tribe in the late 19th century, they found similarities between some of their own biblical stories and Mizo mythology. there are certain Mizo oral folklore and poems that look quite in tune with the exodus narrations of the Bible. For example, let us take the traditional chants of the Hmar tribes. The chant goes like this 

Sikpuiinthangkanurlaia, Changtuipui aw senmahrilikangintan. 

While we are preparing for the Sikpui festival, The big red sea becomes divided.

Keralawnakaleido aw, Suna sum ang, zanahmei lawn invak e. 

As we are marching forward fighting our foes, We are being led by cloud during day and by fire during night. 

An tur an satluaruol aw, In phawsiel le in ralfeitezuong thaw ro.

Our enemies, Ye Folk, are thick with fury, Come out with your shields and spears.

Sun razulakaleido aw, Keralawnamei sum invak e. 

Fighting our foes all day, We march along as cloud-fire goes afore.

Sun razualakaleido aw, Laimisaangchangtuipuiinlemzova e. 

The enemies we fight all day, The big sea swallowed them like beast.

 A varuol aw la ta che, Suonglungchungatuizuong put kha la ta che . 

Collect the quails, And fetch the water that springs out of the rock. 

Does this sound familiar to you? According to the Bible  In the Book of Exodus, we see that as the children of Israel were exiting Egypt, Pharaoh’s sent an army in pursuit of them and cornered them at the Red Sea. Moses with the help of God performed a miracle by splitting the sea allowing safe passage for the children of Israel, while Pharoah and his army were stopped by a pillar of fire. Once the children of Israel made it to the other side of the shore, Pharaoh’s army followed their path into the divided sea where they were consumed by the sea. The book of Exodus further says that after crossing the Red Sea, Moses led the children of Israel into Sinai where they were led by cloud at day and a pillar of fire by night. Soon the Israelites could not find enough food and drink. God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water poured forth. Once when the Israelites were very hungry God gave them Manna and quails to feed them.

Now, these two accounts sound ridiculously identical and this is one of the strongest pieces of evidence to suggest the Mizo people’s connection with Israel, but it doesn't just stop there. The Mizo ancient religion called Sakhua also had certain similarities with ancient Judaism, there were sacrificial rites, where the priest used to construct a sacrificial altar just like the Israelite practices having for corners and would sprinkle animal’s blood on the floor which were the normal practice of the Israelite. Certain Mizo traditional garments have a great resemblance to Jewish traditional shawls. Could all these just be coincidences? 

Mizo and Jews may have certain similarities when it comes to cultures and tradition, after all we live in a globe and cultures are interconnected. But what about genetics? Do Mizos share any genetic similarities to Jews?

Now, the Modern-day Jewish community is extremely racially diverse there is no one single Jewish physical feature as described by the fascist regime of Europe during the 2nd world war. Jews come in all shapes and colours. But it is not wrong to assume that most modern Jew looks Caucasian, so how can Mizos who are obviously of Mongoloid racial descent be genetically Jewish? This is exactly what National DNA Analysis Center, Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Kolkata
wanted to find out, and in 2005 they conducted a test on 414 individuals from the Mizo community and their conclusion was that on the patrilineal side there were no genetical markings among Mizos to suggest Jewish ancestry, however, on the maternal side, there were markers that may suggest genetical relatedness especially between Mizos and Jewish population of Uzbekistan. Their research paper quoted.

The genetic profiles obtained were compared either with populations sharing Jewish ancestry or with local populations along the probable route of migration of the Jewish ancestry claimant Mizoram tribes. Y-STR analyses showed the absence of the Cohen Modal Haplotype, the genetic signature of Cohanim origin. Y-chromosomal biallelic marker analyses revealed the presence of East and Southeast Asian-specific lineages and the absence of haplogroup J predominant among Jewish populations. The mitochondrial DNA sequence analyses however revealed traces of genetic relatedness between the Jewish ancestry claimant Mizoram tribes and Near Eastern lineages.”

Jewish Genetic marking has been a controversial topic. While there indeed seemed to be evidence supporting a unique Jewish genetical signature, but as Jews throughout the ages have intermingled with their gentile neighbour and host communities, many Jewish sources have suggested that there is no unique Jewish genotype to identify, and this was the stance of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Department of Genetics, Program for History and Philosophy of Science in one of their paper in 2015. -

As mentioned before, modern Jews are of various racial backgrounds, there are caucasian looking Jews, Black Jews and also Asiatic Jew. The Kaifeng Jews for example have pronounced mongoloid features just like the so-called Bnei Menashe.

Jewish identity in its modern form is mostly ethnoreligious in nature, it is deeply tied with the Jewish religion of Judaism. When a person converts to Judaism, he is considered a Jew both ethnically and religiously. And the Mizos are also tied to this law, so in order for them to have their Jewish identity recognised, they are required to first convert to Judaism. Mizos are mostly Christians, and due to India’s law on conversion, Mizos who wish to convert are taken to Nepal for conversion after which they are eligible for Aliyah.

So, are Mizo people the lost tribe of Israel? Probably not, but are Mizo Jewish converts, Jew? The answer to that is Yes. 

What do other Mizos think about this?  Within the  Mizo community, there is a diverse range of beliefs concerning being the lost tribe of Israel. There are some organisations like the Sinlung people’s Israel Convention that subscribe to this theory, but the organisation is political in nature and does not promote conversion and there are also various small Christian cults that accept and actively promote the idea. Most of these Christian cults are extremely nationalistic and practice a blend of Christianity, Mizo religion and Judaism. The majority of the Mizos however completely reject the idea of Bnei Menashe or are apathetic to it.

Most Mizos view the Bnei Manasseh as Mizo people who lost their true ethnic identity. And it is true, there is a certain amount of hostility towards the group especially when they are made to convert to Judaism, it gets only worse when it is learnt that the Bnei Manssehs are made to practice Orthodox Judaism with women wearing scarfs and Hebrew being highly prioritised.  but things have changed a lot since the first batch of Mizo Jews immigrates to Israel.    The Bnei Manasseh’s in Israel are also beginning to assert their Zo identity while not abandoning their Jewish faith. Settling in an alien country with a conversely different culture and climate was not easy for them and the Bnei Manasseh oftentimes do face racial discrimination in their new homeland. There have been many attempts by the Bnei Manasseh to revive their cultural heritage and language, as Bnei Manasseh youths in Israel not speaking their mother tongue Mizo became a great cause of concern within the community. The ever-evolving Mizo community back home have also largely come into terms with the Mizo Jews and renewed interests have occupied the hearts of Mizo people as Mizo media and social media explore and promote brotherhood between the two communities.

So to conclude, Mizo people are most likely not Jewish by heritage but Mizos who converted to Judaism are for all intent and purpose Jewish.

Oh, by the way, let me quickly address this myth propagated by a few people about Mizo Jews, that  Mizo immigrants to Israel are being settled into conflict areas and in Gaza where they are recruited as soldiers. This is a big myth. Most Mizo immigrants into Israel lives in and around Afulah and Nazareth. They live normal lives and are well integrated into the mainstream Jewish community and like every other Jewish community in Israel anyone between the age of 18 and 22 is required by law to be in the military for at least 32 months, this is why you often see young Bnei Manasseh in the Israeli defence force. If you speak Mizo please do check out this documentary about Mizo settlers in Israel by Sangzuala Tlau.

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The Mizos

The Mizos is a one-man team news blog, that brings you news and stories from Mizoram, Northeast India and the rest of the World.

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