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A ‘Lost’ Tribe of Israel Returns Home

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Bnei Menashe in Adloyada of Purim in Carmiel, ...

Bnei Menashe in Adloyada of Purim in Carmiel, Israel by Jusmine via Wikipedia

By Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Most people have heard of the ‘ten lost tribes of Israel’. In reality they were never lost; they were just submerged among the much larger non Jewish population in the places where they lived, or they moved to distant lands, and over the course of centuries became detached from the main body of the Jewish People; and were forgotten. The well known Marano Jews, who are the descendants of Jews forced to convert into the Catholic Church in 15th century Spain and Portugal, are a good example of a submerged Jewish population. The Jewish communities in India and China are a good example of remote Jewish communities, who in the 12th  and 13th century became detached from the body of Israel and were forgotten. Today the Jews of India and China are remembered primarily because, unlike Jews in Europe and the Middle East, the Jews in India and China never were subject to Anti-Semitism or any form of religious oppression.

Now, a new group of  ‘lost’ Indian Jews, who are descendants of the tribe of Menashe, one of the ten tribes exiled from the Land of Israel in 721 BCE by the conquering Assyrian Empire, are returning home. In March 2005, Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar officially backed the Bnei Menashe’s claim to be Jewish. That announcement led to a wave of immigration from India to Israel; and about 1,700 of the 7,200-strong Bnei Menashe community arrived in Israel. But the flow stopped in 2007, when Israel stopped giving visas to the Bnei Menashe due to objections from some ultra-Orthodox Rabbis.

Israel’s decision to reverse that policy now will pave the way for all the remaining Bnei Menashe members to migrate. A source close to the prime minister’s office gave two reasons for the change in Israeli policy.  Some of the donors to Shavei Israel, an organization that seeks to repatriate  ‘lost’ Jewish communities, are also donors to Netanyahu, and several fundamentalist Christian groups that support Netanyahu also pressured him strongly because they believe that the return of the remnants of the ten lost tribes is a necessary part of the coming Messianic Age.

The Bnei Menashe Indian Jewish community says it is one of the ten lost tribes of Israel who were exiled when Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE. According to its oral tradition, the tribe travelled through Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China and on to India, where it eventually settled in the north-eastern states of Manipur and Mizoram.

When the new group of 53 Bnei Moshe landed in Tel Aviv there were emotional scenes at Ben Gurion airport as the newcomers were greeted by relatives who had moved to Israel during the first wave of immigration. Several hundred more Bnei Menashe members are due to arrive in the coming weeks, said Michael Freund, a spokesman for the Shavei Israel group which helped organize the journey for the Bnei Menashe members. “The members of this tribe have never forgotten where they came from. and we are excited to be able to help them come back,”

Freund, a passionate religious Zionist from New York, immigrated to Israel in 1995 and was employed as deputy communications director for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term. In 1997 Freund discovered one of the many letters sent by the Bnei Menashe on a desk in the prime minister’s office. “The letter, hand-written and in a faded orange envelope, looked like it had been through a washing machine. At first, I thought the whole thing was nuts,” he said. But he was intrigued enough to visit the tribe in India. “When I met them and saw the similarities between their customs and beliefs and the biblical Israelites, I was convinced that these are indeed descendants of the lost tribes” Freund said.

Ethiopian Jews are another remote community that returned to Israel a generation ago after a separation of over 2,000 years. The amazing 1991 rescue of 15,000 Ethiopian Jews in an airlift lasting less than 48 hours stirred and inspired people for several weeks. Subsequently, the difficult problems the newcomers faced (similar to those of the 900,000 Russian Jews who immigrated in the 1970’s and 1980’s) occupied the Jewish media. Now both are taken for granted. The miracle has become routine.

But if you had told the Jews of Ethiopia two generations ago that they would someday all fly to Israel in a giant silver bird, they could only conceive of this as a Messianic miracle.  If you had told Russian Jews a generation ago that the Soviet regime would collapse, and the Soviet Empire disintegrate; while hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews would emigrate to Israel, they would have conceived it only as a Messianic dream. In our own generation therefore we have seen the dramatic fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “I will bring your offspring from the East (India) and gather you from the (European) West. To the North (Russia) I will say ‘give them up’ and to the South (Ethiopia) ‘do not hold them’.  Bring my sons from far away, my daughters from the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 43:5-6) Truly amazing things are happening in our generation if we would only open our eyes.

Rabbi Maller’s web site is: rabbimaller.com

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