FULL FLIGHT: New converts from Mizoram roam the streets of Colaba before leaving India
Poor Indian villagers who think they belong to a lost Jewish tribe are being lured by Israel. Probably for menial jobs. Ketan Tanna reports
The Red Shield House is one of the old, unremarkable hotels that lie just beyond the morning shadows of the Gateway of India. For long a hub of budget tourists, the Red Shield is not the kind of place where guests are protected by uniformed security. Yet, the 110 men, women and children who are holed up in the dormitory here are under the vigil of private guards. The mysterious inmates are not allowed to speak to strangers. But by chance, two young men emerged from the dorm and walked out onto the streets of Colaba. After a brief chase, very reluctantly they gave a glimpse into the tale of a dramatic exodus. They are newly converted Jews from Mizoram, fleeing India for Israel. Hundreds have preceded them in this shadowy ritual and more will follow.
The story actually begins in 721 BC. The Assyrians invaded the northern part of what is now regarded as Israel and enslaved 10 native tribes. The tribes eventually escaped and fled to various parts of the world and then, vanished without a trace. For long, they were remembered in the oral and written history of the Jews as the 10 lost tribes.
In 1981, a researcher of north-east Indian tribes began to piece together the oral heritage of several disjointed village communities in the region who collectively called themselves Bnei Menashe (Hebrew for â€˜Children of Godâ€™), and concluded that they were descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes that had settled here. In 2004, a DNA test done in Kolkataâ€™s Central Forensic Science Laboratory reported that the tribe had indirect links to the Jews of Israel. In March 2005, a top clergyman from Israel formally recognised the Bnei Menashe as descendants of the Jewish people. In September 2005, 218 were converted. Since then, there has been a churning in the region. Israelâ€™s policy of welcoming any Jew back home, and the countryâ€™s affluence have been influencing the impoverished Bnei Menashe of north-eastern states to convert and migrate.
Hundreds are slowly making their way to Mumbai on their way to Israel. That nationâ€™s leading paper Haaretz has claimed that the Indian Civil Ministry refused permission to Israir, the Israeli airline, to depart on November 12 with 812 members of Bnei Menashe who had converted to Judaism.
All this has upset the Presbyterian Church, a Protestant denomination to which a huge portion of the Bnei Menashe belong. â€œWe are not happy. Itâ€™s not that all of them are (Presbyterian) Christians. They belong to various other denominations. But we firmly believe that their going to Israel is more an issue of economics and less of religion,â€ says Upa Zonunmawia, coordinator of the Mizoram Presbyterian Church. According to him, the extraction of a historical link is merely Israelâ€™s way of finding people from poor countries to do menial tasks that an average Israeli does not want to do anymore.
Thirty-six-year-old Azriel Hmar, formerly a social worker in Mizoramâ€™s capital Aizawl, and one of the fleeing men holed up in the Red Shield House in Mumbai, is leaving his parents, three brothers, two sisters and his religion, Christianity, for good. But, he is taking his wife and three children, the youngest being eight months old. â€œIndia is my mother. Now I am going to my father,â€ he says. His parents are worried. â€œThey have heard and read about the strife in Israel. They were not very happy, but for me it is a matter of life and death. There is no other option but to migrate to Israel. Our destiny is Israel,â€ he says.
And this destiny is not necessary pleasant. â€œMost of us do not have specific skills that could be absorbed into the Israeli economy. For a year or so, all the Bnei Menashe immigrants will have to learn Hebrew and certain required skills. It would be unfair for the new immigrants to expect cushy and well-paying jobs,â€ Hmar says.
Indian authorities are not commenting on the matter. Fearing the displeasure of India with this type of mass conversion and exodus, the Israeli government, too is insisting that it has nothing to do with all this. â€œWe are not dealing with this issue. I have nothing to say,â€ says Lior Winetraub, spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in New Delhi. However, Red Shield House says that the dorm for the 110 Bnei Menashe in Mumbai has been booked by the Israeli Consulate. The guards too, the hotel says, have been appointed by the Consulate. And these guards suddenly loom in the corridor as Hmar is talking to this correspondent about his future in Israel. They glare at him for breaking the rules and shepherd him inside.
Another lot of 115 from the north east are scheduled to arrive in Mumbai on or around November 21. They will be joining over 800 Bnei Menashe tribals from Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland who have already migrated to Israel. TNN