Mizo Jews devastated after migration bid to Israel halted

By Syed Zarir Hussain, IANS,

Aizawl : Hundreds of newly-converted tribal Jews in India’s northeastern state of Mizoram feel devastated after New Delhi refused them permission to migrate to Israel following protests by Christian groups, community leaders said Wednesday.

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“We are all shattered with the Indian government rejecting our applications for migrating to Israel,” Jeremia Hnamte, administrator of the Mizoram chapter of the Shavei Israel Organisation (SIO), told IANS.

SIO, a group headquartered in Jerusalem, is dedicated to searching for the lost tribes of Israel and helps them return to their Promised Land. Rabbinical leaders announced in 2006 that some 6,000 members of the Bnei Menashe tribe in India’s northeast were descendants of ancient Israelites or one of the Biblical 10 lost tribes.

The recognition from Israel came after tribe members sent scores of applications seeking to migrate to Israel, or the “Promised Land”, saying it was their right to do so. According to Israeli law, every Jew enjoys the “right of return” – or the right of abode in the country.

“We understand that a group of Christians lodged a formal protest with the Indian external affairs ministry and home ministry saying they should not allow Mizo Jews to migrate to Israel and stop conversions,” Hnamte said.

“We are fighting for our right to migrate and hope to get a positive response from the Indian government soon.”

“There was tremendous pressure from the church and the Mizoram government on New Delhi to force Israel to ban the conversions,” a community elder of the Bnei Menashe tribe said requesting anonymity. Meanwhile, a group of about 200 Mizos was awaiting clearance from the government after they were officially recognized as Jews.

After the recognition, a group of rabbis visited Mizoram last year and converted the batch of nearly 200 Mizo tribal people to Judaism after they took a holy dip at a mikvah or a ritual bath.

“The new converts are practising the religion perfectly. Once they are allowed to migrate to Israel, they will undergo a year-long course there to learn other aspects of Judaism at government expense,” Itzkhak Colney, a Jewish clergy, told IANS. Colney was a convert and migrated to Israel in 1997 and is now in Mizoram to help the locals here to preach Judaism and the Hebrew language among the Mizo Jews.

Some 1,000 people from Mizoram and neighbouring Manipur state have migrated to Israel since 1994 when a private body, the Amishav Association, took up their case. The last batch of 218 Mizos left the northeast for Jerusalem in 2006.

Mizoram is a predominantly Christian state, while most Manipuris follow Hinduism. Most Jews in the two states were Christian by birth.

Apart from names, the converts share many practices in common with traditional Jews -such as keeping mezuzahs or parchment inscribed with verses of the Torah at the entrance to their homes. The men wear a kippah or headgear during prayers.

“I have no regrets at all to leave my birth place because Israel is our Promised Land. We are dying to leave,” Peer Tlau, a practicing Jew in Mizoram, said.

“A vast majority of the people do not know Hebrew although many of them are now learning the language and following the religion like the one practiced in Israel,” Zaitthangchungi, a local researcher and author of a book ‘Israel Mizo Identity’, said.