by Shaikh Azizur Rahman (in Churachandpur)

After almost three millennia in exile the Bnei Menashe Jews of India believe they are about to be returned to the Promised Land.

More than 7,000 mainly impoverished Indian Jews will convert to orthodox Judaism in the coming weeks, thereby gaining the right to live in Israel.

In April Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi, announced in Jerusalem that he accepted the Bnei Menashe, which means “Children of the Messiah”, as one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

A Beit Din, or rabbinical court, arrived in India last week on a mission to convert the Bnei Menashes of India’s Mizoram and Manipur states to orthodox Judaism, giving hope to thousands of a new life in Israel.

Despite his grinding poverty and occasional bouts of depression, David Haokip, a Bnei Menashe youth leader who embraced Judaism five years ago, remains a devout follower of his adopted religion and goes to nearby Beth Shalom synagogue to pray three times every day.

The 23-year-old goes before the Beit Din today. “The moment we knew that we were recognised by the Chief Rabbinate it was the happiest news of my life,” he said. “The Beit Din will change my life selecting me for the conversion, I hope.”

His devotion is without question. Each morning, he and his wife Shalomi with about 200 other members of his tribe attend a Hebrew school run by Shavei Israel in this dusty hill town in the north-east Indian state of Manipur. When he has no sewing to do, he sits at his machine and studies the Siddur — the Jewish book of daily prayers. At Sabbath gatherings at the synagogue he regularly urges young people to pray for return to Israel, “their long-lost homeland”.

Haokip said: “The conversion is the final step before the ‘Aliyah’ right to return to our homeland, ending our 2,726-year exodus.”

Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organisation that has been trying to locate descendants of lost Jewish tribes around the world and bring them to Israel, believes that all Chins in Burma, Mizos in Mizoram and Kukis in Manipur — three prominent tribes of the region — are descendants of Menashe.

According to the organisation there are up to two million Bnei Menashes living in the hilly regions of Burma and north-east India.

After an Assyrian invasion in around 722BC, Jewish tradition says 10 tribes from Israel were enslaved in Assyria. Later the tribes fled and wandered through Afghanistan, Tibet and China.

In around 100AD, one group moved south from China and settled around north-east India and Burma. These Chin-Mizo-Kuki people, who speak Tibeto Burmese dialects and resemble Mongols in appearance, are believed to be the Bnei Menashes.

According to Shavei Israel, there are more than one million ethnic Bnei Menashes in India. Because they lived for centuries in north-east India, mingling with local people, many of their Jewish traditions became diluted. And after Welsh missionaries arrived in the area in 1894, nearly all Bnei Menashes, Kukis and Mizos were converted from their animistic beliefs to Christianity.

DNA studies at the Central Forensic Institute in Calcutta conclude that while the tribe’s males show no links to Israel, the females share a family relationship to the genetic profile of Middle-Eastern people.

Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, a dayan or rabbinical court judge who is leading the Beit Din conversion mission in India, said the decision to accept Indian Bnei Menashes as a lost Jewish tribe followed a careful study of the issue.

“After the conversion the Bnei Menashes can apply for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right of citizenship to all Jews,” said Birnbaum.

After Israel’s Interior Ministry allocated an annual quota of 100 immigrants from the Indian tribe in 1993, Shavei Israel helped about 800 Bnei Menashes convert and settle in Israel.

Bnei Menashes who migrated to Israel in the past mostly lived in settlements in Gaza. Their evacuation from that area last month has not affected the zeal of the Indian Bnei Menashes who are planning to emigrate to Israel.

Since Christian influence is strong in north-east India, only about 9,000 of the Bnei Menashe population — less than 1% of the total — have adopted Judaism in the past 30 years. But some tribal leaders expect more Christian Bnei Menashes are likely to convert.

“After they knew that they were recognised by Israel, many have started to feel an inner urge to return to their roots,” said Liyon Fanai, a Mizo Bnei Menashe leader in Aizawl, capital of India’s Mizoram state.

Since the landmark announcement, about 1,800 Christians in Mizoram and Manipur have been circumcised and adopted Judaism.

“More than 2,000 of them want to be converted in Manipur and now they are in touch with our synagogue leaders. We know many more Christians will surface in the society, willing to return to their original faith of Judaism soon,” said Tongkhohao Aviel Hangshing, a Bnei Menashe Jewish leader in the Manipur state capital of Imphal.

But some Christian leaders object to targeting Christians for conversion. “Acceptance of our people as Israelites is the work of Satan,” said Dr PC Biaksama, an ethnic Mizo and former government bureaucrat who now studies Christian theology.

“We don’t believe these people ever came from Israel. Christianity is at stake here, and we should never take what is happening now lightly.”

L Thanggur, a church leader in Churachandpur, believes the converts are just trying to escape poverty.

“They are economic refugees. If they had better employment and income prospects here, they would have never dreamt of going to Israel,” said Thanggur.

In Israel too, recognition of the Indian tribe by the Chief Rabbi has been attacked by some groups.

Social scientist Lev Grinberg said that right-wing Jewish groups were promoting conversion of distant people simply to boost the Jewish population in occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians.