Israel stops conversion of lost Jewish tribe

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CALCUTTA — A complaint from India, apparently following pressure from Hindu and Christian groups, has forced Israel to suspend conversion of thousands from a lost tribe of Jews.

Israel’s chief rabbi of the Sephardic Jews, Shlomo Amar, recognized northeast India’s 9,000 Bnei Menashes as one of the 10 lost tribes of biblical Israel, and sent a Beit Din, a rabbinical court, to India in September to begin the conversion process of the impoverished tribe, giving them hope of a new life in Israel.

About 220 Bnei Menashes were converted in the states of Mizoram and Manipur in September, and the remaining members of the tribe were awaiting their turn when Israel’s Foreign Ministry earlier this month ordered the chief rabbinate to stop the conversions because it was straining relations with India.

Foreign Ministry official Amos Nadai, however, told a parliament committee that India “has no objection against the tribe members immigrating to Israel.”

India has a growing defense relationship with Israel and has bought weapons worth more than $2 billion.

Although the Bnei Menashes in India are recognized as Jews, and they have been following Jewish customs for many years, they need to undergo conversion because they have not been following Orthodox Judaism as practiced in Israel.

According to Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization that has been trying to locate descendants of lost Jewish tribes around the world and bring them to Israel, there are up to 2 million Bnei Menashes living in the hilly regions of Burma and northeast India.

After an Assyrian invasion around 722 B.C., Jewish tradition says, 10 tribes from Israel were enslaved in Assyria. Later, the tribes fled Assyria and wandered through Afghanistan, Tibet and China before settling in northeast India and Burma around A.D. 100.

About 800 Bnei Menashes have so far immigrated to Israel, and most of them are now living in the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Mizoram is a predominantly Christian state, while Hindus are in the majority in Manipur. Many Bnei Menashe community leaders think that pressure from Christian and Hindu organizations forced the Indian government to complain against the conversions.

Despite practicing many customs of Jewish origin, Bnei Menashes — who were then animists — embraced Christianity when missionaries came to northeast India in the 19th century. Church leaders in the area voiced their dissent recently because Bnei Menashe Christians were leaving churches for the synagogues.

Christian theologian P.C. Biaksama in Aizawl, Mizoram, said the conversions “threatened Christianity in the region.” Ajay Nandi, a right-wing Hindu leader in Calcutta, said the Indian government “took the right step” to stop Jewish conversions.

The Israeli decision left some tribal youths worried that emigration now would be difficult. At a meeting days after the announcement, synagogue leaders in Mizoram and Manipur tried to reassure their followers.

“We should not lose hope. We are already recognized as lost descendants of ancient Israelites. … We all will be converted in Israel in this situation,” said Lyon Fanai, a Bnei Menashe community leader in Aizawl.

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