Indian Jewish communities in Manipur and Mizoram are known as the Bnei Menashe, and they share a close relationship with Israel, which is why they are fighting Israel’s war against Hamas.
On Israel’s border with Lebanon, a shell purportedly launched by Hezbollah struck an Israeli Army soldier called Natanel Touthang, injuring him with shrapnel. He received treatment for “light” hand and eye injuries after being airlifted to Rambam Hospital in Haifa.
Naturally, this is not an unusual instance of a battle in which, in less than two weeks, over 5,000 people have lost their lives and almost 20,000 have been injured. Touthang, 26, is not your typical Israeli soldier, either, having grown up in the Phailen neighborhood of Churachandpur, Manipur, India. A few years ago, he and his family relocated to Israel, where they subsequently obtained citizenship.
Touthang’s wound is the first of this kind to affect a Bnei Menashe member in this conflict. The Bnei Menashe are a group from northeastern India, specifically the states of Manipur and Mizoram. Their members are currently fighting for Israel, their newly discovered homeland.
Lost tribe of Israel
Manipur and Mizoram are home to the Kuki and Mizo Jewish communities known as the Bnei Menashe. About 10,000 people live there, equally split between India and Israel. Members of the community assert that they are members of one of Israel’s twelve lost tribes.
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For almost a millennium, there have been numerous Jewish communities in India, and the community has never faced persecution there. There are currently only 26 Jews from the oldest Jewish community, the Cochin Jews, who reside in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Many had moved to Mumbai, the financial hub of India, where they joined other community members, primarily Baghdadi and Bene Israel Jews. There were Jewish inhabitants in Goa and Madras (now Chennai), among other areas in India.
The Jewish population of Bombay peaked at about 30,000 in the late 1940s. These days, there are less than 4,000; the majority moved to Israel in the 1950s.
There are vestiges of a biblical tribe that have been gone, according to the Bnei Menashe. This notion, according to geneticists and ethnographers, is exceedingly questionable. However, half of the tribe is Jewish and resides in Israel, while the other half is in northeast India. They are a Tibeto-Burmese group known as Kukis in the neighboring state of Manipur and Mizos in the Indian state of Mizoram; they are not ethnically Indian. Prior to the arrival of the British Empire in the northeast of India, they lived in a traditional tribal culture with their own religion.
There could be both domestic and foreign factors causing the delay, such as military or civilian concerns as to why Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza is being delayed.
These tribes were proselytized by the end of the twentieth century, yet some recognized similarities between their old faith and the Bible. They started to think that the biblical Manasseh (also known as Menashe in Hebrew), the son of Joseph, was Manasia, or Manmasi, their first messiah. They thought they were descended from the tribe that bore his name, which was one of the ten tribes that vanished when Israel was subjugated by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE.
Long way home
Northeast India saw the rise of a Judaizing movement in the 1970s. By the 1980s, Israeli rabbi Eliyahu Avichayil had a significant impact on the Bnei Menashe, or “Children of Menashe.” They were taken in groups by Rabbi Avichayil to Israel, where they were formally converted to Judaism and granted Israeli citizenship.
A Kuki named Isaac Thangjom remembers the “aliya” (migration) of the Bnei Menashe to Israel, which Rabbi Avichayil organized. He said, “We’d been in touch with him since the late 1970s.”
Isaac is now Degel Menashe’s executive director. It was founded in 2019 and granted non-profit status by the Corporations Authority of Israel in the same year. It supports the Bnei Menashe community by promoting its assimilation into Israeli society, fostering its advancement in education and the workforce, aiding in the development of its younger, Israeli-born generation, and striving to preserve its cultural heritage. It works to fortify its institutions in India and increase immigration to Israel.
According to Isaac, the Israeli-Pakistani conflict began at the same time as the Kuki tribesmen in Manipur were threatened with extinction.
Interestingly, violent ethnic battles between Kukis and Meiteis occurred in Manipur this year, resulting in over 180 fatalities, several hundred injuries, and over 60,000 displaced individuals. Among the most severely impacted were reportedly the Kuki Beni Menashe.
Lalam Hangshing, a Kuki and the head of Bnei Menashe Council India, stated that for the previous thirty years, there has been a consistent exodus of members of the community to Israel.
“Whoever [from Bnei Menashe] goes to Israel gets the citizenship of that country. “However, they have to abide by the system and the laws of the land,” Lalam stated.
Additionally, he stated that many of the individuals now work in a variety of fields, including education, and that employment decisions are made based on educational background.
He claimed that “many of those who moved to Israel still have relatives in India.” “They sometimes visit to meet relatives.”
Bnei Menashe and the war
Currently, there are about 5,000 Bnei Menashe living in Israel. They are dedicated to returning to the land they think they left millennia ago, despite the difficulties they experience as immigrants elsewhere.
“Our community lives in 14 towns and villages from Sderot in the south to Kiryat Shmona in the north. There are several others living in towns such as Afula, Migdal HaEmek and Tiberias in the Galil and Jezreel valley region,” said Isaac Thangjom.
Isaac said that Bnei Menashe’s home in Sderot, which is near Gaza and among the worst-hit areas in the conflict, had been struck by a rocket. The family members who survived the attack were not present when it happened.
According to Isaac, the Israeli government moved 120 Bnei Menashe families from Sderot, a town in the south, to hotels in Jerusalem and resorts along the shores of the Dead Sea.
Although the precise number of Bnei Menashe serving in the Israel Defense Forces is unknown, it is believed to be between 300 and 400, including those on active duty and reserve. Following the battle with Hamas, some 300 Bnei Menashe reservists were called up, most of whom were in combat groups.
When a person turns 18, they must enlist in the Israeli military; the mandatory service time is two years for women and three years for men. After forced conscription, joining the army is not required. Instead, women can enlist in the “National Service” program; those with psychological or physical issues are excused.
“Nothing could better demonstrate how much of a part of Israeli life that we Bnei Menashe now are,” Yitzhak Thangjom, managing director of Degel Menashe, told RT. “Considering that the total Bnei Menashe population of Israel is barely 5,000, we probably have a higher percentage of youngsters in uniform than most other sections of the population.
“I think when this [war] is over, we Bnei Menashe will feel Israeli in a different and more profound way than we have felt until now,” Yitzhak said.
“We will put our lives on the line for this country, which so many Israelis are doing and have done. In the fighting ahead, some of us may be killed. If Israel becomes, as many are saying, a different country when the war ends, we Bnei Menashe will certainly be a different community.”