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India's Lost Tribe Recognized As Jews After 2,700 Years
The Telegraph (UK) ^ | 9-17-2005 | Peter Foster

Posted on 09/16/2005 5:56:52 PM PDT by blam

India's lost tribe recognised as Jews after 2,700 years

By Peter Foster in Aizawl
(Filed: 17/09/2005)

With a cry of "Mazeltov" and a Rabbi's congratulatory handshake, hundreds of tribal people from India's north-east were formally converted to Judaism this week after being recognised as descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes exiled from Israel 2,700 years ago.

A rabbinical court, dispatched with the blessing of Israel's Chief Rabbi, travelled 3,500 miles to Mizoram on India's border with Burma to perform the conversions using a Mikvah - ritual bath - built specially for the purpose.

There were emotional scenes as the Oriental-looking hill people professed their faith, repeating the oath from Deuteronomy: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One."

Over the next five years up to 7,000 members of the Bnei Menashe are expected to emigrate to Israel after years of pleading their case were met with official recognition.

Since the 1950s a small group of tribal people, who live in the jungle-clad hills that straddle Burma, India and Bangladesh, have claimed descent from the Lost Tribe of Menasseh, the remnants of which are said to have found their way to China, Thailand and north-eastern India.

Their claims gathered force in the 1980s when amateur anthropological studies purported to have discovered similarities between their ancient animist rituals and those of Old Testament Judaism.

Although the claims are still treated with great scepticism by Mizoram's majority Christian population - and have never been examined by professional anthropologists - the Bnei Menashe are unshakeable in their belief.

"This is the greatest day of our lives, a wonderful new life is now beginning for us," said Pe'er Tlau who, along with his wife and three sons, plans to emigrate to Israel as soon as formalities allow.

Mr Tlau, an electronics engineer whose father fought for the British during the Burma Campaign, successfully proved his Jewish credentials before the rabbinical court, answering detailed questions on Jewish rituals and observance.

Later, after all the male converts had shown they were properly circumcised, the families immersed themselves, naked, in the Mikvah constructed with the help of detailed plans sent from Israel.

Twice they dipped beneath the ice-cold water, each time receiving the blessing of Rabbi Moshe Klein, a senior member of the conversion authority attached to the office of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. The recognition of the Bnei Menashe by the Chief Rabbinate was achieved after a decade of lobbying by a Jerusalem-based group, Shavei Israel, which dedicates itself to finding Israel's scattered tribes and returning them to Israel.

Michael Freund, the group's chairman, said he believed the conversions had closed the circle on almost 3,000 years of history as the Mizo Jews were now able to exercise their right of return to the Promised Land.

Not everyone in Mizoram is as convinced as Mr Freund, however. Where he sees "deep and extensive commonalities" between ancient Judaism and Mizo tribalism, others see Zionist ambition and plenty of wishful thinking.

Local historians point out that the Mizo tribes were animists whose oral history and tradition was lost forever when the Welsh Presbyterian missionaries arrived in Mizoram in the late 1890s.

Dr P C Biaksiama, a former civil servant and academic who has published several books on Mizo Christianity, says the similarities have been ''discovered'' by a people who desperately want to attach importance to their lost ancestry.

"This claim to be Jewish is just a fantasy created by some 1980s revisionism - and the people's exposure to the Old Testament. What they describe as 'similarities' are simply common tribal practices, nothing more," he said.