India's tiny Jewish community fears for safety of its people in Israel

More than 5,000 Bnei Menashe live in Israel, with a similar number in India's Manipur and Mizoram states

Bnei Menashe Jews in Mizroam watch the news on television. Photo: Asaf Renthlei
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A tiny Jewish group in the north-eastern states of Manipur and Mizoram is concerned about the safety of reservists belonging to the community who had migrated to Israel and have now been called upon to fight in the war in Gaza.

More than 200 reservists of the 5,000 Bnei Menashe who live in Israel have been called up for duty, Lalam Hangshing, the chairman of Bnei Menashe Council in India, told The National.

India is home to about 5,000 Bnei Menashe Jews, the children of Menashe, the grandchild of Jacob, considered the traditional ancestor of the people of Israel.

They are believed to be the descendants of one of the 10 'lost tribes', whose ancestors were forced into exile by the Assyrians, a people of northern Mesopotamia – now Iraq – after they conquered the Kingdom of Israel in 722BC.

“We have a list of 206 Bnei Menashe Jews, both men and women, who are reservists and have been called in for the war," Mr Hangshing said. "We are proud of them and they are serving the country that has adopted them.”

Both Manipur and Mizoram states are home to indigenous and tribal communities that practise either Hinduism and Christianity, mixed with tribal culture.

The remote Manipur is embroiled in a months-long deadly ethnic conflict, with two major communities at war and nearly 200 people dead, including at least two members of the Jewish community.

The Bnei Menashe people were rediscovered after Welsh missionaries arrived in the region and the older generation realised the translation of the Old Testament was like the folklore of the community. They were also practicing kosher and Sabbath.

They made contacts with other Jewish people in India's Bombay and Cochin – now Mumbai and Kochi – also home to small Jewish-Israeli and Jewish-Baghdadi communities, and adopted rituals of orthodox Judaism.

The tribe was accepted in 2005 as one of those lost after Israel’s chief rabbi studied its claims. Members have been migrating to Israel for the past three decades.

Mr Hangshing, 65, whose father moved to Israel and lived there until his death in 2020, said no community member had been injured so far but the tiny community is worried for the safety of its brethren as bombardments continue.

“Nobody can accept the kind of violence that has unfolded,” he said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Asaf Renthlei, one of the 1,000 Bnei Menashe Jewish community in Mizoram.

“It is a stressful time for us because the community has faced violence in the ongoing ethnic clashes back home and now our people are suffering there,” Mr Renthlei told The National.

“We are also worried for those who have migrated recently during the pandemic, they’re not used to war. Mizoram is a peaceful place and people are not used to violence here.”

India has been home to the Jewish community for centuries after migration from Israel, Spain, Portugal and other countries.

An estimated 50,000 Jewish people lived in India in the 1940s. The population swiftly declined after the majority emigrated to the newly formed state of Israel. Others migrated to the UK, US and Canada.

About 6,000 Jews have remained, including in Mizoram and Manipur, Kochi in the southern state of Kerala, Mumbai, Kolkata and capital Delhi.

Updated: October 16, 2023, 3:03 PM