Monday, 21 May, 2007

Mizoram’s Jews – the lost tribe of Israel

It has been a long-standing contention of a section of Mizos that the people of Mizoram are descendants of the Menashe, one of the lost tribes of Israel. But the claims were quashed several times by Israel where, by the law of return, anyone with proof of Jewish roots can go and settle. It is difficult to ignore the similarities. Till the early 20th century, (when they were converted from head hunters to Christianity by missionaries), the Mizos sacrificed animals on a hillock to Pathian (Jehova) at a sacrificial altar on which a cross, similar to David’s star, was drawn. The Jewish Sabbath starts when the stars appear on a Friday evening and ends with the same on a Saturday evening. During the Cawngpuisial, Mizo villagers are restricted from going out of the village and strangers from entering it, after the stars appear on a Friday. The curfew is lifted on Saturday only after the stars appear. Even the burial rituals are similar. Mizos have a symbolic circumcision ceremony in which no actual cuts are made, a festival similar to Passover in which they eat unleavened bread.

One organisation that backs these Mizo claims, is the Israeli Jewish group Amishav, which has a permanent mission in Mizoram to assist Mizos practising Judaism. In the last 20 years more than 800 have migrated to the Jewish homeland, swapping thatched villages in the steamy tropical hills of North East India for concrete settlements on the West Bank and Gaza or service in the Israeli Defence Force. Right-wing Jewish groups have mostly welcomed them, but some left-wing Israelis question their fervour to return; reasoning that Israel’s comparatively higher standard of living attracts the Mizos. Allenby Sela, principal of the Amishav Hebrew Center in Aizawl, who was one of the 900 Mizos to convert to Judaism and settle down in the Gaza Strip, scoffs in disbelief. He returned to Mizoram to make his people aware of their history. “Faith can’t be proved through blood tests, it is a spiritual thing. Israel recognised the Black Jews of Ethiopia and the Fallasahs of South Africa as lost tribes without any tests (a Y-chromosome genetic marker is found across the Jewish diaspora). Although people from perhaps 100 countries settled in Israel since it was founded, they have not been asked to prove their race scientifically, This is nonsense. We believe firmly in our faith and our roots. “

Fortunately, a recent DNA study has validated the claim. Bhaswar Maity, a research scholar at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Kolkata, confirmed their Jewish descent. There are also historical pointers to this claim. Zaithanchhungi, a scholar studying the Mizo claim for over 20 years, is convinced that all Mizos are descendants of the Menashe. “The Menashe were enslaved by the Assyrians and taken to Assyria when Jerusalem fell and migrated to Afghanistan. During Alexander’s invasion they were driven through Kashmir and the Tibet plateau into the Chhinlung region of China and only entered Mizoram about 300 years ago via Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Burma.”

A stroll through Aizawl’s streets with signs like Moses Snack Centre, Nazareth Medical, Israel Stores, Zion Street shows how well assimilated they are. Intermarriages are quite common. The Jewish area in Aizawl, boasts a couple of synagogues, where Mizo men wearing skull caps and orthodox Jewish clothes stitched at Zion Tailors pray. Some got themselves circumcised without anaesthetic to demonstrate their fervour. . All Jew children learn Hebrew; either at the Holy Land High School or through correspondence courses. It has not been easy. The Indian security forces are suspicious of the motives and loyalties of the Mizo Jews in a sensitive border region. No kosher meat is available and pork is the much relished staple among 90% of the local population which is Christian, and treats Judaism more like a passing fad. But the Mizo Jews know otherwise. “The Torah (the Jewish Bible) prophesised that there shall be one Holy Land in the west and one in the east. If you include all the Chhinlung people of Jewish descent spread over Mizoram, Manipur and Burma, you will find the prophecy has come true” says a Jewish man awaiting his visa to the Promised Land.

Rachana Rana Bhattacharya
(Charkha Features)

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