Page last updated at 11:25 GMT, Monday, 1 March 2010

Jerusalem Diary: Found tribe

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem


There are some East Asian faces to be seen around Israel. Up in the fields of the far north, by the Lebanese border, or the groves of the far south, en route to Eilat, Thai farm workers rattle past on tractors.

Rabbi Yehuda Gin
We - having been lost - still adhere to our love for the land of Israel: this is a very, very strong part of the identity of the Bnei Menash
Rabbi Yehuda Gin

In the big cities, Filipina women offer care to elderly Israelis.

But until I had been to Kiryat Arba, deep inside the occupied West Bank, I had not seen East Asians the other side of the Green Line - the internationally recognised boundary between Israel and the West Bank.

Kiryat Arba is a slightly down-at-heel place these days. It lies next to Hebron, the tense and divided city that exerts a strong historical pull for Muslims and Jews.

The story that we tend to report is the hotly-contested dispute as to whether Jews should be allowed to settle here at all - on what all governments outside Israel regard as occupied territory.

But there is another remarkable and little-told story at play here: the story of Indians from a remote part of that vast country, who have come to this place, believing that they are one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

On the side of a plain, pre-fabricated building in Kiryat Arba is a plaque, proclaiming that this is a community centre for "our Bnei Menashe brethren". The brown-skinned, almond-eyed children playing inside have travelled thousands of kilometres from north-east India.

Michael Freund ad Tsvi Khaute
Michael Freund's (left) organisation aims to gather in the lost tribes of Israel

Rabbi Yehuda Gin stabs his forefinger at a map of the region, sandwiched between Burma and Bangladesh. The story of the "children of Menashe" is that they were exiled from Israel, 2700 years ago, by the Assyrians. Their wandering took them, in the end, to north-east India.

"In the external appearance," Rabbi Gin says, "it is very hard to prove that we are part of the Israel nation, or part of the tribes." But he insists that the kipot (skullcaps) which most of the Bnei Menashe men wear symbolise their commitment. "We - having been lost - still adhere to our love for the land of Israel: this is a very, very strong part of the identity of the Bnei Menashe."

 Tsvi Khaute
Tsvi Khaute reads a Hebrew prayer to an East Asian tune

The community centre is named Beit Miriam, after the grandmother of Michael Freund. He set up an organisation, called Shavei Yisrael (Israel Returns), to gather in the communities which he believes are the lost tribes.

"I myself was sceptical," he concedes. "But once I travelled to the north-east of India and I met with the members of the community and I learned more about their history and their tradition and their customs, I became convinced that they are in fact descendants of a lost tribe - that they do have a deep connection to the people of Israel."

In a quiet room away from the hectic games of the Bnei Menashe children, Tsvi Khaute takes a prayer-book down from a shelf. He opens to a page from the Shabbat morning service, and the traditional Ayn Keiloheinu prayer, which is sung by Jewish communities around the world. The Hebrew words are the same, but the tune he sings has a distinctly pentatonic, East Asian flavour.

Kiryat Arba
Kiryat Arba is at the edge of Hebron, a regular flashpoint between Palestinians and Jewish settlers

The faith, then, appears to have deep religious roots. But that still leaves the possibility that the Bnei Menashe may have wanted to come to Israel for economic reasons - to improve their standard of living.

Tsvi Khaute insists not. His family, he says, includes a state minister and the head of the secret police.

"We are a well-to-do family. So it is not an economic consideration. If you live outside Israel," he says, his voice becoming impassioned, "it's as if you don't have God."


Tzvi Khaute is equally certain about his right to live here, on what governments outside Israel regard as an illegal settlement on occupied territory. "Those who claim that Hebron is not Jewish, they don't know their identity. This is a very, very important place where the Jews belong."

There is another, more prosaic reason that the Bnei Menashe ended up in Kiryat Arba. Fifteen years ago, it was one of the only Israeli-run councils willing to accept these unusual-looking immigrants.

The international consensus is that Jews should not be settling in Kiryat Arba at all - that it should be part of a new Palestinian state. And if that were ever to happen then the Bnei Menashe's remarkable story of wandering may well take another turn.

A selectino of your comments on Tim Franks' Jerusalem diary:

Moving people from India just for religious conviction is ludicrous. They were living peacefully in India as Indian citizens. This migration is purely opportunistic.
S Kumar, Michigan, USA

Israel is quite a country... It is remarkable how many nationalities are being absorbed into its social fabric; Indians, Ethiopians, Russians, etc. I was Israel last summer and was pleased to see so many Ethiopians and other minorities are carving a new life away from the terrorized lands from which they escaped. For all the Apartheid rhetoric that is going around Europe, it would behove the EU to send representatives to Israel to study how to absorb and help immigrants become an integral part of their society. I am sure that within twenty years, Ethiopian immigrants will rise to high echelons of military and political power.
Jed Nightingale, New York

I can see this guy's descendants coming back to India 2700 years later, claiming that the sarees they wear once a year, are proof that they need to bulldoze Indian people's houses and take over North East India.
Don Johnson, San Bernadino, CA

Israel's only goal is to populate every bit of space it has taken from the Palestinians with anyone willing to relocate there. This in turn will justify the illegal annexation of land. Perhaps some compassion to other human beings (Palestinians) could go a long way to solving this tragic situation.
Luis, San Antonio, TX

Tim Franks' biased coverage is obvious the way he refers to Kiriath Arba as being "deeply inside the occupied West Bank". A little bit of history reveals that Kiriath Arba and Hebron are in fact the First Jewish cities and the first capital of Israel (before king David captured Jerusalem). The Children of Menashe are definitely descendants of the Lost Tribes, as their practises were very similar to Judaism even before they encountered modern Jews. May God bless them and increase them. And may all the land of Israel quickly become settled by its rightful owners, the Jewish people.
John Smith, Westminster, UK

Certainly an interesting human interest story, though it's important to remember that nary a serious academic would actually affirm that the Bnei Menashe are really descended from exiled Israelites. However, I think it's a fascinating look at local/indigenous responses to Christian missionary activity/imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in East Asia. A new Christian culture supplanted the indigenous, bringing the story of Israel and the Exiles, and a particular sect responded by identifying with the beleaguered Israelites. It's brilliant, really. Though, quite ironic that the modern Israelis would exploit this poor group by using them as place holders in their ongoing imperialism in the Palestinian territories.
Matthew Rasure, Cambridge, MA, USA

Most people suspect the real truth but won't say it for 'political correctness'! The Indians are happy to escape abject economic misery; that is their prime motivation. The Israelis are happy to take a small "tribe" and use them as a buffer on Palestinian land. What a sham the whole thing is!
Ken Stewart, Toronto, Canada

If you repatriated everyone in the world to where they were 2700 years ago what an earth would the world map look like? I am probably related to a Roman soldier who was the son of some poor woman he took in the 'holy land' and then had me etc so exactly where would my homeland be in that scenario?
Elaine Abu-Jaber, Yorks UK

Nice to see our people happily settled in their adopted country. I want to congratulate each one of them having worked tirelessly. I wish one day I could pay a visit to this place.
Vanlal, Aizawl; India

There are many many Indian Jewish families in Israel. Where I was born next to Metula on the northest point in Israel, there is a little moshav called Kfar Yuval. For many years the mainly Indian residents were poor and struggled financially. Things are better now in that part of Israel. One thing is sure, there was never a doubt in any of us about their Jewishness. We were one.
Itsik, London

The nearly half million Jews now settled in the illegally occupied territories must go. The fault lies of course with the Judeo-Christian West and that mythical "international community", for, unless forced to do so, why should a violent criminal change his behaviour of a lifetime? The world was quick to use massive military force to end Saddam Hussein's illegal annexation of Kuwait - what is the difference with Israel?
Ibraheem (O.E.H.Johansen), Copenhagen, Denmark

"If you live outside Israel, it's as if you don't have God". Whoa, I thought Jews believed in an omnipresent God too. This people lived in India for 2700 years. In all those centuries, after Buddha, Mahaveer, Paramhans etc came to the land, these people couldn't accept India's basic philosophy, God is one, he is everywhere, in every one? I wouldn't be surprised if after 2700 years in Israel he still hasn't found his God!docboston, El Paso, USA

Leave it to be the BBC to overly politicize a story about people wandering home. These people could have invented a cure for cancer and the BBC would still ramble on and on about how they did it in a politically changed atmosphere.
Nathan, Hoboken, NJ

This is colonialism pure and simple. It is an interesting story but if the Bnei Menashe wish to live in Israel they should live in the recognised borders of that country, not on Palestinian land.
James Wild, London UK

Dear Tim, Thank you for writing such a wonderful article on the Bnei Menashe. I hope your article will be an eye opener for the many bystanders.
Odelia Ester Khongsai, Kiryat Arba, Israel

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