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Lost tribe of Israel?
LOST TRIBE OF ISRAEL?
By MICHAEL FATHERS in AIZAWL
SOURCE: TIME, Feb. 28, 2000
In a bare room in an unfinished concrete building on the fringes of the
Golden Triangle where the hill tribesmen were once headhunters, a man
puts on a prayer shawl and begins chanting in Hebrew. A small number of
followers join in the responses. Afterward he says: "I was a corps cadet
in the Salvation Army 10 years ago, but now I am a Jew: 'This is
Yeshuran Ngaihte, 50, the chazan, or elder, of the year-old Sephardic
synagogue in Aizawl, capital of India's Mizoram state on the border with
Farther up the hill, in a corrugated iron shed perched on the side of a
deep ravine, Eliater Sela, 56, chazan of the city's older Ashkenazi
synagogue, leads a slightly larger congregation of 2l worshipers in
evening prayers, the women separated from the men by a mosquito net.
Father of nine children, four of whom live in Israel, Sela ran a
roadside tea stall and prayed at the Presbyterian church before he
switched to the Jewish faith in 1972.
The forested hills of northeastern India must rank among the last places
on the planet where you would expect to find a synagogue, let alone two.
But the Jews of this remote region believe they are descendants of a
legendary lost tribe of Israel that, according to the Old Testament,
disappeared almost 3,000 years ago.
"When I read the Old Testament, I realized Mizos were very similar to
the Jews:' says Sela, "so I prayed to God to tell me if we were Jewish.
Sela's tale is greeted with scorn by leaders of Mizorams majority
Christian population. "We are not of Jewish descent:' says the Rev. C.
Vanlalhruaia, a senior member of the local Presbyterian Church,
Mizoram's most important denomination. "The history of the Bible makes
that clear. We are of Mongol stock".
Still, it's not hard to see why some Mizos might believe they are
connected to a faraway land. Mizoram (pop. 700,000) is cut off by
distance and culture from the rest of India. Its isolation, fed by a
20-year guerrilla insurgency against New Delhi that ended in 1986, has
made it a breeding ground for spiritual adventurers offering salvation,
identity and the prospect of emigration and riches abroad.
The Christian religion, brought to the jungle-clad border lands of
eastern India by Welsh Evangelicals 100 years ago, permeates all aspects
of their lives - political, social and economic.
Or it did until some of them became convinced that the Mizo people were
one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.
The confusion over identity is plainly visible in the narrow and
precipitous streets of Aizawl, Mizoram's capital. One hillside is called
Bethlehem, another Salem. A main intersection is called Israel Point.
Shops carry such names as Israel Stores, Zion Tailors, Exodus Press,
Nazareth School. The names appear to have been plucked from the entire
Judeo-Christian spectrum. This is a part of
the world where the Word of God is revered - in both its New and Old
The Rev. Zairema, former moderator of the Presbyterian church, says
exposure to the Old Testament and its stories accounts for the Mizo's
belief that they may be Jewish. "There is a tendency on the part of some
groups to believe they are physically related to the Children of
Abraham, as well as spiritually related.
The Church has ignored these claims as they don't mean anything."
According to local legend, the Mizos' Jewish connection goes back more
than 1,000 years to a remote cave in China where the scattered remnants
of the lost Jewish tribe of Menashe were holed up. They called
themselves Chhinlung, after the cave, and over the years they made their
way south through Thailand, settling for good in a pocket of hills
astride what is today Burma, India and Bangladesh.
Roll forward to 1952, and a local headman falls into a trance, has a
vision and announces that God has told him the Mizos are the lost tribe.
A group of believers then sets off on foot for the Promised Land,
thinking it might be just over the horizon. Some go north, see a train
for the first time and get as far as Assam, a neighboring Indian state.
Others go northeast and reach Nagaland. No one makes it to Israel, but
the story of the vision and the abortive journey to Zion inspires a
relative of one of the trekkers to investigate.
That relative, Zaithanchhungi, an insurance saleswoman and former
teacher, went to Israel in 1983. There she met Eliyahu Avichayil, an
Orthodox rabbi whose Amishav organization searches the world for
descendants of the lost tribes. He showed immediate interest in her
story, saying Jews had been scattered as far as China. He urged her to
return to India to catalogue Mizo history. She came up with a list of
apparent similarities, including the building of altars, the
sacrifice of animals, burial customs, marriage and divorce procedures, a
belief in an all-powerful deity and the symbolic presence of the number
seven in many festivities. Zaithanchhungi saw other links in musical
instruments and household practices. "I was a non-believer, but after my
research I now believe very firmly that the Mizo are of Jewish descent".
Yet she herself remains a Presbyterian.
Why? "Because I believe in Jesus Christ. For many people it is difficult
to go back to the thoughts of our ancestors".
Conversions took off in the late 1980s after Rabbi Avichayil's Amishav
organization began sponsoring Mizos to travel to Israel. According to
Zaithanchhungi, some 400 young men and women made the journey, were
converted and have been settled - mainly in the occupied territories.
Now the money seems to have run out. Israel does not acknowledge the
Mizos as Jews, though its Interior Ministry said in July that the
government would permit 100 Mizo tribesmen to enter the country annually
as tourists. If they are converted to Judaism they can become immigrants
under Israel's Law of Return,
which grants the right of citizenship to all Jews. Police officials in
Mizoram say that over the past five years some 2,000 young Mizos have
applied for passports to visit Israel. An aververage age of 30 or 40
Mizos actually make the trip each year.
Inevitably, this turning to Jerusalem has created political
complications. An aspiring politician and businessman, Lalchhanhima
Sailo, a 44-year-old Presbyterian, is staking his claim to future power
on a new Mizo identity.
Founder of the Chhinlung-Israel Peoples Convention, he is campaigning
across the state to change the name of the Mizo tribe to
Chhinlung-Ismel. He also talks of a greater Chhinlung-Israel state that
would include the Mizos of neighboring Burma and Bangladesh, a prospect
that would hardly be welcome in Dhaka, Rangoon or New Delhi.
But for Mizoram's chief minister Zoramthanga, former deputy commander of
the guerrilla force that battled the Indian army, identity is not a
problem. "There is a possibility that the Mizos are one of the lost
tribes of Israel. There are certain practices and customs which suggest
this. But I should add that only when we reach heaven will we have the
proof:' he says, roaring with laughter.
With reporting by Subir Bhaumik/Aizawl and Eric Silver /Jerusalem
(Thanks to CHIN FORUM INFORMATION SERVICE for sending this article.)