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November - December 2000 The Sabbath Sentinel

Lost Tribe-Members Seek a Return to Israel

by Allan Phillips

MEMBERS of a people who claim descent from one of the lost tribes of Israel have asked for permission to immigrate from India to the Jewish state, 2,700 years after their tradition says that they were forced into exile. Israeli authorities fear that such an immigration would open the floodgates for millions of people around the world-anyone who might claim a perhaps mythical link to one of the 10 tribes which disappeared in the 8th century BC.

This particular request comes from the Shinlung people, a collection of tribes who live in the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, and across the border in Burma. They were converted to Christianity in the 19th century, but believe that they are descended from the lost tribe of Manasseh-one of 10 tribes taken into captivity by the Assyrians (in 722 BC) to what is now Iraq. Activists from the Shinlung people asked the Israeli parliament's immigration and absorption committee on Tuesday to allow 100 members a year to enter the country as immigrants and receive the subsidies and benefits that any Jewish person from the Diaspora would receive.

But, Rabbi Shmuel Halpert (an ultra-orthodox member of the committee) said, "If you bring one, think how many non-Jews will come." He stated that there were millions of people of Spanish origin-in Spain, Portugal and Latin America-who were descendants of Jews that were forced to convert to Christianity, but who kept up some Jewish practices in secret.

He said, "They have far more of a clear link to the Jewish people." The government's adviser on immigration, Anna Isakov, said no more Shinlung should be allowed into Israel until a thorough investigation was made of their claims to be the lost tribe of Manasseh.

Estimates of the numbers of the Shinlung vary from 1.5 million to three million, but only 3,500 are understood to be practising the Jewish faith actively. The cause of the Shinlung is being promoted by Rabbi Eliahu Avihail. Thanks to his efforts, 450 members of the tribe have entered Israel over the past 10 years, but each has to go through a yearlong conversion process, as their claims to being Jewish are not recognized.

Rabbi Avihail declared, "Their traditions have many similarities with that of the ancient Israelites. They carry out circumcision of male children on the eighth day after birth, using sharpened stones, as was done in Biblical times. They carry out sacrifices on altars." One song, which has apparently been handed down for millennia, contains the lines "We crossed the Red Sea on dry land. At night we crossed with a fire and by day a cloud." They also mark the Passover with an evening meal, as Jews all over the world do.

Rabbi Avihail says it is unfair to say that the Shinlung want to move to Israel for a better life. He said, "They are rich and well-educated in India. They have cars and servants and nice homes. They lack nothing, and when they come here they live as paupers."

Behind the government's reluctance to accept them lies a serious fear about the Jewish character of the state of Israel. More than half of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union last year were not Jewish according to rabbinical standards. There are many other "lost tribes" which might want to enter Israel, including the Pathans, who live in Afghanistan and Pakistan and number about 10 million.


November - December 2000 The Sabbath Sentinel