Controversies surrounding Bnei Menashe

Jun 9, 2010 by

Bnei Menashe is a group of more than 9,000 people from India’s North-Eastern border states of Manipur and Mizoram. They look the part and speak a Tibeto-Burman language.

But, as their name suggests, they claim descent from the Menashe tribe; their legendary ancestor is called Manmasi. In the past, they used to be headhunters and animists, but in the 19th century they converted to Christianity.

Still, in the late 20th century, this group experienced a revival of Judaism. Many of the Bnei Menashe made aliya (immigrated) to Israel. The key role in this process has been played by an organization called Shavei Israel. The self-proclaimed goal of this Jerusalem-based religious organization is to assist “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people. In addition to Bnei Menashe, Shavei Israel are helping the Bnai Anousim (“Marranos”) of Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, and the “Hidden Jews” of Poland from the time of the Holocaust.

Still, Shavei Israel remains a highly controversial organization in Israel. Part of the reason why is because they settle many of those “lost but newly found Jews” in settlements on the territories outside the Green Line. The goal of this is to boost the Jewish population in these areas. Many of the Bnei Menashe settled here as well, thus landing in one of the long-standing political controversies.

But the controversy surrounding Bnei Menashe is not only political, but also ideological and scientific and it rages in both Israel and in India. Just as the first Bnei Menashe were brought to Israel, many there were questioning whether these people were Jewish at all. After all, their practice of Judaism does not go that far back into the past and their past “Jewishness” is more a matter of a legend than of reality. So geneticists jumped in.

In 2003, Hillel Halkin initiates a collection of 350 genetic samples from Bnei Menashe which are then tested at Haifa’s Technion – Israel Institute of Technology – under the auspices of Prof. Karl Skorecki (he’s the man behind the discovery of the Cohen Modal Haplotype, or CMH, and with Batsheva Bonne-Tamir, he is one of the leading Israeli geneticists). But the results of this study were negative: no evidence was found which would indicate a Middle-Eastern origin for Bnei Menashe.

A very different result has been claimed by an Indian study conducted in 2004 at Kolkota’s Central Forensic Science Laboratory: according to these researchers, they found Y-DNA evidence of Middle Eastern genes among a sample of Bnei Menashe. But this research remains highly controversial both in scientific and political circles. It has been criticized heavily by Prof. Skorecki, who claimed that Kolkota researches “did not do a complete ‘genetic sequencing’ of all the DNA and therefore it is hard to rely on the conclusions derived from a ‘partial sequencing’, and they themselves admit this”. But is the absence of evidence — evidence of absence? Prof. Skorecki admits that “it is possible that after thousands of years it is difficult to identify the traces of the common genetic origin”.

A further study conducted in 2005 by the Central Forensic Institute in Calcutta claimed that “while the masculine side of the tribes bears no links to Israel, the feminine side suggests a genetic profile with Middle Eastern people that may have arisen through inter-marriage”. Yet this study has never been properly peer-reviewed or published, so its reliability is questionable too.

Some even accuse these studies of being “science in service of politics”. The Israeli social scientist Lev Grinberg told the BBC that “right-wing Jewish groups wanted such conversions of distant people to boost the population in areas disputed by the Palestinians”. Others wonder whether such research is pushing in the direction of making genetic testing a prerequisite for applications for Israeli citizenship; but then what about people who convert into Judaism? After all, the “Jewish club” is open to anybody who wants to join. However, the practice of proselytizing, let alone forced conversions, is not part of Judaism, which makes the work of Shavei Israel questionable for some.

So the current consensus on the Jewish status of Bnei Menashe is that a small group of their ancestors likely descended from a “lost tribe” (possibly, of Menashe) and transmitted biblical memories, traditions and customs to a larger group of people. But with their newly found “Jewishness” Bnei Menashe are learning that being Jewish is not an easy role to play.

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