At the beginning of the year 1989, over 100 Jews from Mizoram were part of the first wave of migrants to the ‘promised land’ in Israel. Today, the community has grown considerably, with over 4000 people currently living in different parts of the country. The Jews from Mizoram and Manipur consider themselves to be Bnei Menashe— the descendents of one of the 'lost tribes of Israel’ and have adopted the practice of Judaism.
The government of Israel acknowledges and accepts them as so and has facilitated their ‘Aliyah’ i.e. the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the Land of Israel.
It involves an absorption process where the Government of Israel grants citizenship to the immigrant Jews upon arrival at the airport and undergoes a formal conversion by a mikveh or Jewish ritual bath (a kind of baptism).
Assimilation Into Jewish Culture Has Its Pros and Cons
“The absorption process allows us to learn the Israeli language, local customs, develop our skills and acclimatise to the culture, the people and the environment. We received free accommodation, health care, education and allowance for a year which makes the transition easier. While it is a little easier for the younger generation to be absorbed, it is far more challenging for the elders since learning language, getting accustomed to new culture is not an easy task," said Shimson Fanai who moved to Israel at the age of 24 in 2017.
Leaving friends, family members behind to settle in a new place is not an easy decision but many have taken the journey to the ‘Holy land’ to practice their faith, to live a life of promise, to reclaim their ‘ancient heritage’ and to be reunited with their ‘lost brothers and sisters’.
Meir Phaltual, who moved to Israel in 2014 with his wife and children, said, “The move was not difficult for me because I felt like I was returning home. In Mizoram, we faced a lot of discrimination from the local community and teachers at school because of our religion. Our own family members who are not following Judaism do not understand us. My grandparents cut ties with my parents because of our religion. One of the reasons that motivated us to immigrate to Israel was to be able to practice our religion freely”.
In states like Mizoram and Manipur, where majority of the Christians belong to Baptist and Presbyterian church denominations, the Bnei Menashe members are the marginalised community. With just over 1000 members in Mizoram, their community is much smaller, their Synagogues are few in number and their voices are often unheard in socio-economic and political matters.
In Pursuit of a Place and Practice To Belong To..
Their religious practices are different from the majority and therefore, are often subjected to discrimination. This resulted in a sense of alienation and a strong desire to have a place of belonging. Many Mizo Jews assert that their sense of belonging can be fulfilled in their ‘ancient home’ in Israel.
Shabbat, one of the most important ritual observances in Judaism, forbids its devotees from doing certain activities such as cooking, washing, sewing, planting, reaping, burning, extinguishing, carrying heavy stuff etc amongst others.
Observing Shabbat in Mizoram for the Jews became more challenging due to conflicts of interest. The Mizo people live by a code of ethics ‘tlawmngaihna’ which can be translated as a selfless service to others. Every family is expected to contribute labour for the welfare of the community and participate in community service on occasions of marriage, public feast, accident and death etc.
Community Precedes Religion Among Mizos
When such an event clashes with Shabbat, it poses a dilemma for the Jewish member to observe the religious rituals or to commit the services. “In Mizo society, we are expected to do community service but when activities fall during our Shabbat period, we would miss it and are criticised for it. There is very little understanding of our religious practice from the community and even at school, teachers would often pass comments about my religion. It was so difficult that I did not wear a Kippah (cap worn by Jews) in Mizoram at all. I started wearing it as soon as I arrived in Israel," recalls Shimson.
Be It Home or Abroad, Discrimination Shadows Mizo Jews
The perks of immigrating to Israel for the Bnei Menashe is to be able to practice the religion freely. However, does this mean the end of discrimination for the Mizo Jews?
“Discrimination exists everywhere, the sources differs though. In Mizoram, the discrimination comes from my own people, my brothers and sisters, my own community and it was more hurtful since I expected them to embrace and accept me for my choice and beliefs. Here, in Israel, the discrimination comes from strangers I do not have a relationship with. I've encountered racial slurs like ‘Chinese’ often, sometimes I ignored it but sometimes, it led to physical fights”, narrates Meir. In Mizoram, they were discriminated against for their religion. In Israel, they are discriminated against for their race.
On settling down in the new culture, the immigrants have to confront the task of defining themselves in new and unfamiliar places. The integration of the Bnei Menashe into the Israel society would also mean adoption of local customs and traditions, and constructing a new identity.
There is fear among the members that the younger generations who were born in Israel would forget their Mizo roots. When I spoke to some members, we communicated in Mizo language and it was clear that the connection over their ethnicity is very much rooted in their preservation of the language and culture.
The continuous immigration and addition of new members to their society also help in the continuous exchange and preservation of their ethnicity. And, a lot of them used ‘Mizo roots’ interchangeably with ‘homecoming’, which also connotes their negotiation with their ethnic identity and Israeli identity. There is a conflicting sense of identities among the people with the main cause of immigration being the idea of ‘returning home’, and yet a longing persists and so does a strong attachment to their ethnicity.
Embracing Ethnic Roots Is Part and Parcel of Israeli Identity
While some members completely adopted the Israeli identity and changed their Mizo names into Hebrew ones, some members are positive that they can adopt both identities by preserving their Mizo name and culture.
Meir opines that, “Within our community, we all have different opinions about our identity. Israel is a diverse country and immigrants have every right to enjoy and protect their ethnicity. I personally employ a Mizo nanny to teach my children the Mizo language because I want my children to be connected to their roots.
In order to stay connected to their roots, the Bnei Menashe community often organises cultural eve to celebrate various festivals, teach younger members about the folk dance and folktales.
This also created a stronger bond between the Mizo and the Manipuri jews. Keeping their roots alive, they would conduct joint cultural programmes and annual sporting events to inculcate a sense of collective belonging.
This became evident during the recent incident that involved the death of Yoel, a Manipuri youth in Israel who immigrated to Israel in 2019. While he was waiting to enlist for Army service, on the night of 8 October, he attended a birthday party where a fight broke out and he got stabbed. Reports stated that his attackers were hurling insults and calling him ‘Chinese’.
The incident sent shockwaves across the community with many people coming together to hold a vigil and pay tribute to the departed soul. While the story of Yoel falls in the heart of racism, identity and belonging, it also highlights the solidarity of the Mizos and Manipuris in the distant ‘promised land’ of Israel.
(Dr Embassy Lawbei is an Assistant Professor- Department of Media Studies School of Arts and Humanities, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bangalore.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)