Lost Tribe of Israel?

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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 Burma.

Farther up the hill, in a corrugated iron shed perched on the side of a deep ravine, Eliazer Sela, 56, chazan of the city's older Ashkenazi synagogue, leads a slightly larger congregation of 21 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 wait, this gets even more intriguing: 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 Mizoram's 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 Mongoloid 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 borderlands of eastern India by Welsh Evangelicals 100 years ago, has been guardian of their souls and permeates all aspects of their lives--political, social and economic. That is, 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 Testaments. The Rev. Zairema, former moderator of the Presbyterian church, says exposure to the Old Testament and its stories accounts for the Mizos' 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 the link.

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, and urged her to return to India to catalogue Mizo history. She came up with a list of alleged cultural 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. She 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 Mizos are of Jewish descent. 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 into 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 average 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-Israel. He also talks of a greater Chhinlung-Israel state that includes the Mizos of neighboring Burma and Bangladesh, a prospect that would not 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