'Jews' from Mizoram seek refuge in Israel

"I will go and settle there because I am Jew,” one Mizo Jew exclaimed. "Israel is my promised land."
( [email protected] ) Jan 03, 2004 12:44 PM EST

Aizawl, Mizoram, India., Jan. 3 - Do not be surprised if you find people from Mizoram migrating to the Middle East, specially Israel. Yes, they are born Mizo and speak the language of the far north-east Indian state bordering Burma - but they dream of a new life in Israel.

In Mizoram and the neighboring state of Manipur, there are nearly 5,000 people who call themselves Jews, and 800 of them have already migrated to the Middle East.

Most live in Gaza and the West Bank - troubled areas compared to the peace of Mizoram, now that the state has a settlement with rebels after years of insurgency. Why? Because they claim to be the descendants of the Bne Menashe Tribe (one of the 10 lost tribes). These people claim that after their forefathers were exiled and enslaved by the Assyrians they somehow escaped from slavery and arrived in China. Later on they moved to the Chinese-Burmese border and much later on to the neighboring east India.

Ephraim Lalmingliana, who calls himself a Mizo Jew, says he is not afraid of the violence in the West Bank or Gaza.

"I will go and settle there because I am Jew,?he proudly exclaimed. "Israel is my promised land and I long to go there. I have computer skills and I will surely get a job there."

It will not be easy for the teenager.

"Israel does not consider this community [in Mizoram] as Jewish," Ms Michal Buch, a spokesperson of the Israeli embassy in the Indian capital, Delhi, told.

"Some of them have already arrived in Israel on tourist visas. We know that they underwent a formal conversion [to Judaism] there," she said.

Those who call themselves Jews in Mizoram complain that it has become very difficult to get visas for Israel from north-eastern India.

"None of us can go now. We want this ban to be lifted," says Ron Sangliana, another young Mizo who calls himself a Jew.

The Israeli embassy says there is no such ban.

"We have no information about any ban on visas for Jews across the world," said Ms Buch.

"In terms of visas, they [Mizos who say they are Jews] are treated like other Indians traveling to Israel," she added.

Mizoram's newest political party, the Ephraim Union, is lobbying hard to have what it calls "visa restrictions" eased.

"We have approached the Prime Minister's Office and the Indian foreign ministry to take this up with Israel, with whom Delhi enjoys close ties now," says Elizabeth Zodiangliani, who edits a paper reporting on Jewish issues.

Israel's Amishav organisation, a Jewish group that helps Jews from across the world to settle in Israel, says it will help.

According to news sources, the Amishav chief, Michael Freund, said: "There is no reason these Jews from Mizoram and Manipur should be denied a place in the Promised Land. They are good and devout Jews and very good people. They will be assets for Israel."

Senior Amishav members have made several visits to Mizoram to organise the Jews, and help them learn Hebrew by opening a school in Aizawl, Mizoram's capital.

Scores of Mizos and Kukis, ethnic cousins speaking languages closely akin to each other, say they started converting to the Jewish faith in the mid-1980s after a local researcher claimed the Mizos as one of the lost tribes of Israel.

But the state's powerful church, which holds great sway over the lives of 750,000 Mizos - who are almost wholly Christian - dismisses this theory.

Nevertheless, scores of Mizos - men and women, young and old - have since converted to the Jewish faith, with many learning Hebrew through correspondence courses.

Those that Amishav helped to migrate to Israel often found themselves settled in areas the Arabs describe as Occupied Territories.

An Amishav official says that the new settlers chose to settle in Gaza or the West Bank because land and living there is cheap.