Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Lost Tribes? 

From the Head Heeb, an update on the situation facing the 5,000 or so Bnei Menashe:
The legal status of the Bnei Menashe of India may be settled when a rabbinical investigation team presents its report to the Israeli government. The report, which is expected within the next two weeks, will include a non-binding recommendation as to whether the Bnei Menashe, who claim descent from the lost tribe of Manasseh, should be treated as Jews under the Law of Return...

About 800 Bnei Menashe have already immigrated to Israel, but as with the Falashmura of Ethiopia, their status has been uncertain due to suspicion that they may be using a dubious connection to Judaism as a cloak for economic migration. Unlike the Falashmura, however, the Bnei Menashe began practicing Judaism well before their first contact with Israel and before Israel became an attractive destination for economic migrants, and those in Israel have continued to participate actively in the Jewish community. Their claim to be one of the Ten Lost Tribes is highly doubtful, but their present-day commitment to Judaism isn't.

To be sure, there may be some ulterior motives on the part of their sponsors. Shas sponsored the Falashmura partly in an attempt to establish a clientage relationship, and there are some indications that it hopes to do the same with the Bnei Menashe. The Bnei Menashe themselves, however, are sincere.
I concur with Jonathan on the unlikelihood of the Bnei Menashe genuinely being descendents of one of the 10 lost tribes. There's simply too immense a history of claims of this sort. Among some of the crazier claims to "lost tribe" status are:

* the Anglo-Israelite ravings so beloved by many of our nation's farthest-out racist nuts, which purport to prove that Anglo-Saxons are the true descendents of Menassah, Dan and the other tribes so familiar from boxes of Hanukkah candles.

* the Hebrew Israelites you may have seen on a street corner or on late-night cable-access shows, who see descendants of slaves across the Americas as being the heirs of the 10 lost tribes, or maybe all 12 tribes.

* a gabillion others you can probably find on the internet.

Readers interested in further information on various claimants to "Ten Lost Tribes" status are encouraged to read Kooks, by Donna Kossy, or to read this rather charmless synopsis from Wikipedia.

One interesting element of the Bnei Menashe's story is their claim to being a lost offshoot of the Kaifeng Jews of China, whose fascinating history you can read about here.

There's also an interesting website I've found on the other Jewish communities of India, but as I simply don't know enough about the subject I can't vouch for the accuracy of the information on the site.

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