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India's "lost" Jews return to biblical homeland

Written by: Staff

TEL AVIV, Nov 21 (Reuters) Members of a group who profess Jewish ancestry arrived in Israel from India today to begin a new life, after rabbinical leaders accepted them as descendants of one of Judaism's lost biblical tribes.

Fifty-one members of the ''Bnei Menashe'', or the children of Menashe, were greeted at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport by officials who waved Israeli flags and sang the traditional Hebrew greeting of ''Shalom Aleichem'', or ''peace unto you''.

''I am so excited to be here,'' said 21-year old Arbi Khiangte from Mizoram as tears streamed down her face. ''I give thanks to God.'' The Bnei Menashe community in India's remote northeastern states of Mizoram and Manipur trace their lineage from one of the 10 ''lost tribes'' of Israel exiled by the Assyrian empire 27 centuries ago.

''For more than 2,000 years, we have been in Galut,'' said Ovadia Pachuau, another new immigrant from Mizoram, using the Hebrew word for exile.

''We are reaching our homeland, so we are very, very happy,'' said the 48-year-old, who arrived with his family. ''It will be very different here compared to our life in India.'' In the coming days the remainder of the 218 Bnei Menashe immigrating to Israel will arrive in the Jewish state.

They will move to the northern Israeli towns of Carmiel and Upper Nazareth, areas which were hit hard by rockets fired by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah earlier this year during its 34-day war with Israel.

The Jewish organisation Shavei Israel, Hebrew for Israel returns, is one of the groups involved in bringing the Bnei Menashe to Israel.

''MIRACLE OF HISTORIC PROPORTIONS'' ''What we witnessed with the arrival of this group was nothing less than a miracle of biblical and historic proportions,'' said Shavei Israel's chairman, Michael Freund.

Exiled by the Assyrians around 720 BC, the tribe wandered through Afghanistan and China before ending up in a part of India lying between Bangladesh and Myanmar, researchers say.

Decades after being converted to Christianity by missionaries, descendants in various areas began to reconnect with Judaism in the 1970s.

While much of their Jewish traditions have been lost, Bnei Menashe still practise Jewish customs.

These included sanctifying a baby on the eighth day after birth, the time when Jewish males are circumcised.

There are about 1,000 Bnei Menashe already in Israel with many living in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Others reside in the north of the country and in Jerusalem.

Some members of the community were among the settlers evacuated from Gaza in an Israeli pullout completed last year.

In the past, Bnei Menashe members had come to Israel in small groups on tourist visas and converted to Judaism in a deal reached by supporters and the country's Interior Ministry.

Last year, Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar formally recognised the Bnei Menashe as descendants of the Jewish people, and the 218 were formally converted.

About 7,000 Bnei Menashe live in Mizoram and neighbouring Manipur, hoping for their chance to join the rest of the community in Israel.

More conversions are unlikely in the near future as the Israeli government banned such mass conversions in India following complaints by Indian authorities.

Reuters PDM GC1911

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