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The Discovery Of A ‘Lost Tribe Of Israel’ In Mizoram

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On the way back from work, I would often ditch the shortcut through an almost 90 degrees steep staircase. Instead, I would take the longer route cutting through a crowded bazaar filled with greasy repair shops alongside colourful thrift stores, and small Korean-style cafes.

It is inadvisable to take a stroll in the city of Aizawl, especially in the evening. The fiercest love affair between the deep-coloured sky and the fading sun can quickly swallow you up.

The beautiful skies of Aizwal as the sun sets. Photo credit: the writer.

On these strolls, I would often pass by a rather unremarkable multi-storeyed building in the old neighbourhoods of Aizawl. It was not until I noticed the unique symbols on the dilapidated building, that my attention was piqued.

Later, my landlord, an ever-smiling, good-natured reverend at the local Presbyterian Church, impressed by my observation, told me a Biblical story and its direct link to one of the largest exoduses, that’s taking place in Mizoram.

The Biblical History

According to Judeo-Christian texts, ancient Israel was divided into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Judah, with 10 Jewish tribes, and the southern kingdom of Israel, with the remaining two tribes.

In approximately 721 BC, the kingdom of Judah was conquered by Assyrian empire. The northern tribes were separated from the southern ones and pushed into exile. These are also known as the “ten lost tribes of Israel”.

It is said that one of the lost tribes called “Menashe”, wandered through central Asia, and the far east for centuries, and eventually settled in the northeastern villages of Manipur and Mizoram.

I realised how stories across times and ages live all around us, subtly, like air… Unnoticed, until they raise a storm. I thought about the Menashethe lost tribe and their story, was it ever lost with them?

The next Saturday, I decided to visit the synagogue, a Jewish house of worship, I have been ignorantly passing by. It was the day of Shabbat: a holiday to celebrate the creation of life and offer respite to oneself.

A Mizo friend who accompanied me had a long tradition in their family of practicing both Judaism and Christianity. “Shabbat Shalom,” a gentle voice greeted me. Unaware of the appropriate response, I nodded my head with an awkward smile.

The gentleman proceeded to talk to me in fluent Hebrew. “I think he mistook you for a Jewish man,” whispered my friend.

Even though I could understand neither Hebrew nor Mizo, Rabbi Ezra Chhakchhuak welcomed me to the service and offered me a “kippah“, a small head covering that Jewish men wear during the prayers.

Jewish men from Mizoram pose for a photo after a Shabbat service. Photo credit: thefederal.com

Rabbi Chhakchhuak was visiting from Jerusalem. Like him, thousands of Mizos, over the years, have found a home in Israel.

A Legitimate ‘Myth’?

“When the Welsh missionaries came to the north-east in the early 20th century, they found several similarities between the indigenous customs and that of orthodox Judaism,” said Lalthansangi*, a Mizo friend who has been a close observer of the situation.

The first formal contact between Mizoram and Israel was made in the 1980s when a senior Rabbi, Eliyahu Avichail visited the region. Avichail founded “Amishav”, an organisation dedicated to locating descendants of lost tribes of Israel.

It was him who gave the tribe the title of “Bnei Menashe”, meaning the children of Menashe. Earlier, Amishav and later, another Israeli organization called “Shavei Israel” have been facilitating “aliyah” i.e., the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the promised land of Israel. 

I was intrigued and baffled at the same time. When I talked to one of my colleagues at work about this, he directed me towards a DNA study done by Central Forensic Institute, Kolkata, in 2005.

Senior research fellow, Bhaswar Maity, remarked in the study, “While the masculine side of the tribes bears no links to Israel, the feminine side suggests a genetic profile with Middle Eastern people.”

I think he means that while the female genetic profile bears a resemblance to people from the Middle East, the male genetic profile didn’t suggest the same.

He further adds: “It is scientifically impossible to have the same genetic sequence in two populations living so far apart if they did not originate from a common stock who historically inhabited a common space.”

While the study hasn’t been peer-reviewed and found to be inconclusive by a number of geneticists and social scientists, such claims have further bolstered the movement. 

A ‘Lost Tribe’s’ Homeland

During the first-ever Indian President’s visit to Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister of the country publicly acknowledged Mizoram’s Bnei Menashe, saying:

“There is among us a living bridge; the wonderful Bnei Menashe, whose members have and are making Aliyah from India to Israel. And, with their love for Israel and their great humility, and through impressive efforts, they are absorbed into Israeli society. But, they also create that living bridge between our two peoples.”

Even though Bnei Menashe are formally accepted and recognized by Israel under their Law of Return, they are still a stigmatised minority among a predominantly Christian population of Mizoram.

“The community faces stigma and discrimination in the state. A large number of families converting to orthodox Judaism also come from economically weaker strata, so one may assume that they are basically economic migrants,” explained Lalthansangi.  

This year, a total of 160 Jews from Mizoram and Manipur have left India permanently for Israel, and more are under process. My friend, who accompanied me to the synagogue in Mizoram almost half a decade ago, is learning Hebrew these days. “Are you sure you want to do this? What do you not have here?” I asked.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with what one possesses as much as it is to do with one’s conviction in their identity,” he said over the phone.

If the Covid-19 situation stabilizes, my friend will soon make his aliyah to the promised land of Israel.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Featured image is for representational purposes only. Photo credit: the writer.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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