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From a hill tribe in India to a lost tribe in Israel: Did you know Kukis from Manipur had demanded a right to return to Israel

As per Jewish belief, around 3000 years ago, ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom in Israel were forced into exile following an attack by Assyrians. They are believed to have disappeared ever since. The Kukis are considered one such tribe, better known as Bnei Menashe, meaning the Children of the biblical Manasseh, the son of the prophet Joseph.

From ethnicity, and religion to history and geography, the Kukis have long associated themselves with a variety of identities. Known to have migrated over centuries to India from the Chin State at the Myanmar border, the Chin-Kuki-Mizo (CHIKUMI) tribes largely follow Christianity. But did you know that one of the theories on their ancestry is rooted in the land of Israel?

The Kukis of Manipur drew global attention including from the Israeli media following reports of some Kuki homes that were torched in a two-way violence between Kukis and Meiteis in Manipur. The purported Israeli roots of Kukis came to light once again as they demanded help from the Jewish state. Here’s a look at the so-called link between Kukis and Israel.

Who are the present-day Kukis?

The Chin-Kuki-Mizo tribes (CHIKUMI), also known as Kukis, are situated largely in the northeast Indian states of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura, and also in the border areas of Myanmar, and Bangladesh. They are considered a sub-family of the Tibeto-Burman language group which is also related to Mizos of Mizoram and Chins in Myanmar.

The Kukis, comprising more than 20 sub-tribes, mostly follow Christianity. Their migratory patterns divided them into two groups namely “Old Kukis” and “New Kukis”. To put it plainly, Old Kukis comprise tribes that migrated into the northeastern states of India around 1600 AD or even before.

New Kukis, on the other hand, are considered those who migrated more recently, in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is safe to say that almost all literature documenting the CHIKUMI tribes points to several waves of migration, and whether or not they are the original inhabitants of present-day northeast Indian states cannot be said with certainty. Moreover, not much is known about the tribes beyond that they have come from the Chin State at the Myanmar border.

So how are Kukis, Israelites?

As per Jewish belief, around 3000 years ago, ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom in Israel were forced into exile following an attack by Assyrians. They are believed to have disappeared ever since. The Jewish faith says that the gradual return of the Israelites to their “promised land” will mark the return of the Messiah, an expected descendent of King David.

The lost tribes are said to have assimilated into the cultures of the land they migrated to. The Kukis are considered one such tribe, better known as Bnei Menashe, meaning the Children of the biblical Manasseh, the son of the prophet Joseph.

Roughly about 10,000 Kukis from both, Mizoram and Manipur embraced Judaism from Christianity after they learned of their so-called identity in the 1950s. How the community has come to unearth its “hidden” identity is a story in itself.

It was in the 1950s that the Kukis are believed to have first learned of their Israeli identity when a religious minister named Mei Chalah from Buallawn in Mizoram dreamt that his community belonged to the Zion faith and that they should “return to the land of their forefathers”.

Historically, Kukis are known to have practiced animism and worshipped their progenitor called Manmasi or Manasia. This was until the British and American missionaries began conversion campaigns following which many tribes, particularly Kukis, converted to Christianity. The Bnei Menashe community (comprising the Kuki-Chin-Hmar-Mizo tribes) claims that during the conversion campaigns, they found a resemblance between the Testaments and their pre-Christian tribal traditions.

It is believed that the tribals converted without much effort due to the similarities they found in the biblical stories told to them by the missionaries. The British missionaries too reportedly noticed the similarities with the Bnei Menashe’s stories. For example, it is claimed that some of the ancient tribal songs of the Kukis, passed from generation to generation through oral tradition, include words from the Bible.

Bnei Menashe of Mizoram. (Source: Timeline YouTube)

One such song is “Sikpui Hla” which is sung by the Bnei Menashe for centuries celebrating the traditional Hmar (Kuki subtribe) harvest festival “Sikpuiroui”. The song narrates the exodus of Israelites from Egypt and how the Red Sea comes to their rescue. Other songs are “Litenten Zion” meaning “Lets go to Zion”, and “Tuipi Sankan la” which means “The song of crossing the Red Sea” or “Dried up of Red Sea”. How a tribe residing in the hills of northeast India, and Myanmar knows of the Israeli folklore is a mystery.

Words like ‘Selah’, ‘Aboriza’, and ‘Elo’ are words found reportedly only in the Bible. While ‘selah’ is found in the book of Psalm meaning to repeat, the word ‘aboriza’ is a Hebrew word used to praise God. The Kuki script called ‘Bulpijem’ which has 32 alphabets is said to have a Jewish connection. The Scroll is believed to have gotten lost during the reign of Chinese king Shih Hungtai, allegedly dating back to 214 BC.

Besides some similarities in language, some tribal customs have also matched that of biblical Israelites. Interestingly, the puan (a shawl worn by the Bnei Menashe) has a stark resemblance to the Tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl; the Bible commands attaching a blue thread to the corners of the shawl, a design stitched into the puan too.

A Bnei Menashe wearing a puan, a shawl that resembles the Tallit, Jewish religious shawl (Source: Timeline YouTube)

Notably, the so-called “flag of Zalengam”, a proposed “Kuki nation”, bears a star symbol considered to be the star of David.

The star of David on the purported flag of Zalengam, meaning land of Freedom, a proposed land of the Kuki tribe.

Going by the research available on the web, a whopping three million Kukis are believed to be Bnei Menashe who were exiled from Nothern Israel and they eventually took upon a journey over centuries across Central Asia, into China, and Burma, and finally settled in India. The community is known to have derived its popular name ‘Shinlung’ in India from their migration from Chhinlungsan located on the banks of the river Yalung in China.

Where is the evidence?

There is no documented proof of the link between the Kukis and the biblical tribe of Manasseh except for word of mouth, and the similarities as mentioned above. In 2003, a DNA test conducted on Kuki subtribes namely Hmar, Kom, Lenthang, Changsan, Lunkim, and Hualngo turned out negative.

But another DNA test in 2005 remotely suggests a distant link. DNA studies at the Central Forensic Institute, Calcutta suggested that “while the masculine side of the tribes bears no links to Israel, the feminine side suggests a genetic profile with Middle Eastern people.” A research scholar at the institute who was involved in the study reportedly remarked, “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.”

Another scientific finding based on medical tests suggests that a disease, Tay-Sachs and Saitika-Zenghit, a genetic bone disease, which is inherited by the Semitic Jews, is found in the CHIKIMZO tribes. The disease is normally found absent in other racial groups.

However, the 2005 test too is not quite reliable. Israeli professor Skorecki pointed out that the geneticists “did not do a complete genetic sequencing of all the DNA and therefore it is difficult to rely on the conclusions derived from a partial sequencing”. He added that “after thousands of years it is difficult to identify the traces of the common genetic origin”.

Return to the “promised land”

In the 1970s, a group of Bnei Menashe embarked on a journey to Israel where they met Rabbi Eliyahu Avichayil. Avichayil, who is known to have given the community its name, ran a non-profit organization named Amishav (meaning ‘my people return’) which worked towards finding the descendants of the lost tribes reinstating them back to Israel, and converting them as required by Jewish law. The same year, Avichayil visit the Bnei Menashe in India and played a key role in bringing them to Israel and also officiated the conversion of the community in Imphal and Aizawl.

Rabbi Eliyahu Avichayil (Source: Timeline YouTube)

Avichayil visited India to learn more about the Bnei Menashe and study the authenticity of their claims of being the descendants of the lost tribe of Manasseh. The Rabbi from Jerusalem opened the Amishav house in Imphal, which consisted of a synagogue, two guest rooms, a mikvah (ritual bath), a classroom, and quarters for the centre’s staff. However, his efforts to initiate the community’s aliyah, meaning immigration to Israel, did not find support from the Israeli government.

By the 1990s, several Bnei Menashe had travelled to Israel as tourists and settled there to get legal Jewish status. They were finally admitted by the state of Israel. In 1997, Michael Freund, the then deputy communications director for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, found a letter from the Bnei Menashe community and decided to visit them.

“Something pulled me there. And when I met them and saw the similarities between their customs and beliefs and the biblical Israelites, I was convinced that these are indeed descendants of the lost tribes,” he reportedly said. He worked extensively in raising funds to sponsor the community’s aliyah. In 2000, Freund’s extensive lobbying led the interior ministry of Israel to allow the return of 100 Bnei Menashe every year which was followed by conversion.

Michael Freund also founded Shavei Israel, a non-profit organization dedicated to “assisting descendants of Jews and the Lost Tribes of Israel to reclaim their roots”. By 2003, about 1,000 Bnei Menashe were settled in Israel. In the same year, the Interior Minister Avraham Poraz revoked the agreement thereby halting the aliyah of Bnei Menashe owing to political and some religious disagreements.

However, Freund’s continued efforts in 2005 led to a ruling by the then-Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that the Bnei Menashe should indeed be considered descendants of the Children of Israel. However, in order to be considered Jews today, they would still have to undergo full conversion (including circumcision for the males).

A synagogue in Manipur (Source: France 24)

The ruling encouraged Freund and his supporters to establish Jewish education and conversion services in Mizoram and Manipur, under the auspices of the prime minister’s office. Once recognized as Jews, the Bnei Menashe would be entitled to immigrate to Israel under the law of return and to receive benefits of absorption from the ministry.

In 2006, Freund’s group was ready to bring 218 converted Bnei Menashe Jews to Israel. But the same was halted after the government of India protested against the conversions. The group came, but further organized immigration came to a halt. Of the nearly 10,000 Bnei Menashe, some 5,000 are said to have moved to Israel while the remaining are still waiting in anticipation. Here’s a timeline of the recorded aliyah of Bnei Menashe.

Around 50 Bnei Menashe arrive in Tel Aviv

102 community members return to Israel

More than 430 Bnei Menashe move to Israel

A group of 250 Bnei Menashe migrates to Israel

235 people from the community land in Israel

Have the Kukis or Bnei Menashe found their “Promised Land” then?

The theory of the Kukis being Bnei Menashe has been equally contested by Jewish experts and religious leaders, and even the Indian and Israeli governments in the past. Some Israeli politicians and rabbis too do not consider the Bnei Menashe as Israelites. Israeli critics have suggested that the Bnei Menashe have been brought to live in the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza strip with political motives. The Netanyahu government’s pro-immigration policy for the Bnei Menashe has brought him to the centre of political controversies at home.

Much has been reported about the community’s struggle in the process of being authorised as “pure Jews”. From the standard of living to economic conditions, the community hasn’t always had much luck, at least not in the initial years after migrating. However, some of those who have migrated and attained citizenship are also serving in the Israeli military.

Moreover, the newly-discovered identity of the community has reignited the debate on conversion too. The Indian government in 2005/06 halted the immigration process of Bnei Menashe to Israel in objection to the conversion campaigns held by Jewish missionaries. Notably, for Bnei Menashe to be accepted as Jews in Israel, they must undergo Orthodox conversion ceremonies.

The Bnei Menashe offering prayers (Source: France 24)

The Kuki population in India is largely migrant and their settlement has been opposed from time to time by native tribes. Some experts also view their aliyah as an escape from this ongoing conflict in yet another search for their identity. This has only deepened the doubts among critics of the community.

That is not all. The contradictory claims and demands within the Kuki community in regard to their identity also raise important questions. While the remaining Bnei Menashe in Manipur and Mizoram are living in anticipation to return to Israel, those like PS Haokip, leader of the separatist Kuki National Organisation (KNO), are leading operations demanding to bring Kuki-populated areas under one administrative unit called Zalengam, the “land of freedom” even as they identify as Jews.

PS Haokip and his KNO are on a dual and contradictory quest for identity. Haokip has his army of insurgents fighting a battle in Manipur for Zalengam even as he has written to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the recognition of Bnei Menashe in northeast India. Amid the ongoing violence between the Kukis and Meiteis in Manipur, the World Kuki-Zo Intellectual Council (WKZIC) wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking his urgent “personal intervention” to carve out a state of Kuki community.

PS Haokip, leader of Kuki National Organisation (Source: France 24)

A tribe in India, now a tribe in Israel; the Kuki community’s many identities mirror their quest for belongingness amid added layers of confusion. One had hoped that venturing far and wide in order to dig deeper into their history would help locate the Kukis to their rightful land but their new-found “Jewish” identity has only added one more dimension waiting to be explored.

What is certain, however, is that be it Bnei Menashe or Kukis, Mizos, Chins, Hmars, and Lushais; they have covered quite a distance in the hopes of tracing their origins and there is still a long way to go.

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Pragya Bakshi Sharma
Pragya Bakshi Sharma
Journalist with a journey from print to TV to digital news. Multi-tasker. Unstoppable Type 1 Diabetic running on insulin.

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