Religious conversion has managed to become a highly charged issue in India. What with missionary activity being closely related with colonialism, and the more recent Hindutva activity around attacking missionaries, and “re-converting” Tribals. In the midst of all this the Bnei Menashe community in Mizoram and Manipur finds itself in an odd position.
First, a brief history of the community from Wikipedia. The Bnei Menashe claim to have been expelled from Northern Israel by the Assyrians 2700 years ago. They wandered along the silk route, finally settling in Northeastern India. Christian missionaries converted them in the 19th century, and it was only in 1951, when a pastor from the community had a series of visions, that they realized that their oral history and religious practices were Jewish. And indeed there is some evidence from population genetics that points to ancestors in the Levant, through strands of DNA carried by the women-folk of the community.
It took them twenty five years before the Israeli government would accept their claims of being one of the lost ten tribes of Israel. After being recognized, they were allowed to migrate to Israel and settled in the Occupied Territories (where else?). In order to migrate they need to be accepted as Jewish and have to undergo a conversion ritual, a requirement fulfilled by visiting Rabbis. However, the Indian government frowns on conversions. The BBC reports:
“The Indian authorities, through official channels, told us they do not view positively initiated efforts at conversions to other religions,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, said.
The Israeli government is taking the complaint very seriously, since India buys a sizable amount of arms from the Israelis.
This convoluted story leaves me with several questions. First, I thought Judaism was similar to Hinduism in the sense that you were born into the religion and couldn’t really convert. Second, if these people claim to be Jewish, then why would they need to be converted again? I guess it just proves religious laws can be made to bend whichever way you want. Whether its the government of Israel or India, the Hindutva folks or Jewish orthodox and not so orthodox groups.