12 Sept, 2004 

       
   
   
   
     
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
 
 
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The new Jerusalem
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DNA tests prove that Mizo people are descendants of a lost Israeli tribe

By Tathagata Bhattacharya/Aizawl

It has been a long-standing contention of a section of Mizos that the people of Mizoram are descendants of the Menashe, one of the lost tribes of Israel. But the claims were quashed several times by Israel where, by the law of return, anyone with proof of Jewish roots can go and settle. However, a recent DNA study has validated the claim.

Oh, to be a jew! (Clockwise from left) Lalchhanhima Sailo (seated in the middle) with members of the Chhinlung Israel People’s Convention; shop signs that echo Jewish heritage (below right)

Bhaswar Maity, a research scholar at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Kolkata, had begun the DNA typing of samples (100 male and 80 female) taken from the Mizos in March 2002. "Studies on the Y chromosome [male] did not return the Cohen modal haplotype, which is present in most Jewish males around the world," says Dr V.K. Kashyap, director of the laboratory. (Tracing the male chromosome is difficult because most Mizo men, who migrated from elsewhere, wed women along the way and the Y chromosome is lost every time a female child is created.) "But of the mitochondria DNA [female samples], a few Kuki samples returned the unique haplotype [genetic sequence code] found in the Jewish community in Uzbekistan."

This is a clear indication that there was a Jewish female founder effect in the Kuki community. "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," says Maity. He also found a specific mutation in some Lusei and Kuki samples that is also present in Indian Jews.

There are also historical pointers to this claim. Zaithanchhungi, a scholar who has been studying the Mizo claim to Israeli ancestry for over 20 years, is convinced that all Mizos are descendants of the Menashe. "The Menashe were enslaved by the Assyrians and taken there [Assyria] when Jerusalem fell," she says. "From there they migrated to the Afghanistan region. During Alexander’s invasion they were driven further on to Mongolia through the Kashmir region and Tibet plateau, and they settled in the Chhinlung region of China. They entered Mizoram about 300 years ago from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Burma."

This puts the Indian government on a sticky wicket as the United Nations has said that a country cannot rule over people other than its own. The government has more reason to be worried because the Aizawl-based Chhinlung Israel People’s Convention, an organisation of 2.5 lakh members who believe they are descendants of the Menashe, has begun preparations for realising their dream of a "New Jerusalem". This correspondent even stumbled upon a new flag for the "country of the Menashe people" as Lalchhanhima Sailo, the chairman of the convention, put it.

Once Israeli recognition comes through, we will have an independent country in the northeast of India, says Sailo; (left) the proposed flag.

The organisation had submitted a memorandum to the UN in 1998 to recognise the Chhinlung people as a lost tribe of Israel. "We are now awaiting Israeli recognition," says Sailo. "Once it comes through, we will have an independent country in the northeast of India." Sailo feels this is a very real possibility because there are Chhins in parts of Manipur, Burma, Bangladesh and Assam.

It is difficult to ignore the similarities that exist between the lives of the Jews in Israel and those of the Mizos. According to Zaithanchhungi, there are anthropological perspe-ctives. The Mizo burial ritual is similar to that of the Jews. Secondly, though the Mizos migrated to Mizoram through lands where Buddhism was the dominant faith, it left no influence on them. Even in the first half of the 20th century, they sacrificed animals to Pathian (Jehova). "They had the sacrificial altar on a hillock and a cross similar to that of David was drawn on the altar," she says. "Only men were allowed to witness the sacrifice. This is more than sheer resemblance."

Another resemblance is between the Mizo ritual of Cawngpuisial and the Jewish Sabbath. Sabbath starts when the stars appear on a Friday evening and ends with the same on a Saturday evening. In Mizoram, during the Cawngpuisial, villagers are restricted from going out of the village (and strangers from entering it) after the stars appear on a Friday. The curfew is lifted on Saturday after the stars appear.

Shaina, a student from Raanana near Tel-Aviv, who recently visited the Amishav Hebrew Center in Aizawl—an Israeli government agency tracing lost Jewish tribes—found the "similarities between the people of Israel and Mizoram simply too stark to be neglected".

Allenby Sela, principal of Amishav, was one of 900 Mizos who converted to Judaism to settle down in the Gaza Strip. He returned to Mizoram to make the people aware of their history. "We should know who we are, where we came from, what our roots are," he says. "Faith can’t be recognised by blood tests. It’s a spiritual thing. Our history is oral and there is no clinching evidence. But this is not enough for Israel to accept." Israel recognised the Black Jews of Ethiopia and the Fallasahs of South Africa as lost tribes without any tests.

A stroll down the roads of Aizawl—with signs Moses Snack Centre, Nazareth Medical, Israel Stores, Zion Street—is enough to understand its connection with the Promised Land. "The Torah [Jewish Bible] states that there shall be one Holy Land in the west and one in the east," says Sailo. "I’m convinced this is it. The Torah also mentions that the descendants of Abraham shall be as plenty as stars in the heaven and the sands of the earth. Though the population of Israel is only five million, if you include all the Chhinlung people, you will find the true meaning of the prophecy."

 
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