Posted on April 4, 2005

In Search of Jewish Chromosomes in India

Yair Sheleg, Haaretz (Jerusalem), Apr. 1

What has genetic research uncovered about the origin of the Kuki tribe, which claims to have authentic Jewish roots and traditions? About five months ago the results of a study performed by a forensic laboratory in India (a kind of local equivalent of Israel’s National Forensic Institute at Abu Kabir) were published concerning the genetic origins of the members of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribe. The members of the tribe, which lives in northeast India (near the border of Myanmar, formerly Burma), believe they are descendants of the Children of Israel — and, more precisely, descendants of the tribe of Menashe, one of the 10 Lost Tribes that were exiled by the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.E. and have since disappeared. The study compared DNA samples taken from several hundred members of the tribe and from members of various other recognized Jewish communities, as well as from other tribes living near the Kuki (which served as a control group).

The result of the study is very interesting: On the one hand, no connection was found on the male side of the genetic chain (the Y chromosome) between the genetic profile of the Kuki and the Jewish profile, or the profile of Middle Eastern peoples in general. However, on the female side of the profile (what scientists call mitochondrial DNA) there is a certain resemblance to the genetic profile of Middle Eastern peoples and to that of the Jews of Uzbekistan (who also have a tradition of belonging to the 10 tribes) — a closeness that distinguishes the Kuki from the members of other tribes that live nearby. The research team therefore came to the conclusion, formulated with scientific caution, that the Kuki’s claim “cannot be dismissed.”

Bhaswar Miaty, one of the researchers, has told Haaretz that the initiative for the study came from the Indian government as part of a comprehensive study on the various groups in his country. Beyond that, Miaty did not give any additional detailed information, and directed Haaretz to a short article that the researchers had written in the journal Genome Biology.

Local study

Parallel to the Indian study, it emerges that in recent months a genetic study of the Bnei Menashe — the name chosen by the thousands of people from the Kuki tribe who, in recent years, have begun to adopt a full, traditional Jewish life — has also been under way at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Prof. Karl Skorecki, the director of the Rappaport Family Institute for Research in Medical Sciences there, has told Haaretz that the research is being conducted by a method similar to that done in India: collecting samples of DNA from members of the Kuki tribe and comparing them, on the one hand, to the Jewish genetic profile and, on the other, to the genetic profile of tribes that live near the Kuki. According to Skorecki, his team has not yet reached the stage at which it is possible to draw any conclusions. “We did receive the samples several months ago and we have started to examine the mitochondrial DNA, but we have not yet analyzed the data and we haven’t examined the Y chromosome DNA at all yet,” he says.

He also notes that it is hard to rely on the conclusions of the Indian study, at least as it has been published thus far: “From conversations that I have had with them it turns out that they did not do a complete ‘genetic sequencing’ of all the DNA and therefore it is hard to rely on the conclusions derived from a ‘partial sequencing,’ and they themselves admit this. It is possible in a ‘partial sequencing’ to arrive at certain conclusions that would be overturned had they run a ‘full sequencing.’ The fact that the study has not yet been published in a scientific journal [the editors of Biological Genome make it clear that the section in which the research by the Indian team was published is intended for the first publication of studies that have not yet undergone scientific review — Y.S.] also makes it hard to rely on it, as the meaning of this is that the article has not undergone a professional reading prior to its publication,” said Skorecki.

He also stresses that in any case the findings of the research will not provide an unambiguous answer concerning the origins of the Kuki: “The absence of a genetic match still does not say that the Kuki do not have origins in the Jewish people, as it is possible that after thousands of years it is difficult to identify the traces of the common genetic origin. However, a positive answer can give a significant indication.”

The two genetic studies are taking place during a period that is in any case crucial for the Jewish future of the Bnei Menashe. The change of ministers at Israel’s Interior Ministry is leading the members of the tribe and their public patrons, the people of the Amishav and Shavei Yisrael nonprofit organizations, to hope that the freeze on immigration imposed by the previous minister, Avraham Poraz, will be ended and perhaps they will also be granted an increase in the quota of immigrants that was applied prior to Poraz (a maximum of 100 people a year).

Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar sent two emissaries to India last August to reevaluate the rabbinate’s position on them, on the assumption that if the rabbinate does indeed recognize their connection to the Jewish people, it will also speak out in favor of encouraging their immigration. On Wednesday a meeting was held at Amar’s bureau, where it was decided to continue the activities aimed at the return of the members of this community and at allowing their conversion in India (as in any case, the remaining people must undergo full conversion before they are recognized as Jews) — which is supposed to compel the Interior Ministry to approve their immigration, as in the case of any Jew.

Seeking descendants

The person who created the link between the Kuki and Israel is Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, who for decades now has been seeking out descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes and connecting them to Israel, and to this end established the Amishav association. According to Avichail, “Kuki-Chin-Mizo” is actually three names for one tribe (and denote the three different regions where members live), numbering about 1.25 million people. According to the tribe’s own figures, its numbers may even reach 4 million. In a book on the 10 Lost Tribes, Avichail relates that in the Kuki tradition, many customs have been preserved that are reminiscent of those described in the Torah — including those concerning the function and dress of the priests; the laws of sequestration of women during their menstrual periods; the wearing of a garment similar to the prayer shawl into which blue threads are woven, as in the biblical prayer shawl; the custom of observing seven days of mourning for the dead; the giving of tithes to priests and so on.

At the beginning of the 20th century, following an encounter with missionaries, the members of the tribe in India underwent an intensive process of conversion to Christianity. However, the tradition that links them to the Jewish people in general and to the tribe of Menashe in particular did not disappear. At the beginning of the 1970s a movement for the return to Judaism began among the group, which called itself “the Jews of northeast India.” Its members started to establish Jewish communities and synagogues, organized ritual circumcision ceremonies and observed the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The members of this community even send their children to study at the Jewish school in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), on the other, western, side of India.

When Avichail heard about them, he went to India to see for himself and concluded that their traditions were genuine. Therefore, he embarked on a campaign to bring to Israel those “Bnei Menashe” who were interested in a return to Judaism. According to him, this effort at present involves only 7,000 people; in any case there is no “danger” that all of the millions of members of the tribe will want to immigrate here.

Avichail: “It has to be understood that this is a region that is in quite good economic shape and that people don’t have an economic interest in arriving en masse in Israel. Those who are interested in immigration are those who are truly interested in a return to Judaism.” He stresses that as far as he is concerned, the genetic research is of no significance and he has refused to cooperate with those who are conducting it: “I believe that the origin of this group is in the Jewish people not because of genetic considerations, and in any case Jewish identity is not determined according to genetics, but rather by the way people lead their life and by signs of cultural identity.”

Secular support

In recent years those who recognize the Jewish origin of the Kuki have been joined by another supporter who is not a part of the national religious system: Hillel Halkin, a secular journalist and translator (who has translated into English the works of several leading Israeli writers, was formerly a reporter in Israel for the weekly Forward, and is now a columnist and essayist in various American newspapers). The story of this tribe stirred his curiosity and he made a trip to India, publishing his impressions in a book that he published three years ago called “Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel” (a reference to a legend that the descendants of the 10 tribes live beyond the mythical Sambatyon River, which flows six days of the week and “rests” on the Sabbath). Halkin discovered many Jewish traditions among the tribe, even more than those that Avichail noted, as well as texts and prayers that are very reminiscent of the Jewish liturgy. Halkin, who in fact has cooperated with the research at the Technion and even arranged for the genetic samples to be brought to Israel, also believes that while the research is interesting, it will not tip the balance for him.

The government of Israel has never been asked to formulate, and in any case has not determined, an official policy concerning the status of the Bnei Menashe. However, since 1992 Avichail has had an “understanding” with a number of interior ministers regarding permission to bring a few people each year, at most, to Israel. The procedure is that those who are granted a permit to immigrate arrive in Israel as tourists, without immigrant rights. Here they undergo a conversion process and only afterward officially receive immigrant status and citizenship. To date, about 800 of the Bnei Menashe have come to Israel, a number lower than the quota they are allowed, which perhaps shows that the demand is not so dramatic. In any case, most of the immigrants have settled in the territories — in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip (about 250 people), and in Ofra, Beit El and Kiryat Arba in the West Bank — as well as in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, another of the “patrons” of the group, explains the choice of the territories by noting that “first of all, there are communities there that have opened their arms and affording them a warm absorption, which is of course essential for a group like this. Secondly, the prices of the apartments there of course also have an effect.”

Ezra Chhak-Chhuak is one of the Bnei Menashe who have been absorbed in Gush Katif (the vast majority of them, like Chhak-Chhuak, in the community settlement of Neveh Dekalim, and only three families in the agricultural moshav of Gan-Or). He came to Israel four years ago, studied and went through his conversion procedure in Jerusalem and then went to Neveh Dekalim. To day he is the father of one son and is studying at the local yeshiva Torat Haim. He relates that he came there “because Rabbi Avichail sent me to study there,” but in retrospect he is also pleased with his absorption in the settlement. Like most of his fellow inhabitants of the settlement, he too hopes that the decision to evacuate them will not be implemented. Most of all, he hopes that “10,000 of our brothers will come here, and then they will not be able to move us.” However, he stresses that if nevertheless the evacuation is implemented, “we won’t resist by force. We are not violent people and we will certainly not harm our brothers. If the Holy One, blessed be he, wants us to leave, we will leave quietly.”

As noted, interior minister Poraz also canceled the limited immigration quota that had been given previously to the Beni Menashe. Chhak-Chhuak and Birnbaum suspect that his reason for this was his anger at their settlement in the territories. But Poraz’s aide, Tibi Rabinovici, says: “When we entered the ministry it emerged that their permit for immigration had never been based in any official decision, and therefore we froze it until a reexamination. Poraz even considered going to India to investigate the issue. But then the Foreign Ministry people came along and asked us not to do this, because it would harm our relations with India, which does not accept the whole business. Beyond that, all the experts we consulted told us that we dare not touch this, because it would turn into a’ bottomless pit’ of millions of Indians who want to immigrate to Israel.”

Avichail and Birnbaum, for their part, reject the argument about millions and hold that the number of those who want to immigrate and return to Judaism has remained steady during recent years — even when the possibility of immigration existed.

The disagreement over Poraz’s decision was between elements that split the patronage of the Bnei Menashe into two separate nonprofit organizations. Avichail held that the policy of conversions in India should be continued, and that a petition should be made to the High Court of Justice to receive approval for their immigration, whereas the director general of Amishav, Michael Freund, and Birnbaum held that they should stick to coordination with the Interior Ministry and the rabbinate. So they left Amishav and founded the Shavei Yisrael association, which currently is the main organization dealing with the interests of the group vis-a-vis the establishment.

Now everything depends on the position of the new Interior Minister, Ophir Pines. His office has told Haaretz that “at this stage, the intention is continue Poraz’s policy and not to approve their immigration.” Freund has said in response that his organization will continue to fight for a comprehensive examination of the issue: “It is untenable that an issue that touches upon the lives of so many people will be decided without any orderly examination of the issue with the people of the group.”