Chosen people found in India

WHEN the new Israeli ambassador, Ephraim Dowek, was touring India's far-flung jungle states in the north-east recently, he was approached by a group of shy tribesmen who told him they were one of the lost tribes of Israel, writes Tim McGirk from New Delhi.

Any shared physical traits between other Jews and these tribesmen were not instantly apparent to the ambassador.

"There isn't a Jewish type as such," said Mr Dowek. "When people say they're from the lost tribes, the important thing is that they believe they are." The Jewish holy book, the Torah, explains: "And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone."

Some Hebrew scholars date this flight back to 700 BC, but the hill tribesmen became convinced of their Jewish roots just 40 years ago. A Mizo village headman had a visionary dream. Mr Dowek said: "One of the leaders dreamt that the founder of the tribe came to them and said I am Manasseh. He was one of Joseph's sons."

The conviction has spread to the neighbouring Kuki and Chin tribes, who have also seen hundreds convert to Judaism in recent years.

One research scholar claims that these natives might be descendants of a lost Israeli tribe that strayed into China. Some are said to have been forced into the construction of the Great Wall. Mizo legends speak of a holy book that was given to them by God but was destroyed during their slavery in China. One version has it that the Mizo's book, which some scholars believe could have been the Torah, was eaten by a dog.

"Since long before the Christian missionaries arrived, these people have believed in one god," Mr Dowek claims. Most of the 5,000 hill tribesmen who have declared their Jewish ancestry are perfectly happy to go on being Christians - but an Israeli rabbi, who has spent a lifetime searching for the lost tribes, brought 40 Mizo converts to Israel as tourists and enrolled them in a rabbinical school. Some have returned to open synagogues in Mizoram and this in turn has encouraged some Mizo families to want to settle in Israel. So far, some 90 Mizo and Kuki Jewish converts have leftfor the promised land.

The rise in Jewish conversions in the north-east has worried some Indian authorities who still like to blame "the foreign hand" for whatever ails India. Not only do deadly rivalries still exist among the tribes, but the north-eastern states are plagued by virulent insurgency movements who seek independence from the rest of India.

When the Israeli ambassador visited Manipur several months back, he was misquoted in the local newspapers as claiming that all Chins and Kukis were Israelis. The uproar spread back to New Delhi, and Mr Dowek forced the Manipur press to print a correction. "All I said was that there was no proof these people were descendants of the lost tribes, but that we Israelis respected their beliefs," he said.

So far, the tribesmen have been settled in the Gaza Strip, despite bitter opposition by Palestinians. Some Israeli newspapers claim that the Indians are being used to replace politically "dangerous" Palestinian labourers in the settlement camps. The Palestinians, as well as the Israeli authorities, had better hope that an exodus does not happen.