NEVE DEKALIM, Gaza — They claim to have been forcibly exiled from Israel 2,700 years ago. Following intense lobbying, hundreds recently arrived in the Jewish state from India to settle in what they believe to be their homeland. Now residing in the Jewish communities of Gaza, the group is once again facing exile, this time at the hands of the Israeli government. Meet the “Lost Tribe of Menashe.”
“It has been a long journey for all of us. This is our land. Jewish land. Now they want to kick us out and we will be forced from our homes and our lives once again,” said Shimon Kolney, a resident of Gush Katif, the slate of Gaza’s Jewish communities scheduled for evacuation Aug. 15 as part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal plan.
Kolney is also a member of the “B’nei Menashe,” a tribe from India who believe they are the lost descendants of Manasseh, one of biblical patriarch Joseph’s two sons, and a grandson of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel.
According to B’nei Menashe oral tradition, the tribe was exiled from Israel and enslaved by the Assyrians 2,700 years ago. They later escaped to the east, eventually settling in the border regions of China and India, where most remain today.
In the 1950s, Konley’s father, Tchelah, the chief of an Indian village, said he had a vision, which he shared with his people, that his community was the lost tribe of Menashe. Most in his town had customs very similar to Jewish tradition, but they couldn’t explain why. He told his villagers to return at once to Israel and embrace the Jewish faith.
Several thousand of Tchelah’s followers set out on foot to Israel, but were quickly halted by Indian authorities.
Undeterred, many in the village started learning Jewish tradition, and began practicing Orthodox Judaism.
Over the last decade, with the help of Shavei Israel, an organization founded to bring the B’nei Menashe to Israel, the first batch of the tribe arrived in the Jewish state, settling in Gush Katif.
“We came here because of the beauty of Gush Katif, and because there was work for us in local greenhouses. We could sustain ourselves here, so we built a community,” explained Allenby Sellah, one of the first B’nei Menashe members to immigrate.
There are now about 800 tribe members in Israel, 60 of whom reside in Gush Katif. The remainder settled in Jerusalem and several West Bank towns.
On March 30, Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, formally recognized the B’nei Menashe as “descendants of Israel,” and is planning to send a rabbinical court to India to oversee the conversion of the remaining members of the community. Even though B’nei Menashe believe they are Jewish by birth, the tribe members must undergo traditional Jewish conversion to satisfy Israel’s immigration laws.
Here in Gush Katif, B’nei Menashe members lead full Orthodox Jewish lives, studying the Torah regularly, praying three times per day, observing the Sabbath and keeping strict kosher laws.
Most work in greenhouses as supervisors and laborers.
Gaza features thousands of Jewish-owned greenhouses, which provide Israel with nearly 70 percent of its produce and feature some of the most advanced agricultural technology in the world, including high-tech temperature regulation and insect-free produce.
The B’nei Menashe here live in a cluster of apartments and houses in Neve Dekalim, a large Katif community. They have mostly integrated with the rest of the local Jewish population.
“We go to synagogues with everyone else. Our children go to the same Jewish schools as everyone else. We’re treated just like brothers and sisters. It’s a beautiful way of life,” said Sellah, who lives here with his wife.
But after 10 years in Gush Katif and a journey of nearly 3,000 years to arrive here, the tribe is now slated to be expelled next month with the rest of Gaza’s Jewish population.
“It is very painful,” said Kolney. “My father envisioned us returning to our homeland. Of all the things we were expecting once we got to Israel, the one thing we could never imagine was to settle down only to be expelled again.”
Michael Freund, Shavei Israel founder and chairman, told WND, “The B’nei Menashe have already gone through so much to return to the land and people of Israel, that it is simply unthinkable that the Israeli government would now consider throwing them out of their homes.”
Like most Katif residents, Kolney and Sellah said they made no plans to move elsewhere.
“We have faith in God. Whatever is meant to be will be. But I don’t believe the evacuation will take place. I hope it won’t,” said Sellah.
They say recent events have hit the B’nei Menashe here hard.
Hamas now fires an average of three rockets or mortars per day at Gaza’s Jewish communities. As the August evacuation draws closer, the rocket attacks are expected to increase exponentially so Palestinian terror groups can claim to their supporters they drove Israel from Gaza, security analysts contend.
Critics worry the Gaza evacuation will be seen as a reward for Palestinian terrorism and argue territories evacuated by Israel will be used by Hamas to stage attacks against the Jewish state.
“It’s not easy now with all the rockets and mortars,” said Daniel Hmar, 68, a resident of Neve Dekalim for 6 years.
One B’nei Menashe member, Donald Benyamin, 26, was hit in December by a mortar.
“I was in my room, typing on my computer, when a mortar burst through the roof and landed right next to me,” recalls Benyamin. “I was knocked unconscious and spent four months in the hospital with pretty bad wounds, but now I am all right.”
Benyamin suffered mostly flesh wounds and returned home in May. He now has a few scars, but has made a complete recovery.
“It was a total miracle,” said Benyamin of his recovery.
When asked if the experience has made him bitter about living in Gaza, Benyamin replied, “Not at all. This is my home.”
The Gaza withdrawal plan has also affected some B’nei Menashe financially. Benyamin’s uncle, Sharon Benyamin, 42, owns greenhouses and says his business is going downhill.
“I am losing a fortune because of the evacuation. I can’t afford to put the money down this year to plant all the vegetables if we’re going to be uprooted from our homes in August.”
Benyamin says he only planted chives this season, and not his usual array of fruits and vegetables, including cucumbers and tomatoes, which take longer to harvest.
According to community leaders, most Katif greenhouse owners this season planted their usual quotas of produce.
“I planted it all,” said Anita Tucker, one of the pioneer farmers of Gush Katif. “I’m not going anywhere. This is Jewish land and it will always be Jewish land. There have been so many plans to give up Gaza, but they never go through.”
Unlike most others, Benyamin says he is making plans for the evacuation. “We’re still in the process of working out the logistics. I’ll have a place to go. You have to think practically. I hope it doesn’t happen, but I have a family. I need to prepare for the worst.”
Editor’s note: “ISRAEL BETRAYED?” – the July issue of WND’s acclaimed monthly Whistleblower magazine – is devoted entirely to an in-depth exploration of the controversial forced removal of thousands of Jewish residents from Gaza planned for August, and the likely creation of a Hamas-run terror state many believe will follow. Read more about “ISRAEL BETRAYED?”