Sufi spirituality transcends religious borders in the Holy Land

JERUSALEM — Wearing a full and graying beard, khaki trousers and a woolen vest, 66-year-old Ya’cub ibn Yusuf puttered around his little shop. Sufi-inspired sounds played by an Israeli musician piped from the speakers above. “Spiritual Books for Sale,” read the sign outside the door.

A middle-aged Orthodox woman wearing a colorful headscarf milled about the shelves of books on Sufism, Kabbalah and other mystic traditions. “This is one of my best customers,” Yusuf said.

“Yes,” the woman replied. “But if my rabbi found out I came here, he’d have a heart attack.”

Yusuf doesn’t have the same worry. His rabbi at the alternative synagogue he attends knows that Yusuf runs the Olam Qatan bookstore in the old Ottoman train station in Jerusalem. Yusuf is an observant Jew, but he also considers himself a Sufi. “He is everyone’s favorite Jewish Sufi,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a prominent Jewish advocacy organization based in Jerusalem.

To be clear, Sufism is an ancient Islamic mystic tradition that emphasizes the reduction of ego and the purification of the heart as paths to meeting God. There is a significant interest in Sufism among Israelis today, but its popularity among Palestinian Muslims has declined. Much of the interest in Sufism is among Israeli Jews. Later this month, (April 19 to 21), some 1,000 Israelis are expected to gather in the Negev Desert for the seventh Sufi festival. A promotional piece in advertises “a space where music, dance and silence become a language.” Yusuf will be at the festival selling books and CDs. He will also give talks on the famous Sufi scholar Rumi and on the essence of Sufism.

(Godland News / Fergus Tuohy)

Yusuf believes that Sufism is popular with Israelis because it provides a bridge between East and West, between the secular and the religious. Many young Israelis go to India after completing mandatory military service and become more interested in spirituality. As Sufism is based in monotheism, it is more familiar than other Eastern traditions, he said.

Yusuf, who is originally from Brooklyn, first encountered Sufism while living in San Francisco in the 1970s. While others there seemed most interested in the spiritual music and poetry associated with the tradition, Yusuf began to pursue Sufism in earnest. He studied under a Jerusalem-based Muslim Sufi master for seven years. During that time, he struggled with whether or not to convert to Islam, but ultimately decided to remain a Jew. His master gave him the name Yacub. The name is appropriate, Yusuf says, as Jacob was the “God-wrestler.”

But Yusuf said he expects few, if any, Muslim Sufis will attend the April festival. “It will be mostly secular Israelis,” he said. “Too many half-naked women there dancing for the Arabs.”

Some Arab Sufis come to the festival as well. Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, a Muslim Sufi originally from Nazareth, taught classes at the festival in the past. He spoke well of the event, but said because it is mostly secular, he no longer attends. Manasra, who referred to Yusuf as “one of my best friends,” is an ordained Sheikh in the Qadiri Sufi Order in the Holy Land. He leads conferences, workshops, meetings and instructional webinars for hundreds of Sufis in the Holy Land and around the world. Among his students, he counts not only Muslims, but also Jews, Christians and Baha'is.

“Sufi is not a religion, it is a style of religious life,” Manasra said. “When I say Sufi, I mean spiritual.”

Manasra noted that Jews embracing Sufism is not a new phenomenon. He pointed to the son of Moses Maimonides, the prominent twelfth century Jewish philosopher and scholar. Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon succeeded his father as the head of the Egyptian Jewish community and embraced Sufi practices. “He was a Sufi,” Manasra said. “They were great Sufis.”

Manasra doesn’t try to convert his students. “They need to be Jews,” he said. “We have enough Muslims in the world. We need them to be great Jewish Sufis.”

As for Muslims, Manasra estimates before the 1948 war, most Palestinian Muslims were Sufis. But these numbers have diminished significantly. Today, Palestinian Muslims are largely Sunni. Manasra pointed to poverty and radicals as reasons for the decline in the spiritual practice. “When you are free, you can do many great things,” he said. “The fear of the occupation and the radicals on both sides can create a feeling and bad behavior and bad thinking. They cannot relax and cannot see the window of the horizon.”

Manasra no longer lives in Israel. He said that he had to flee the country because of pressure from Muslim radicals opposed to his devotion to interfaith work. They were beating up his son on a daily basis, Yusuf said. Manasra now lives in Florida, but serves as co-coordinator with Abrahamic Reunion, an interfaith organization which works for peace in the Holy Land.

Yusuf believes Sufism has gone underground among Palestinian Muslims. “I think the fanatics have really had an impact,” he said. “For Israeli Sufis like me, it’s not a problem. I’m part of a free pluralistic society, thank God. Also, I’m not a convert.”

As published in The Media Project.

Palestinian Christians hope the road to American evangelicals runs through Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM—If Jesus were to suddenly appear at one of the Israeli checkpoints that separates this Palestinian area from Israel, what would He think? That is a question that bedeviled the Reverend Munther Isaac, a Palestinian Christian who is the academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College.

“Would Christ discriminate between people based on their ethnicity?” Isaac asked. “Would Christ promote fear of the other?”

These questions were among those that inspired Isaac, 39, to set up a conference called Christ at the Checkpoint, an event hosted by Bethlehem Bible College every two years. The aim of the conference is to teach evangelicals from around the world about the lives of Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation. Hundreds have gathered at each of the four conferences that have taken place since 2010. The fifth one is happening this month between May 28th and June 1st, with an expected attendance of 450.

Isaac, who is the conference director, said that while Christ is the symbol of the Christian faith, the checkpoint is a symbol of the reality for Palestinians. Together they form the conference title. Checkpoints are barriers set up in the West Bank by the Israeli Defense Forces to prevent terror attacks that harm civilians. But Palestinians who pass through checkpoints—which is often necessary for daily commute to work—must get their identities checked by Israeli authorities and are subject to lengthy questioning.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Jesus Christ at the Center.” The theme is a challenge to Christian theologies that place Israel at the center. “We believe as evangelical Christians in Palestine that Scripture points us to Christ, not to Israel,” Isaac explained.

Indeed, a big target group for Christ at the Checkpoint is evangelical Christians in the United States. Sami Awad, a speaker at this year’s conference and the director of a Palestinian peacemaking nonprofit, Holy Land Trust, said that Christian Zionism—support for Jews to return to the Holy Land based on the promises made to Israel in the Bible—is a strong movement in the States.

“Most evangelical and Pentecostal Christians have support for Israel no matter what happens,” said Awad, 47, who travels to the U.S. four or five times a year to meet with churches. “They say if politicians don’t support Israel, the country will be cursed.”

In a 2016 study by Pew Research Center, 79 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they sympathize more with Israel than with Palestinians, while 5 percent said they sympathize more with Palestinians. The report says that opinion is less one-sided in other denominations. Nevertheless, in groups like mainline Protestants and white Catholics, only 14 percent said they side more with Palestinians. Overall, most Christians overwhelmingly favor Israel.

“Many evangelical Christians will come and say, 'God gave this land to the Jewish people and it’s theirs,'” Isaac said, “And we say, 'What does that mean on the ground? Should we pack, should we accept to live as second-class citizens all under occupation just because of that promise?'

“It’s these kinds of questions that we want to challenge evangelicals to consider,” he said.

Besides challenging the beliefs of evangelicals, the conference will highlight the Palestinian perspective—a perspective that is often not heard in Christian circles.

“I once met a woman who for 50 years, prayed for the peace of Jerusalem—every day, that’s what she told me. And she said she has never mentioned Palestinians, she didn’t know we exist,” Isaac described, “We’re living in an age when you would think, with social media, people would know. But still they don’t know.”

Within the Holy Land, Palestinians who are Christian are even more invisible. According to The World Factbook published by the Central Intelligence Agency, Christians make up between 1 to 2.5 percent of the population in the West Bank, and less than one percent of the population in Gaza. The Christian population in the two regions used to be 15 percent in 1950, and it continues to dwindle.

“Palestinian Christian voices get almost zero presence within mainstream media because they do not fit neatly into either a Conservative or a Liberal American political narrative,” said James-Michael Smith, the founder of a Christian nonprofit in Charlotte, North Carolina. Smith, 39, traveled to Bethlehem for Christ at the Checkpoint four years ago and will participate in this year’s conference.

David Azar, 29, is a Palestinian Christian who moved from Gaza to the West Bank. He studied Theology at Bethlehem Bible College, and went to the conference in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Azar told me about participants he met at past conferences. “Some people, they didn’t know that there are Christians in Palestine,” he said, “They were thinking that Palestine is an Islamic country. But through Christ at the Checkpoint and a conference like that, they will see the living stories of Palestinian Christians.”

Mariam Geraisy, a recent graduate of Bethlehem Bible College, has similar thoughts. “The world does not care about the feeling of Palestinian Christians,” said Geraisy, 23, “For me, this conference is a good way to make our voice heard as Christians for the whole world.”

She attended the conference in 2016 as a Theology student. Geraisy grew up in Beit Sahour, a town east of Bethlehem, and said that living in the West Bank presented many challenges.

“This is represented by the political and religious situation in Palestine,” Geraisy explained, “Some examples of this are the wars between the two peoples, the existing violence, the physical humiliation and the psychological humiliation of anyone trying to visit the Holy Places in Jerusalem or any other area.”

Palestinians who travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem have to apply for a permit. A Palestinian Christian woman, who asked to be anonymous, said the hardest part is the fear that hits her while she’s crossing the checkpoint. “If I’m in the line, if I see a soldier, I’m scared and I walk like a robot, not like a normal person,” she explained, “You can’t put your hands in pockets.”

Having encounters with Israeli soldiers is one of the many realities of life in the West Bank. Isaac, who is also the pastor of a Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, said that after learning about these realities, evangelical Christians still often do not give their support.

“We’re living in a time when it’s still difficult and costly to many evangelical Christians to publicly support Palestinians or to publicly say something sympathetic to Palestinians,” Isaac explained, “It’s almost like a taboo to support Palestinians.”

Nevertheless, Isaac said he hopes that evangelicals from the West will attend the conference and hear from their Christian brothers and sisters in Bethlehem.

“We’ve met, sometimes, pastors who say they’ve come to the Holy Land many times with groups but never came to this side here,” Isaac said of Christians who make their first visit to the Palestinian territories for Christ at the Checkpoint.

“The biggest effect is, they leave saying: ‘We didn’t know.’”

As published in The Media Project.

A Muslim man's sacred job renting crosses in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — Tall, built and gangly, Mazen Kenan, a 46-year-old Palestinian, towers above everyone in just about any setting. But his height is particularly commanding in the tightly packed streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, where he maneuvers easily despite the five foot-long, 50-pound wooden cross he bears on his shoulder. His dexterity is not surprising because he’s been shuttling crosses through the city for nearly two decades.

Every day, Kenan walks the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, a route sacred for Christians around the world. With a smirk on his face and a cigarette in his free hand, he smoothly moves through the crowds of tourists and shop owners. But hauling the cross around Jerusalem in the path that Jesus walked is not a sign of devotion for him. The procession and the rental business are merely transactional trades for Kenan, whose family is Muslim. But despite his religious background, he’s the go-to guy pilgrims visiting Jerusalem rent their crosses from.

Mazen Kenan carrying a cross through Jerusalem. (Godland News / Vildana Hajric & Isobel van Hagen)

Christian pilgrims from around the world visit the Old City, a place rife with key historical Christian monuments and Biblical references. Israel reported a record number of visitors last year, with nearly 80 percent of the more than 3.6 million visitors stopping in Jerusalem. More than half of Israel’s tourists were Christian and 25 percent of those were visiting as pilgrims.

The Stations of the Cross, a circuitous path along the Via Dolorosa with 14 stops in total, is believed by many to be the route that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Tour groups of pilgrims large and small move from station to station, carrying with them hymn books, pamphlets with descriptions of each station, and, most importantly, a large cross.

On a recent Friday in March, one of the busiest times to walk the procession, Kenan followed a group as they started their tour. The group was made up of pilgrims from Los Angeles, New York or the Philippines, and was led by a man who identified himself as Pastor Joel from California. Kenan snapped pictures at every station, and when the priest took some time to reflect on the importance of the group’s trip, Kenan took a cigarette break instead.

The weeks before Easter are a particularly busy time for business, said Kenan, thanks to a combination of warm weather and the holiday season.

(Godland News / Vildana Hajric and Isobel van Hagen)

“It’s always been my dream to come here,” said Dulce Guzman, 50, who had traveled from Fresno, Ca. to make her way through the walk. “I wanted to experience how Jesus lived. We’re exploring his life and time. It’s a remarkable experience for us,” she added.

Yvonne Amantea, a pilgrim from Los Angeles, was in Jerusalem for the first time. She walked through the streets murmuring, “Our Father, hail Mary, glory be,” as she held part of the giant wooden cross over her head.   Between each stop on the route, at least six people walk with the cross, she explained, so everyone gets a chance to hold it.

Bob Vega, 72, a retired accountant from Fresno, had started his trip in Bethlehem, then traveled to Nazareth and now was in Jerusalem to complete not only the Stations of the Cross, but the entire path of the life of Jesus. This was his 10th time traveling to Jerusalem, and his favorite spot along the procession is the 11th station, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified. “While it’s important symbolically when I carry the cross on this walk,” he said, “the one Jesus carried was definitely much heavier.”

As Kenan followed the group making its way toward the ninth stop on the Via Dolorosa–called “Jesus falls a third time”–the midday sun beat down, and it was hard to hear Joel preaching over the Muslim call to prayer.

Kenan makes all of the crosses himself, mostly out of olive wood. He has around 50 and keeps the majority of them at his home in Jerusalem. Every day, however, he brings a few to the first station of the Way of the Cross and rents them out depending on daily demand. Though demand fluctuates throughout the year, the past couple of weeks have been particularly busy for him due to the Easter holiday. But when asked how many crosses he had rented out that day, he held up a single finger. “One.”

The business has been in the Kenan family for nearly seven decades. His father, who passed away about three months ago, started it back in 1951, according to Kenan. He took it over in 1999, helping to transform it into what it is today. Pilgrims can rent the cross for $50. To supplement his cross rental income, he takes pictures of tour groups and charges them about $3 per photo. If the group decides to use him as their photographer, the cross comes free.

Some, however, choose to avoid this rental cost and bring their own cross, hauling it in in pieces and assembling it right before the start of their tours. Shafik Elias, a Syrian Christian who came with a larger group, is one of those people. He brought his own handmade cross–carved of pale orange wood–in two pieces along with a screwdriver to assemble it. He even saved scraps of newspaper to help cover up the edges for protection during travel.

Pilgrims return their crosses in a courtyard located just behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The courtyard, raised above the city, is a quiet and secluded world of its own. Here, another group – this one of Greek Catholic pilgrims from Nazareth – took a photo with the cross they had rented from Kenan. As they finished their tour, the leader of the pilgrimage said Kenan told him to just leave the cross in the courtyard. He would grab it later.

The pilgrims left the lone cross leaning against the ancient stone wall of the courtyard.

As published in The Media Project

As Christian site crumbles, conflict over ownership delays repairs

JERUSALEM — “There is a time,” the Bible tells us, “to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.” For the sacred shrines of the Holy Land, however, the act of moving even a single stone can provoke the greatest of controversies.

Stones have apparently complicated restoration work at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a complex of shrines and altars that houses two of the holiest sites in Christianity – the place where Jesus died on the cross, and the place where he was resurrected.

Over the last two millennia, six Christian denominations have claimed custodial ownership of these places. They have devised among themselves an elaborate choreography of how and when each church can use each space. 

On September 22nd, 2017, the Church of the Archangel Michael, part of the Holy Sepulchre complex, was ordered closed after a small stone fell from its the ceiling.

Instead of repairing it, the two churches that claim ownership over the church prevented one another from making necessary repairs. One of them is the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has long claimed ownership of the Church of the Archangel Michael, and the surrounding courtyard atop the complex, called Deir El-Sultan. The other church that claims ownership is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

When the stone fell, the Copts and the Ethiopians could not decide who was to take responsibility for reinforcing the ceiling of the Church of the Archangel Michael. The physical damage caused by the falling stone, however, paled in comparison to the fragile peace that was shattered between the two churches as age-old disputes bubbled to the surface.

It was not a matter of money. “Everyone can afford to repair it,” explained the Rev. Marcos Alorshalmey, the secretary of the Coptic order. “It’s only a small piece of the roof, but the Ethiopians don’t recognize us as the owners.”

St. Antony’s – Father Markos Alorshalemy, Secretary (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

He said that the Copts and Ethiopians generally cooperate. “At the end of the day, we are all one Christian community. But if you have a right, you cannot just leave it – you have to defend it.”

But the Ethiopians have a different story. Bar Markos is one of 21 monks living in cramped cells in Deir El-Sultan.

He claims that the Ethiopian presence goes back 2,000 or more years. “There were monks at the time of Jesus Christ here,” said Markos, shaking an English-language pamphlet in his right hand.

“And before that, the Queen of Sheba secured this land for the Ethiopians from King Solomon.”

After this confident declaration, he invited tourists to come and see their one remaining church, where a painting of the Abyssinians bringing gifts to the Davidic king hangs from the wall.

Deir El-Sultan – Bar Markos, left, is one of around 21 monks living on the holy site. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

When Alorshalemy heard of this claim, he was baffled.

“But King Solomon was not Christian!” cried Alorshalemy.

“And more than that, during the time of King Solomon, there was no one here. There was no monastery. No church. No nothing! So, how come King Solomon gave them this area?” he questioned, repeatedly.

Unfortunately for the Ethiopians, the archaeological and historical record falls silent on these claims, though the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been a destination of Christian pilgrimage since at least 325 A.D., when St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, is said to have rediscovered the holy site.

Mutual recognition between the two Oriental churches of an Ethiopian presence on Deir El-Sultan begins in the 17th Century.

Both sides are in agreement that, in 1654, the Armenians and Greeks evicted the Ethiopians from their altars inside the main church when they could not afford to pay taxes on their property.

At that time, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, as an apostolic see, ministered to the Copts and Ethiopians. It was not until 1959, when the Coptic Pope Cyril VI granted the Ethiopians their own patriarch, that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church became fully independent.

“Before, they had no place to go,” said Alorshemy. “So we, as their mother church, allowed them to stay as guests until they found somewhere else.

“Back then, the Copts were few in number, so the Ethiopians ended up staying there for many years.”

In fact, the Ethiopians go a step farther than this in their official history, which is summarized in a pamphlet that is readily available from their church offices. They claim that it was actually the Copts – and a man by the name of Ibrahim Giuhari, specifically – who stole property from the Ethiopians back in 1774. No evidence was produced to corroborate this event.

The Copts, however, say that they have evidence that they were there even earlier. For example, the iconostasis and other engravings bear the hallmarks of Coptic design. Official documents date these artifacts to the early 12th century.

Circa late-1800s – Coptic monks praying in the two disputed churches of Deir El-Sultan (Courtesy of St. Antony’s Coptic Monastery)

Though none of the monks speak fluent English, Hebrew or even Arabic, the pamphlet goes to pains to describe the poverty of the Ethiopian community, who, through the centuries have lost the majority of their properties in the Holy Land. Their last stand, they seem to be saying, is Deir El-Sultan. What emerges from this short historical pamphlet is a people clinging on dearly to what little they have.

Shortly after the dispute over the fallen stone, the Coptic Metropolitan Bishop of Jerusalem and the Near East, Anba Antonios, issued a press statement saying that the Copts should be put in charge of the renovation based on legal precedents. He recounted the number of times the Ethiopians had wrongfully tried to seize their property and had failed.

“We call upon all parties concerned to support the Coptic Church in preserving its property in the Holy Land,” said the bishop.

Twice, he wrote, the Ethiopians had stolen the keys to Deir El-Sultan’s main buildings and gates – once in 1850, and again, in 1862. In both cases, the Ottomans ruled in favor of the Copts by decree.

The Dome of the Church of St. Helen – an Ethiopic monk prays decades of the rosary. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

Alorshalemy speculates that these incidents instilled within the Ethiopians the feeling that they were under threat of expulsion. On two separate occasions since the 19th century, the Ethiopians have secretly attempted to commission renovations and painting, in order to exercise some proprietary right over the premises. In 1959, a Jordanian court even decided to hand over the keys to the Ethiopians, but this was short-lived, as the Copts successfully petitioned King Hussein a year later.

After the Six-Day War of 1967, in which Israel defeated Egypt, the Israeli government turned Deir El-Sultan over to the Ethiopians. Again, the Copts appealed and won in the Israeli Supreme Court, but the decision was not acted upon.

“The Israeli government has refused to implement the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court from 1971 to the present day,” explained the bishop in dismay.

To preserve their rights, the Copts have devised a series of symbolic acts and gestures, which, they believe, proves their undisputed ownership.

“We have one cell at Deir El-Sultan, and that’s where the head of the monks in that monastery should stay,” said Father Alorshalemy.

“That room is ours, so one of our monks goes and sleeps there every day,” he added. “But because there is no water, no electricity, no sewage, we take it in turns to stay there.”

The 21-strong Ethiopian community feels much aggrieved by their lot, too, but they blame it largely on the Copts.

They complain that for 80 years, until 1970, the two Ethiopian shrines were locked for Easter, and they had to celebrate outside in the open air. Similarly, at times, the purported shutdown prevented the Ethiopians “from burying the corpses of dead priests and nuns,” reads the pamphlet. These claims have not been independently verified.

“Politics is a dirty game,” lamented Bar Markos, bowing his head.

“Even your cat or your dog cannot live in this place. In this society, in this century – there is no humanity.”

Deir El-Sultan– Ethiopian monks have lived here in ‘temporary residence’ since 1654, when they were evicted from the main church. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

These accusations have deeply upset the Copts, though despite living several feet apart, the two orders rarely meet, or converse, on account of the language barrier. This makes a resolution near impossible. At present, there is only one clerical figure who speaks Amharic and Arabic, and he resides with the Copts. His name is the Rev. Gabriel Selassie. He is at least 93-years-old and was ostracized from the Ethiopian community 18 years ago for supporting the Coptic position.

In 2008, the late Dominican priest, the Rev. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, published a book entitled "The Holy Land." He alleged that the Copts were “torturing” the Ethiopians, forcing them to live in poverty. Alorshalemy said that he was shocked at the charges, which, in his view, made the Copts out to be “bad people.” He wrote to Oxford University Press, requesting a correction in the next edition.

The Copts see it differently. In light of their charity work and sustained commitment to allowing the Ethiopians to stay on Deir El-Sultan, the monks of St. Anthony’s take great offense to such judgments on their character.

“It’s simply not true – not true at all,” sighed Father Alorshalemy.

Almost a month to the day after the stone fell, the Dangerous Buildings Department of the Jerusalem Municipality sent government-appointed engineers to admit equipment to the site to begin repairs. As a compromise, the Israeli government had offered to fix the roof.

But the Copts had flatly refused unless certain conditions were met. Among these, the Copts insisted that they – and not the Ethiopians or the Israeli government – pay for the restoration. It was clearly a way of asserting ownership.

No reply came.

“As we did not receive any reply, we sent several other letters to confirm our readiness,” recalled Bishop Antonios.

“We sent the engineering report, the blueprints and the contract agreement to the engineering office assigned with the renovations,” he added. “But we have yet to receive any written response.”

And neither would they. The government proposal to take control of the renovation was not the one the Copts had hoped for. When they heard the news, the Archbishop hurried to assemble all the Coptic monks, deacons and priests to peacefully protest the decision. They stood at the gate and waited until engineers left without delivering the equipment.

“The Egyptian Embassy intervened in this matter,” said the Coptic bishop, “and this led to the delay of the work until coordination in writing is made with us.” The entry of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry into these negotiations has undoubtedly raised the stakes, for the confrontation has now escalated beyond a petty church dispute.

But it remains to be seen what will happen next, and more importantly, how the Ethiopians will react. Alorshalemy is optimistic that a solution will be reached soon, though the Ethiopians will not compromise so easily.

Deir El-Sultan – An Ethiopian nun reads a newspaper. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

‘Lost Jews’ of India are finding their way to live in the Holy Land

In 2001, Elana Benyamin and her mother were among the roughly 1,000 Indian Jews who made Aliyah, the Hebrew word for immigration to Israel. The decision to move from their native India to Israel was not easy but it was the fulfillment of a dream. “We always dreamed of coming home to Israel,” Benyamin said.

Benyamin, a member of the Bnei Menashe community, was born and raised in the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram.

Bnei Menashe Jews have gotten increased attention in recent years since Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called them “a living bridge” between the people of India and the people of Israel in October 2014. Netanyahu has made a considerable effort to develop a good relationship with the leaders of India. From India’s side, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is putting in similar efforts to bridge the relations between the two nations.

“We reviewed the progress in our relations. Our discussions were wide-ranging and intensive. Marked by desire to do more," said Modi, who visited Israel in July last year.

Like other immigrants to Israel, Benyamin has gone through several layers of cultural changes. She has become Israeli but she still clings to her Indian identity. For example, even though she wears the Western dress typical of Israelis, she also still wears a traditional Indian necklace around her neck. She adheres to Jewish dietary laws, but still enjoys Indian curries at times. Her day-to-day dilemmas, because of her ethnic duality, are nothing when compared to others who are coping up with bigger issues like finding jobs or searching for better ones.

When Benyamin’s family came to Israel, they had to go through a formal conversion process, since the members of the Bnei Menashe community are not considered Jews, according to the Halakha, the Jewish law, and jurisprudence. In 1948, 2,000 Indian Jews from different states such as Cochin, Kerala, and Maharashtra came on Aliyah. The Jewish state was newly-formed and immigrant Jews were welcomed as citizens and as Jews.

Today, the situation is different. The Bnei Menashe have to go through a conversion in Beit Din, a rabbinical court that imposes other traditional requirements. The conversion requires immersion in a ritual bath and the study of basic Judaism for both men and women, as well as ritual circumcision for men.

“Before going to the rabbinic court we had to learn Judaism till six months. Then we could go to Beit Din,” Benyamin said. Her English and Hebrew are fluent, but she is worried about other immigrants who are having problems learning Hebrew.

Communities of Bnei Menashe speak in Tibeto-Burman languages depending on the region, they belong to tribes such as Mizo, Kuki and Chin. After years of speaking their mother tongue, learning Hebrew becomes difficult for many people, but it is an important skill if they want to apply for better jobs. According to the Hindustan Times, there are around 33,000 Indian Jews who have migrated to Israel since 1948.



They come with the hope of blending into Israeli society but, since learning a new language can bes a challenge, many of them have settled for unsatisfactory jobs. Men in the community often find jobs as security guards while women work as school cleaners. This is what happens in towns like Kyriat Arba, located in the West Bank, where around 800 people from the Bnei Menashe have settled since migrating to Israel.


“Bnei Menashe are facing economic and social problems, when they immigrate mostly empty handed in Israel. They have to take any job which is available until they find a suitable job according to their experiences,” said Manlun, a social worker at the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, who identified herself only by her first name.

Manlun works in Kyriat Arba, a town in the outskirts of Hebron, where Jewish settlements are increasing. In the 1970s, settlers were residing in Kiryat Arba for ideological purposes but now they are residing for cheaper living. In 2017, Prime Minister Netanyahu approved a tender to build 3,736 housing units in the region. As reported by the Washington Post, the units will be built in numerous settlements, including in Hebron and other disputed areas. Although this might not act as a direct relief, an increase in housing units might provide reduced rents and land in the area.

Social Support System

Surprisingly, the Israeli government has decreased the budget for social maintenance of Bnei Menashe. In 2017, the Ministry of Absorption and Immigration allocated $355,000 to the Bnei Menashe, down from $500,000 in 2016. These tenders are usually picked up by organizations that are working towards bringing to Israel Jews like the Bnei Menashe who live in remote areas and have been separated from the rest of world Jewry.

One organization close to the Bnei Menashe community is Shavei Israel, which is run by Michael Freund, former deputy communications director of Netanyahu’s administration. Freund is an American immigrant who is supporting this movement by soliciting donations and governmental support. His support of getting the lost Jews back from India has been criticized by many, especially by the Orthodox community.

“According to Jewish law, Judaism has no interest in influencing someone to convert. There’s no such thing,” Rabbi Dor Liov told Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. The comment refers to the mass immigration of the lost Jews from around the world. “In any case,” Lior said, “we should invest efforts first of all in bringing the Jews we know. We aren’t missionaries.”

Contrary to what the Orthodox rabbi said, the Israeli Ministry is still maintaining its social support budget for the Bnei Menashe. In an aim to reverse the diaspora, a committee appointed by Israel's Diaspora Affairs minister affirmed the committee's recommendation for reaching out to diasporic communities and introducing them to audio and video content related to Israel and Judaism.

In Mizoram, India, Shavei is putting proactive effort to educate local Indian Jews.

“We do have centers back in India. A big chunk of our budget goes to their development,” said Laura Ben-David, Shavei Israel director of marketing.

Grassroots education has been going on in different parts of North Eastern India. “We do big seminars in a couple of weeks … at one central location where people can bring their people. We create books and pass them around in a regular community normal access,” said Ben-David.

Although learning Hebrew remains a problem for many, a systematic community effort along with support from nonprofits would help overcome people who are about to make Aliyah in coming years. The key is to learn language as soon as they can and dissolve themselves as Israeli Jews.

Life in Israel can be hard for immigrants, but Benyamin is not sorry that she made the journey. “I comforted myself that I'm finally in a place where we always dreamt of,” she said of Israel. She harkened back to a Biblical character when she considered how lucky she is that she was able to come on Aliyah. “Even Moses didn't get a chance to come in Israel,” she said.