An estimated 200 young Bnei Menashe men have joined the Israeli military's war effort. (Photo/Courtesy Degel Menashe)
An estimated 200 young Bnei Menashe men have joined the Israeli military's war effort. (Photo/Courtesy Degel Menashe)

Indian Bnei Menashe Jews miraculously survived Oct. 7. Now they’re fighting wars in Israel and India.

(JTA) — In the 2000s, as the small Israeli town of Sderot endured heavy rocket fire, thousands of residents left the city. Around the same time, a new population began moving in: Bnei Menashe Jews from the northeast Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram.

More than 100 Bnei Menashe families called Sderot their home until Oct. 7. The community was deeply proud of what it created: the first synagogue and beit midrash — or Torah study hall — run exclusively by Bnei Menashe Jews. It was a dream, for many, that began halfway across the world in India.

The dream was interrupted when Hamas terrorists infiltrated many towns and kibbutzes surrounding Gaza. By the end of Oct. 7, 50 civilians in Sderot had been killed, as well as 20 police officers, according to the Times of Israel.

But none of them were Bnei Menashe Jews.

“We want to strengthen Israel, that’s why we go to live in Sderot. And I’m proud to be from Sderot,” Lhungdim told JTA.

Like other Israelis in towns near Gaza who survived the Oct. 7 attacks, the entire Bnei Menashe community in Sderot was relocated to hotels in Jerusalem. The more than 100 families staying there have kept busy by continuing religious education, praying at the Western Wall and enjoying free admission to local museums. Many had never before enjoyed stays at four-star hotels or had the opportunity to spend much time exploring Jerusalem.

But they are still eager to get back to their hometown. Guite and other community members have been making day trips to the south to tend to vegetable fields that have been left abandoned since the evacuation.

“The government is doing so much for us, and of course, we are only too happy to contribute and give something to Israel in forms of service,” Guite said.

The other war in India

Bnei Menashe Jews are now facing war and displacement on two fronts: within Israel, and in Manipur, where an ethnic conflict has been raging for nearly eight months.

There, hundreds of Bnei Menashe Jews are rebuilding their lives in the midst of an ethnic conflict that began in May and has no end in sight. Human rights groups say the ethnic Kukis — the group to which the Bnei Menashe belong — have been targeted by the majority Meiteis in what some have called an “ethnic cleansing.” Many Kukis have been forced out of their local valley, which is now mostly occupied by the Meiteis, to the hills, which have become Kuki territory.

Others have moved to the neighboring Mizoram state, where other Bnei Menashe Jews live.

Members of India’s Bnei Menashe community pose outside a structure under construction as a semi-permanent dwelling for nine families displaced by ethnic violence in the Manipur region of India, Oct. 2023. (Photo/Courtesy Degel Menashe)
Members of India’s Bnei Menashe community pose outside a structure under construction as a semi-permanent dwelling for nine families displaced by ethnic violence in the Manipur region of India, Oct. 2023. (Photo/Courtesy Degel Menashe)

Unlike in Israel, the hundreds of displaced community members in northeast India have no hope of returning home, as new informal territorial borders based on ethnicity have become the norm. Many are living in newly-built houses with vegetable plots on a picturesque 200-acre piece of land donated by community leader Lalam Hangshing. It has been named “Moaz Tzur,” and Degel Menashe, which advocates for the community, proudly refers to it as India’s first kibbutz.

These Jews have dreamed of immigrating to Israel for more than two decades. Thangjom called the war a “setback” to the process and will lengthen the timeline before the next slate of immigration, but conversations with the government are continuing, he said.

The war in Israel also impacted the amount of aid that Degel Menashe has been able to provide to Bnei Menashe refugees in India, as international Jewish organizations pour money into Israel.

“Since the war started in Israel, I don’t know if I’ll be able to give the same amount of help. But we are approaching our donors,” Thangjom said.

Jordyn Haime

JTA correspondent