DEBORAH STONE talks to members of the Bnei Menashe Jewish community caught up in ethnic violence in the northern Indian state of Manipur.
After 15 years living in Australia, Indian Jewish woman Aya Khongsai returned to India last year, planning to retire close to her brother, sister and their families.
But that plan was devastatingly disrupted by the ethnic violence wrecking her home state of Manipur.
Khongsai, who has fled back to Sydney temporarily, is one of more than 50,000 people who have been forced to leave Manipur as mobs attack with home-made weapons, burn buildings and loot anything they can find. More than 70 people have been killed and at least 1800 buildings destroyed.
The Bnei Menashe Jewish community are among those who have been under attack. On May 4, during a major day of violence, at least one member of the Jewish community was killed and two synagogues destroyed, leaving one Sefer Torah desecrated and a second lost.
The attacks are not specifically aimed at Jews. More than 200 churches have also been targeted. The small Jewish community is a subset of the Kuki tribal community, mostly Christian, which has been attacked by the predominantly Hindu Meitei community, an ethnic conflict founded in the question of which communities should get certain privileges under Indian law.
The community chairman of Beit-el Imphal, Lemuel Haokip, provided a video of the devastation at the synagogue. He told Plus61J Media that the area is now deserted, with many members of the community sheltering in Aizawl, capital of the adjoining state of Mizoram.
“We don’t have any hope of going back, especially to Imphal where I’m having my own house. Going there will be sure of death. We want aliyah to Eretz Israel sooner the better.”
A member of the Beit Shalom community posted a video after the May attack, describing the desperate situation of the community who are now refugees and asking for help from the Israeli government.
“We were forced to move to the forest, all of us, young, old, pregnant women. We were in forest … Now we have no place to go. We are in refugee camp and we plea to the Israeli government please do help us because we need more help. The outside situation is still not under control, and we are afraid they can still attack us.”
Aya Khongsai was living in a different part of Manipur, in police quarters with her brother, who is a police superintendent. Their home was attacked in early May when her brother was absent, retrieving the body of a girl who had been murdered by the mobs.
“We were five women alone, me, my half-sister, my sister-in-law, my niece and my cousin. They came with axes and they were throwing stones and bowling bowls, big heavy balls. They tried to get past the security, they were pushing against the security and when they could not get in, they started throwing things at us,” she said.
“I was so scared. I thought they were going to kill us. There were hundreds of them charging around, burning houses and looting anything valuable. They destroyed the cars and took anything they could. They didn’t attack all the houses, only the Kuki, they came directly for us.
“My half-sister and my cousin managed to climb out but then before I could climb out, there were bullets and people were running left and right.”
Khongsai said as many people as possible had left. Some of her family members have gone to Israel, where they have family, and she is staying with friends in Australia.
The Bnei Menashe is a group of about 10,000 Indians who claim descent from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Since the movement began in the 1950s, many have converted to Judaism and about half now live in Israel.
Khongsai said there were plans for a group aliyah for the remaining members of the community but no one knows when it will happen.
Photo: A Hebrew page on the floor of the burned synagogue in Longol, Manipur