From the Degel Menashe Flagpole: A Project Manager’s Perspective
In recent days, word has reached us of rumors in the B’nei Menashe community that
Degel Menashe is about to launch an Aliyah operation for our brothers and sisters still in India.
Would that we had the ability to do so! Unfortunately, we don’t. We are a young organization
with a small budget, and bringing B’nei Menashe to Israel at our own expense, even if Israel’s
government were to approve of it, is not on our agenda.
But this does not mean that we have not been active on the Aliyah front. There is much that we
hope to accomplish.
We all know that for the past 17 years, since 2003, the Aliyah of the B’nei Menashe has been a
monopoly of Shavei Israel. In no other case has immigration to Israel been put entirely in
the hands of a private organization not subject to public oversight, even though it has been
assisted by government funds.
We all know, too, what the results of this monopoly have been. Shavei has indeed brought close
to 2,000 B’nei Menashe to Israel, for which it deserves credit. Yet it has brought them sporadically,
doing so when it has had the financial means and bureaucratic authorization and desisting for long
periods when it has not. It has acted discriminatorily, rewarding its followers by putting them on
its Aliyah lists and punishing its critics by omitting them. It has used its monopoly to control and intimidate the B’nei Menashe community by giving it the message; Do as we say and we will bring you or your families to Israel. Disobey us and we will not.
It might be possible to judge Shavei’s abuse of its Aliyah monopoly more leniently had it produced more impressive results – that is, had it resulted in the last 17 years in bringing the bulk of northeast India’s B’nei Menashe to Israel. Yet this is far from the case. Since 2003, an average of slightly more than 100 B’nei Menashe immigrants a year have reached Israel via Shavei. Close to 5,000 still remain in India. At this rate, it would take 40 more years to bring them all, let alone their children and grandchildren who have yet to be born.
It is true that the B’nei Menashe community of northeast India poses a unique problem. Although its members are Jewish in every fiber of their being and lead more Jewishly observant lives than do most Jews in Israel and elsewhere in the world, they are not Jews halachically. This is not their fault. There are no rabbis in India to convert them. But since they are therefore not eligible for immigrant status under Israel’s Law of Return, it has been convenient for Israel’s governments to turn to Shavei and say, “Here, you take care of it.”
This must stop. We do not wish to hinder Shavei’s efforts to bring more B’nei Menashe to Israel. On the contrary: let it bring all it can! But its Aliyah monopoly must be ended. Its Aliyah policies must be made subject to public scrutiny and supervision. And alternative routes for
B’nei Menashe waiting to join their families in Israel must be created, so that they are no longer dependent on Shavei and its whims.
This does not mean creating a rival organization to compete with Shavei. Degel Menashe does not aspire to this. It means getting the government of Israel to assume responsibilities that it has hitherto delegated to Shavei, and opening channels for B’nei Menashe in India who are able to pay for their Aliyah and have families in Israel willing to sponsor them in their initial stage of acclimatization and halachic conversion. There is no reason why such immigrants cannot come to Israel on their own as do Jews from other countries.
These are the goals we have set for ourselves. We are in contact with some of the official bodies whose participation is needed to achieve them. We have been encouraged by the recent announcement of Israel’s new minister of immigration and absorption, Pnina Tamano-Shata, that all B’nei Menashe remaining in India should be enabled to make Aliyah soon. This is a highly positive development.
Still, there is no guarantee of success. The obstacles in the way of change are great and cannot not easily be overcome. We can only promise to try our best. This is what we are doing.