From the Degel Menashe Flagpole: A Project Manager’s Perspective
The story in the October 6 Jerusalem Post that 722 B’nei Menashe will soon be arriving in Israel from India turns out to have been exaggerated. The actual number, we have now been told by Shavei Israel chairman Michael Freund, is 250.
Needless to say, a smaller group, too, will be a cause for rejoicing. Every one of our brothers and sisters
who reaches Israel after years of waiting will be received by us with elation. I remember welcoming the last
arrivals in June 2018 at Ben-Gurion airport. It was deeply moving to see the tears of joy on the faces of
families, both those arriving and those already here, who finally saw their loved ones after years of
separation. May there be many more of them until all of the estimated 5,000 B’nei Menashe still in India
have joined us!
If all is as it appears to be, Shavei Israel should be congratulated. Once again it has shown that it is able
to bring B’nei Menashe olim to Israel. For this, it deserves the thanks of the entire B’nei Menashe community
And yet some hard questions need to be asked.
In the first place, why all the secrecy surrounding what should be happy news? Why the need for concealment? The Aliyah of B’nei Menashe from India is not an underground operation. Why is Shavei Israel treating it as one? Is there something it is seeking to hide?
There is nothing new about this. A lack of transparency has characterized Shavei’s Aliyah activities all along. It has never revealed how its lists of olim are compiled, why some families are included in them and others are not, or who makes these decisions and on what basis. It has dealt with the Aliyah of the B’nei Menashe as if it were its own private fiefdom in which it is free to act as it pleases without the slightest public accountability.
Is the list of olim being kept from the B’nei Menashe public so that those who have not yet been contacted will go on hoping for a telephone call telling them that they have been chosen after all? Is this Shavei’s way of keeping them from organizing to complain?
And what about all those who have known all along that they would not be selected because they have been blacklisted by Shavei and never stood a chance to begin with? How can we assure that in the future they, too, will be given a fair opportunity to make Aliyah?
We do not wish, as the Hebrew expression has it, to sound like mourners at a wedding. This is indeed a celebratory occasion. Yet the celebration is not complete. Let us hope that next time, the sweetness of knowing that more of us are coming home to our land will not be accompanied by a bitter aftertaste.
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.