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(December 17) “The notion that a private organization can have sole responsibility for the Aliyah of an entire Jewish community is unacceptable,” said Transportation Minister Miri Regev this week in an hour-long meeting with Degel Menashe Project Manager Yitzhak Thangjom. “Something must be done to change this situation.”

Regev greeting the B’nei Menashe community during last autumn’s holidays

Also present at the meeting was Degel Menashe’s new board member Yossi Dahan. Regev has now become the first cabinet minister to explicitly endorse Degel Menashe’s position that Shavei Israel’s monopoly on B’nei Menashe Aliyah must come to an end. Her words were spoken during a conversation in which Thangjom reviewed Shavei Israel’s mishandling of the Aliyah process and the hardship thus caused to the B’nei Menashe community.

Regev has long been known among the B’nei Menashe for her friendliness and caring attitude toward them. As Minister of Culture and Sport, she took an interest in their activities and helped them to obtain her ministry’s support. Now, she told Thangjom and Dahan, she intends to speak to the Minister of Immigration and Absorption and to the Chairman of the Jewish Agency in an effort to convince them of the need to revamp B’nei Menashe Aliyah procedures and bring them more in line with those applying to Jews elsewhere in the world.

(December 17) Two-hundred-and-fifty-two B’nei Menashe olim landed in Israel on Tuesday morning in a flight from New Delhi, the first such group in two-and-a-half years. As opposed to such groups in the past, the immigrants’ arrival was greeted without fanfare or media coverage, since the Corona pandemic required their immediate isolation. From the airport, they were bused to the Nordia Guesthouse, a currently unused hotel in a village near Netanya, in central Israel. They will remain there for three months, for the first two weeks of which they will be in quarantine.

The group was organized and brought to Israel by Shavei Israel, the Jerusalem-based organization in whose hands the government of Israel has placed B’nei Menashe immigration since 2004. Although the B’nei Menashe lead Jewishly observant lives in the North East Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram, in which half of them still reside, they are not halachically Jews and are not eligible for official immigrant status under Israel’s Law of Return prior to their conversion to Judaism. Once their quarantine is over, the new group will remain in the Guesthouse for another three months, studying for its conversion and attending intensive Hebrew courses. Once converted, it will be given housing in the Galilee city of Nof Ha-Galil, formerly Upper Nazareth.

Pnina Tamana-Shata

The immigrants reportedly settled into their new surroundings quickly, the larger families allotted their own rooms, the smaller ones sharing quarters. The night of their arrival, a small celebration was held for them at the hotel, attended by Minister of Immigration Pnina Tamano- Shata, who addressed them and expressed her hope that they will soon be joined by the estimated 5,000 B’nei Menashe still in India. “As long as I’m minister,” she said, “wherever there are Jews, I will bring them home.”

The celebration also featured a performance by Israel’s Shalva Band and its popular B’nei Menashe vocalist Dina Samte, who herself came to Israel with her family as a young girl. The next day began the routine that will last through the quarantine: morning and evening prayers, communal breakfasts, lunches, and dinners in the hotel’s dining room, and lectures throughout the day given Shavei Israel staff about Israeli life and adjusting to it.

Before leaving for Israel, few of the immigrants had ever been outside of Mizoram or Manipur. “They still seem to be in a dream,” our Newsletter was told by a relative of one newly arrived family, who had already managed to speak with it over the phone. (Most of the immigrants were still in the process of acquiring Israeli SIM cards.) “They don’t yet have the words with which to talk about their experience. It will take them a few days to get oriented.”

Tiferet Renthlei

The group’s journey to Israel had some discordant notes. One was the case, reported by our Newsletter last week, of 26-year-old Tiferet Renthlei of Aizawl, who was told by Shavei that she could not travel to Israel with her widowed mother and brother because she had missed a crucial Aliyah interview in 2016. (Tiferet had had to care for a sick sister, who subsequently died.) When Almog Moscowitz, a senior adviser at the Ministry of Immigration, read Tiferet’s story on our Degel Menashe Website, he contacted Shave officials and insisted that they add her to the group. Under pressure from the ministry, they agreed – only for Tiferet to undergo the painful experience related below by her aunt, Lea Renthlei.

A distraught Yoel and Leah Lhanghal in Delhi airport

Painful, too, was the story of the Lhangal family from Churachandpur, whose seven members – the parents, Yoel and Leah, and their five daughters -- flew from Imphal to New Delhi with the group of olim from Manipur. Tested for Corona by the Indian health authorities before being allowed to board the flight to Israel, three of the Lhangals’ daughters, Ruth, Dina, and Avigayil, were informed that their results had come back positive and that they could not fly. Their story, too, appears below.

(December 17) What began two weeks ago with a fraudulent check cashed by a high Shavei Israel official in Manipur has ballooned into a potentially major financial scandal that is now under police investigation. The authorities in Manipur, says Inspector M. Daniel of the Churachandpur police, are looking into “allegations of forgery and impersonation” and “possible large-scale financial impropriety.” An eventual charge-sheet or criminal indictment, the Inspector says, is a likely possibility.

The “financial impropriety” involves nearly 8 million Indian rupees – slightly more than $100,000 – withdrawn from the B’nei Menashe Council’s account at the Churachandpur branch of the Bank of Baroda by persons apparently connected to Shavei Israel. The matter came to light when newly elected BMC officials examined the account’s “transaction sheets” -- the Indian term for bank statements -- for the years 2015-2020, provided by the bank at their request.

Tsvi Khaute

The bank statements were given to Ohaliav Haokip, the B’nei Menashe Council’s new General Secretary. Haokip was elected, along with the BMC’s new chairman Lalam Hangshing, in a closely contested vote held on November 5, in which he narrowly defeated a Shavei Israel-backed candidate. This was the first change in the BMC’s leadership since 2015, when Shavei’s Jerusalem-based Coordinator Tsvi Khaute saw to the election of two handpicked Shavei candidates, Avihu Singsit and Yitzhak Seimang Haokip, as the Council’s Chairman and General Secretary, while appointing himself their official “Advisor.” Khaute also sacked Yochanan Phaltual, Shavei’s previous Administrator in Manipur,and put Meital Singson in his place. Khaute and Singson are reported to have had a close relationship.

Meital Singson

One of the newly elected BMC’s leadership’s first acts, as reported in our Newsletter last week, was to ask Avihu Singsit and Seimang Haokip to hand over the organization’s records, which were not found in its office when the new leadership took possession of it. Singsit, who was ill, died before having a chance to comply. Seimang Haokip, after first claiming that he had no records and no knowledge of their whereabouts, finally produced a large batch of them.

A BMC Audit Book handed over by Yitzhak Seimang Haokip

“What Seimang handed over,” Ohaliav Haokip told our Newsletter, “included hundreds of pages of documents, including internal audit books, that we’re still going over. But strangely enough, there was nothing in them for the period 2015 - 20 and no bank statements at all. That’s why I went to the Bank of Baroda.”

The newly elected leadership’s suspicions had already been aroused, as reported by our Newsletter, by a November 30, 2020 check for 2,047 rupees written to “Self” and signed by Meital Singson. (Singson is now in Israel, having arrived among the 253 B’nei Menashe to land at Ben-Gurion Airport on December 15). “The sum was a small one,” says Ohaliav Haokip, “the equivalent of $28. It was all that was left in the account, which Meital proceeded to close that same day. But Meital was not a BMC official and had no authority to withdraw money from its account, much less to close it. Moreover, on the check she affixed a stamp to her name fraudulently identifying herself as the BMC’s finance secretary and added two co-signatories: a certain B. Suantak, falsely identified on the check as the BMC’s Chairman, and ex-Chairman Avihu Singsit, who had passed away two weeks previously!”

The forged check

Not even this forged check prepared Haokip and Hangshing for what they found in the Bank of Boroda statements. “When we examined the 2015-2020 transaction sheets,” Haokip relates, “we were flabbergasted. Over and over there were checks or withdrawals, frequently for large sums, made out to ‘Self.’ They amounted to at least fifty percent of the money debited to the account in these years.”

When the exact figures were tabulated, fifty percent proved to be an underestimate. Of 119 checks written during the period in question, 86 were made out to “Self.” And of a total of 7.722 million rupees dispensed from the account in these years, 4.674,million were debited to “Self.” In addition, the bank statements show a check for 160,000 rupees written on October 9, 2020, and made out to “Meital Singson.”

Check for 160,000 rupees written to herself by Meital Singson in September 2020

Transaction sheets for March - September 2020. "SELF" checks and their amount are circled

Check for 160,000 rupees written to herself by Meital Singson in September 2020

Could this sum drawn from the B’nei Menashe Council’s account – over $60,000 – have been spent on BMC affairs? “That’s impossible,” says Yitzhak Thangjom, Degel Menashe’s Projects Manager, who has been in close contact with the BMC.’s new leaders. “In the first place, if the money had been spent on services for the B’nei Menashe community in Manipur, you would have expected the checks to have been written to the service’s providers. Checks written to ‘Self” are typically used to transfer money from one of someone’s accountsto another. And secondly, no one in the B’nei Menashe community remembers or is aware of any projects carried out by the BMC in the years in question that would have cost even a small fraction of the sum we’re talking about. The BMC was all but moribund in those years and did almost nothing at all.”

Moreover, according to Thangjom, the slightly less than 3 million rupees in checks written to outside sources are also highly suspicious. “Some of this amount,” he says, “may have been for real expenses, such as 1.6 million rupees – nearly $22,000 -- made out to two travel agencies, the Paradise Tour Company and Moses Travel and Tours. But this, too, could only have done for private trips, since no one was doing that kind of traveling for the BMC, and there are also large sums made out to individuals whose identity is unknown and who do not seem to have provided anything in return. Eight checks totaling 720,000 rupees, for instance, were made out to a R. Lalrinsanga and another three checks totaling 212,000 rupees to a David Lalrinawma. No one knows who these people are.”

Checks written to R.Lalrinsanga, one for 350,000 rupees

To whom did all the “Self” money go? “That’s up to the police to find out,” Oholiav Haokip says. “Now that the case is in their hands, the Bank of Baroda won’t provide us with more information. We don’t know who wrote all those ‘Self’ checks. The fact that Meital Singson wrote one of them, the fraudulent check of November 30, makes her a prima facie suspect, but she was unlikely to have been acting entirely on her own.”

In his initial complaint to the Manipur police, Haokip listed three possible accomplices of Meital’s: Tsvi Khaute; Sehjalal Kipgen, Meital’s replacement as Shavei Israel’s Adminstrator in Manipur; and the B. Suantak who signed the November 30 check. The latter has been revealed to be Benzion Suantak, a pro-Shavei member of the Beith Hallel congregation of the Churachandpur neighborhood of Mualkoi. In a December 8 Facebook posting, reacting to rumors already making the rounds that Shavei Israel operatives had stolen funds from the BMC account, Suantak wrote, without explaining why his signature and false attribution were on a BMC check:

“The Shavei Israel organization is not a registered body in India, which is why it cannot have an Indian bank account. In 2004, an attempt was made to register [it as such a body], but it was suggested by the leaders of the BMC that, instead of wasting money on registration, an account be opened in the BMC’s name to be operated by them [Shavei]. This was, it was said, an unwritten understanding between Shavei and the BMC.”

Benzion Suantak's Facebook statement

According to Suantak, in other words, Shavei Israel had been using the BMC’s Bank of Baroda account as a front for its financial activities since 2004. What these activities consisted of in the years 2004-15 is at present unknown. That they have, since 2015, involved large-scale misappropriation of funds seems certain.

Nor is where these funds went the only mystery. Where they came from is another. One hundred thousand dollars is a large sum not only in India, where a dollar must be multiplied tenfold to equal its value in purchasing power. How did this amount end up in the account of the B’nei Menashe Council, a small, inactive organization in a remote part of the world with no expenditures to speak of? About this more remains to be said.


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