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(October 22) In a dramatic development, elections for the B’nei Menashe Council, a once representative body that has fallen into abeyance since the last vote for it took place in 2015, are about to be held in Manipur.

Yosef Demsat Haokip

At a meeting in Churachandpur on October 18 at the home of Demsat Haokip, vice-chairman of Beit Shalom, northeast India’s largest congregation, it was decided to invite the executive boards of all 24 of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe congregations to convene at the synagogue’s premises on Sunday, October 25. The purpose of this session would be to pass a motion to hold the elections and possibly to conduct them right afterwards. Since the BMC’s bylaws call for the Council’s members to be chosen by a majority vote with each congregational board (traditionally, its chairman and its secretary) casting two ballots, it would be feasible to do both things at once.

Although it may seem undemocratic to choose a body claiming to represent Manipur’s estimated 4,000 B’nei Menashe on the basis of at most 48 votes, this is not the case, says Ohaliav Haokip, who is running for the post of BMC secretary. “The executives of each congregation have been elected by its congregants,” Haokip explains. “Together they’re like a legislature that has been empowered by the people.” Nor is giving each congregation an equal say, from the biggest to the smallest, without democratic precedent. One can point to the United States Senate, in which the biggest and smallest states have two votes apiece so as to allay the latter’s fears of domination by the former.

The movement to hold new BMC elections has been gathering momentum in Manipur for months. Behind it lies the growing resentment of many B’nei Menashe of the role played by Shavei Israel, the organization that has effectively controlled the community since 2003, when it was put in sole charge of the latter’s Aliyah to Israel. Even before the 2015 elections the BMC, whose roots goes back to the pre-Shavei days of the 1990s, was under Shavei’s thumb. Yet after two Shavei functionaries, Avihu Singsit and Yitzhak Seimang Haokip, were put in office as chairman and secretary in 2015, even the pretense of a popularly elected body was done away with.

Michael Kipgen

“The Council has totally violated its own constitution,” says Michael Kipgen of the Gamgiphai congregation. Kipgen has observed repeatedly in recent weeks in the B’nei Menashe social media that the BMC’s bylaws call for elections every two years, whereas none have been held for the past five. These laws also require an annual progress report, an annual finance report, an annual audit, and annual approval of a budget, all of which have been ignored. Shavei Israel, Kipgen charges, has reduced the BMC to an empty shell.

Elon Lunjang Haokip

In retaliation, the Shavei-dominated Gamgiphai congregation has expelled Kipgen from its ranks. Initially, indeed, Shavei did all it could to oppose the holding of new elections and warned all 24 Manipur congregations against taking part in them. Spearheading this campaign was Shavei activist Elon Lunjang Haokip, who reportedly told the leaders of several congregations that they would be struck from all Aliyah lists if they lent a hand to a BMC ballot. Four congregations – Monglienphai, Zohar, Moreh, and Kangkopi – heeded the warning and spurned all overtures to join the process.

Meital Singson

Similarly, Shavei Israel’s Manipur representative Meital Singson sought to pressure Demsat Haokip into turning Beit Shalom, whose participation is crucial because of its size, against the elections. “Meital actually tried to bribe me,” the Beit Shalom vice-chairman told our Newsletter. “She said that if I blocked the vote, she would see to it that I was put at the top of the next Aliyah list – and that if I refused, I might never get to make Aliyah at all. I told her that there should be no connection between Aliyah and BMC elections and that Shavei should not interfere in them.”

Seeing that it was unable to prevent the elections from taking place, Shavei decided at the last minute to take part in them and has pretended to be the initiator of the planned October 25 session at Beit Shalom, to which it issued an invitation on October 20 signed by Yitzhak Seimang Haokip -- an invitation sent two days after Demsat Haokip’s group had already done the inviting!

Lalam Hangshing
Nehemiah Lhunzang Haokip

Shavei has also put forward Yitzhak Seimang Haokip as its candidate for BMC chairman. This pits him against Lalam Hangshing, who is heading the pro-change list. Hangshing is the former Chief Commissioner of Customs and Excise for the Northeast Region of India. He is joined by candidates for the Council’s additional elected posts of vice-chairman, secretary, deputy secretary, and treasurer by Demsat Haokip; Ohaliav Haokip; Nehemiah Lhunzang Haokip, a respected local politician and head of the Churachandpur branch of the ruling Indian People’s (Bhartiya Janata) Party, and Yoel Paolal Dimngel, a retired sergeant in the Nagaland police.

The first task facing the October 25 session will be the choice of an election committee that will set a date for the vote. The next will be to deal with an expected Shavei challenge to bar

the four congregations of Phalbung, Pejang, Petach Tikvah, and Saikul from the proceedings on the grounds that they have not been part of the B’nei Menashe organizational structure. “This is particularly outrageous,” says Ohaliav Haokip, “because it was Shavei itself that ostracized these congregations for years for standing up for their religious rights and refusing to switch from the Ashkenai to the Sephardi liturgy. I hope that this motion will be defeated and that all 24 congregations will attend and vote. Whether the elections take place on the same day remains to be seen. Even if they’re put off, it won’t be for more than a week or two.”

Ohaliav Haokip

Meanwhile, he says, “there’s great excitement in the community about these elections. The candidates are out on the campaign trail. Many people realize the need for an independent, democratically elected B’nei Meneashe Council that will represent them in all areas, including Aliyah. They want to have the voice that was stolen from them returned to them.”

(October 15) Fourteen young women and men from the B’nei Menashe community in Israel have been selected to receive Degel Menashe scholarships for the academic year 2020-21. The awards will range from 2,000 to 5,000 shekels, depending on individual needs and tuition costs, about 40 percent of which will be covered in most cases. (Tuition at Israel’s many local and community colleges, where most of the scholarship recipients will be studying, are considerably lower than they are at its universities.)

The number of award winners is more than double the previous year’s. The winners come from all over Israel and intend to study a wide range of subjects that will prepare them for careers in social work, special education, nursing, architecture, medical engineering, computer programing, electronics, graphic design, and still other things.

NItzana Lhungdim

For many of them, a Degel Menashe scholarship spells the difference between being able to fulfil their dreams and ambitions and having to forego them. Unlike most Israeli youth, few B’nei Menashe can expect financial help in their studies from their families. The great majority have immigrant parents who are poor, and even when both are wage earners, making ends meet is difficult. And often there is only one wage earner. “My widowed mother needs every penny she earns as a nanny to keep her household together and isn’t in a position to give me anything,” says Nitzana Lhungdim of Kiryat Arba. “My fiancé and I will even have to pay for our wedding because neither of our families can foot the bill.” Nitzana will be studying special education at Herzog College. “I want to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds like the one I came from,” she told our Newsletter. “I want them to know that everything is possible if they have the will, and that they mustn’t be ashamed of who they are or where they come from.”

Ditza Misao

Twenty-three-year old Ditza Misau of Nitzan not only has no parents to support her, it’s up to her to help support them. “I’m thrilled to get a scholarship,” she says. “It will enable me to concentrate on my studies without having to take on more and more other work.” Ditza will be studying computerized graphic design at the Sapir Technological College. “I always knew that’s what I wanted,” she told our Newsletter. “I was always designing things even as a child. I want to learn as much as I can and go as far as I can, and I want to set an example for other B’nei Menashe to do the same.”

Hadassah Gomez

Hadassah Gomez, whose mother is a B’nei Menashe and whose father is from Peru, is used to being a bread winner, too. “My Mom and Dad were divorced when I was a year old,” she says. “From a young age I had to help them both pay the bills and put food on the table. It’s that experience that made me determined to acquire a profession so that my own children will grow up with the stability and security that I never had.” Hadassah will be starting a four-year nursing course at Ariel University this month and will use her scholarship money to help pay for the apartment she will have to rent. “It’s wonderful that this kind of aid from Degel Menashe exists,” she says. “A few months ago I didn’t even know there was such a thing.”

Yitzkhak Lhungdim

Several of the scholarship winners spoke of wanting to serve the B’nei Menashe community once they finished their studies. Yitzhak Lhungdim, now in his third year of social work school at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, is one of them. “I’d like to work with B’nei Menashe problem youth,” he said to us. “They belong a generation that has outstripped their parents, from whom quite a few are estranged, and they need someone to be there for them. At first I didn’t think of social work because I thought of it as a girls’ field. Now, though, I see that it’s given me a toolbox with everything I’ll need to work with troubled adolescents. I’m thoroughly steeped in B’nei Menashe life and know every nuance of it, but I’m also totally Israeli, and that’s a winning card.”

Dvora Rently

Dvora Rently has a strong desire to contribute to society, too. “When I finished high school,” she says, “I wanted very much to go to the army, but my religiously Orthodox surroundings discouraged me and I signed up for National Service instead and worked for a year-and-a-half in the oncological ward of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. When I finished, I still felt the need to do more for the country, and so I joined the IDF even though I was already 21, well beyond the normal age, and ended serving as an operations sergeant in an elite commando unit". Dvora plans to study special education at the David Yellin College in Jerusalem, a leading institution in the field.

Bracha Ilan

Twenty-four-year-old Bracha Ilan did a year of National Service, too, working with elderly populations. Now she is enrolled in a three-year-course at the Shenkar School of Design and Engineering in Tel Aviv. The tuition, she says, is 7,200 shekels a year, to which she can apply some savings, “plus the 3,000 shekel scholarship I now have from Degel Menashe. I truly appreciate it. It’s not something I would ever have thought would come my way.”

We asked Degel Menashe board member Bat-El Rently, director of our scholarship program, what she thought of the group of fourteen. “I’m proud of every one of them,” she said. “It’s not easy to be a college or university student without the economic and emotional support of your family. I don’t know how many B’nei Menashe parents are able to contribute economically, which is why our scholarship fund is so important, but emotionally, they’re one hundred percent behind their sons and daughters. I’m proud of them, too, and looking forward to a year of accomplishment.”

Our Other Scholarship Winners and Their Fields of Study

Dina Kipgen - English language instruction
Alon Haokip - Architecture

Tiferet Zolat - Electronics
Zimra Mate - Law

Daniel Mate - Engineering
Emunah Kipgen - Service Administration

Meno Gangte Rei - Software engineering
Osnat Lotzem - Medical Instrumentation

(October 8) Following a Jerusalem Post report this week that 722 B’nei Menashe will soon be making Aliyah from India to Israel under the auspices of Shavei Israel, Shavei’s chairman Michael Freund announced a corrected figure. Freund did so over a Zoom fund-raiser held to encourage donations to help pay for the group’s air fare. The actual number of olim, he said, will be 250, and he expects them to arrive in Israel sometime in November. According to Degel Menashe’s own sources, 109 B’nei Menashe will be coming from Mizoram and 141 from Manipur.

The B’nei Menashe community has greeted the news with mixed emotions. Excitement, disappointment, and frustration are some of them

No list of the group’s composition has been released. Nor, apart from those who have been informed that they are on it, does anyone at present know who they are, because those selected have been told by Shavei Israel not to reveal their identities.

A heavy mantle of secrecy has been cast over the entire operation. Shavei’s Manipur organizer Meital Singson has reportedly contacted each family chosen for Aliyah by telephone and told it to prepare itself. This means doing such things as acquiring passports and selling family property, including homes and fields. While it is hard to imagine that all this can be concealed for long, for the moment it remains under wraps.

Meanwhile, our Newsletter has learned, rumors have been flying and resentment has been building up as families not contacted realize that their Aliyah has been put off once again. Frantic attempts are reportedly being made to call Shavei officials and persuade them to change their minds, but most are unavailable. Meital Singson is said to be unreachable.

“Many B’nei Menashe in India have told us how frustrated they are by the total lack of transparency in all this,” Degel Menashe’s project manager Yitzhak Thangjom stated to our Newsletter. (See his editorial on our editorial page.) “Unfortunately, we can’t quote them by name because some of them still hope to be put on the list at the last moment, while others are afraid to be stricken from future lists if they complain. The whole procedure is unacceptable. It will be a wonderful thing if more of our brothers and sisters can soon be in Israel, but it mustn’t be allowed to happen this way again.”


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