281 Mizoram B’nei Menashe Say: No Longer, Not In Our Name!

(August 19) 281 B’nei Menashe from Mizoram have sent a petition to The Jewish Agency and Israel’s Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, calling on these two bodies to free them from the tyranny of Shavei Israel and its monopolistic control of their Aliyah.


The petition was emailed from Mizoram’s capital of Aizawl on August 18. It reads in full:


We, the undersigned 281 members of the B’nei Menashe community of Mizoram, declare our complete lack of trust in the Shavei Israel organization and demand an end to its stranglehold on our Aliyah. For the past two decades, it has cynically exploited our community and our dream of living in the Land of Israel to further its own enrichment and power. We say: No longer, not in our name!


“We accuse Shavei Israel of the following:

“Introducing rank nepotism and favoritism into the process of our Aliyah, the candidates for which have been selected on the basis of their obedience to Shavei and their family connections;

“Deliberately separating families in drawing up Aliyah lists – children from parents, brothers and sisters from each other – so that it can say to those left behind, “Toe the line and do our bidding if you wish to be reunited with those you love”;


“Using its control of our Aliyah as a stick with which to browbeat us into submission, to the point that a sincere commitment to Judaism and its belief in the Almighty and His Torah have been replaced among us by the fear of Shavei Israel’s leaders;


“Dictating to us where and how to pray and denying us the right to worship in synagogues of our own choosing, even when this has meant leaving some of us with no accessible places of worship at all;

“Subverting and destroying all independent organizations that we have tried to create, so that here in Mizoram it has become practically impossible to take a breath without Shavei Israel’s express permission;

“Seeking to expel from our community’s ranks whoever does not swear fealty to Shavei Israel, with the result that hundreds of us in Mizoram have been struck from its rosters, no longer exist in its eyes, and have lost all hope of ever making Aliyah.


“Shavei Israel’s rule over us has had devastating consequences for our community. It is for this reason that the recent news that the Jewish Agency has decided to assume responsibility for our Aliyah filled our hearts with joy. However, given our bitter experience over the last two decades with Shavei Israel, we are convinced that as long as it continues to play a major role in the Aliyah process, we who have refused to obey its dictates stand little chance of returning to the land of our forefathers. We hope this petition will cause you to consider our plight in the democratic traditions of the state of Israel. For too long we have gone without a voice, not because we did not have one but because it was silenced and ignored. We ask you to ignore it no longer.”


The petition was sent by “The Mizoram B’nei Menashe Congregation Committee,” an ad hoc body. “Since Shavei Israel has eliminated all B’nei Menashe organizations in Mizoram except for itself,” one of the petition’s framers told our Newsletter, “we had to give our group a name. It emerged from informal discussions that took place over a period of months among a number of like-minded people in Mizoram. We were motivated by a common feeling that The Jewish Agency was showing no signs of keeping last spring’s agreement between it and Shavei Israel, which we were told would involve its supervising Shavei’s administration of the Aliyah process. We had the sense that we had been misled and that Shavei was continuing to be one hundred percent in control of the process.”


The petition’s framers did not actively campaign for signatories. Those who signed it, our source said, “heard about us by word-of-mouth and came to us of their own accord to offer their support. It was truly a grassroots phenomenon.” This could not have happened, the source went on, half-a-year ago, when “a similar petition was framed in Manipur and only 60 Mizoram B’nei Menashe asked to sign it. There was almost universal fear then of Shavei and its punitive character. Now, the number of those wanting to sign has grown nearly fivefold. Many more people have the courage to stand up to Shavei. They’ve crossed the mental Rubicon of subservience to it.”


The signers and their families represent roughly thirty percent of Mizoram’s B’nei Menashe population. Asked whether active canvassing on the committee’s part would have resulted in many more signatories, our source was doubtful. “There’s still a lot of fear,” was the answer. “Although most people have deeply held grievances against Shavei, those who didn’t approach us because they still are frightened would not have been likely to change their minds had we approached them.”


The petition framers’ main difficulty was paring down the initially lengthy document that they composed to the essentials of a final draft. “Our first draft,” our source related, “was an amalgamation of many voices. Each member of the committee was eager to include in it the injustices committed by Shavei that he or she knew of, and we ended up with a very long list of complaints. It was a powerful indictment, but it wasn’t the kind of document that you could expect to be read by a high official. There were numerous details that we had to cut out in order to concentrate on the main points.


“For instance: all ordinary B’nei Menashe in Mizoram are told that unless they report regularly for the evening classes organized by Shavei Israel, where strict attendance lists are kept, they stand no chance of being chosen for Aliya, and many hard-working families that struggle to make ends meet are forced to go to these lectures even though they are bone-weary by the end of the day. Yet everyone in Mizoram knows of B”nei Menashe who have barely set foot in the classroom but have been selected for Aliyah anyway because they were Shavei’s lackeys. While there was mention of this in our petition’s first draft, it didn’t survive to the final one.


“Or to take another example. Because so many B’nei Menashe in Mizoram have been ostracized by Shavei for not accepting its dictates, Shavei’s estimates of the state’s B’nei Menashe population has been unrealistically low, thus underrepresenting us in the joint Manipur-Mizoram Aliyah lists. Last winter, speaking to a group of new B’nei Menashe immigrants from Mizoram at the Nordiya absorption center in Israel, Shavei’s director Tsvi Khaute told them there were only 300 of their brethren left behind, when the real number is at least triple that. This, too, was something that did not make it through to the petition’s final draft. Neither did many other similar details.”


The petition’s signers are now awaiting a response from The Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Immigration. And they, too, are no entirely free from fear. They have requested that their names remain confidential, lest Shavei Israel take retaliatory measures against them.