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A Change In Policy Or A One-Off?

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

(November 9, 2022) Was it a case of Shavei Israel’s leaders softening their three-year-old boycott of Degel Menashe and anyone having to do with it? (Three years is how long Degel Menashe has been in existence.) Or was it a one-time occurrence to which no further significance should be attached?

What happened was this:

In the days following Yoel Lhanghal’s October 6 murder in Kiryat Shmona and the allegations of racism that accompanied it, Avner Isaacs, chairman of the Indian Jewish Heritage Center (IJHC), decided to do something. Contacting the Kiryat Shmona municipality, he proposed holding a meeting of the town’s residents at which they could learn about the B’nei Menashe, some 150 new immigrants of whom live in their midst, and get to know them better. The municipality agreed to host such an event and told Isaacs to plan it together with Osnat Riski, director of its education department.

Avner Isaacs

Isaacs went to work. He and Riski set a date of Monday, November 7 for a “B’nei Menashe Awareness Program” and chose as its venue Kiryat Shmona’s Arthur and Ancie Fouks Community Center. He spoke to photographer Dorit Lombroso, a collection of whose B’nei Menashe portraitures is currently on exhibit at the ANU Museum in Tel Aviv and obtained her permission to display prints of them. He called Ronia Lunkhel, a young B’nei Menashe student active in the community and persuaded her to chair the meeting and give a PowerPoint presentation of B’nei Menashe history and life. He contacted Degel Menashe, which volunteered to prepare a display of traditional B’nei Menashe handicrafts for the occasion. And he phoned Racheli Kahlon, the Jerusalem secretary of Shavei Israel chairman Michael Freund, and requested Shavei’s endorsement of the event. Kahlon promised to get back to him, Isaacs relates, and told him when she did that the event had Shavei’s blessing and that he was doing “a wonderful thing.”

The invitation in Menashe Hayom

Although Isaacs did not inform Shavei Israel of Degel Menashe’s involvement in the awareness program, Shavei could not have been ignorant of it, since on Thursday, November 3 Jessica Thangjom, a member of the IJHC board of directors, posted an invitation to the event on all major B’nei Menashe social media, including the Facebook group of Menashe Hayom, a widely read pro-Shavei Israel news bulletin. The invitation featured a photograph by Lombroso of a B’nei Menashe mother lighting Sabbath candles with her infant child, beneath which appeared logos of the event’s participating organizations, including Shavei Israel and Degel Menashe.

The logos of the participating organizations appear at the bottom of the invitation. Degel Menashe's is third from left, Shavei Israel's second from right.

“There is no possibility,” Thangjom says, “that this wasn’t noticed by Shavei. And three days later, on November 6, the day before the scheduled awareness program, the event was again given the approval of Shavei’s highest echelon. This occurred at a memorial ceremony for Yoel Lhanghal held in Kiryat Shmona’s Tzahal Square, which was attended by Tsvi Khaute, Shavei’s national director, and Yehuda Singson, its Kiryat Shmona coordinator, as well as by Osnat Riski and Kiryat Shmona mayor Avihay Stern. According to Avner Isaacs, Riski later told him that Khaute remarked to Singson in her and Stern’s presence that the IJHC event “is ours” and “must be supported” by Shavei.

Guests at the event listen to a talk

And yet when the guests arrived for the event the next morning, they were in for a disappointment. Although some 50 residents of Kiryat Shmona turned out for the meeting, only two B”nei Menashe -- one of them Yehuda Singson, who had apparently come to check who else was there – were among them. “I felt bad,” our Newsletter was told by Ronia Lunkhel. “Dozens of people had come to meet B’nei Menashe like me, talk to them, and express their solidarity with them, and none showed up.”

Ronia Lunkhel giving Power-Point presentation showing conjectured B'nei Menashe migration route

Even without a B’nei Menashe presence, the event was a partial success. Mayor Stern delivered introductory remarks, a documentary film about the B’nei Menashe was shown, Avner Isaacs spoke about Israel’s other Indian Jewish communities, and Lunkhel gave her presentation, which was followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience. Dorit Lombroso’s photographs and the handicrafts table met with interest and appreciation, too. Nevertheless, the lack of B’nei Menashe participation was glaring.

B'nei Menashe handicrafts display

Why were no B’nei Menashe there? Isaacs, citing the same conversation with Riski, says she told him that Yehuda Singson informed her shortly before the event that no B’nei Menashe would be taking part in it. Pressed to explain why, he only said, “It isn’t ours.” Isaacs then phoned Singson himself and received the same reply.. It was the exact opposite of what Tsvi Khaute had said!

What happened is not clear. Apparently, there was opposition in Shavei’s ranks to the juxtaposition of Shavei Israel and Degel Menashe logos on the invitation, even though there were other logos on it too. Some Shavei supporters, refusing to believe their leaders would have countenanced such a thing, assumed the Shavei logo must have been used without consent. “Using the Shavei logo was done to deceive us,” wrote Yehuda Singson in a Shavei WhatsApp post and Shavei’s Information Secretary Eliezer Baite, writing on the same site and addressing Michael Freund and Tsvi Khaute with the customary honorific title, asked: “Pu Michael and Pu Tzvi, how can Degel work under Shavei’s logo? And what should the [Shavei] Advisory Board do about it?” Neither Freund nor Khaute replied, but Singson did: “If it weren’t for the magnanimity of our leaders,” he posted, we [Kiryat Shmona’s B'nei Menashe] would have prevented the event from taking place.”

Yehuda Singson

Singson did not specify what such “prevention” would have consisted of. He responded similarly to Jessica Thangjom when asked by her on a WhatsApp site: “How could you have prevented the program from taking place? The B’nei Menashe can be assisted by any NGO they want. They’re not your private property. It’s of great importance to have such awareness programs if racism is to be combated in our midst.”

Singson answered her:

“We would have done it because you acted behind our backs. In the future, don’t stick your noses into Kiryat Shmona without consulting Shavei.”

Other Shavei supporters expressed similar opinions on the site.

Jessica Thangjom

Yet as reported, Shavei was consulted – not by Degel Menashe but by Avner Isaacs. If its chairman and national director gave their approval and were then attacked for it by organization members, does this mean there is now a rift in Shavei regarding its policy toward Degel Menashe?

It is sad that Shavei operatives like Yehuda Singson and Eliezar Baite place their war against Degel Menashe above the war against racism as a Shavei Israel priority. Because of this, 50 Israelis who came to the event were left with the impression that though they care about the B’nei Menashe community, the community does not care about them. It would be nice (although it is probably wishful thinking) to believe that Shavei’s national leadership has finally realized that it is time to mend the organization’s ways.



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