A Manipur Diary: Part I
My recent trip to Manipur began with a phone call from Almog Moskowitz, a senior advisor to Israel’s Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. On March 23, Almog told me, the ministry, together with The Jewish Agency, would be sending a delegation headed by him to Manipur and Mizoram for the purpose of reassessing current B’nei Menashe Aliyah procedures and making recommendations for changes and improvements. He was calling because the ministry wanted my assistance, as Degel Menashe’s executive director, in scheduling meetings with representatives of the B’nei Menashe community in India whose testimony and opinions we thought should be heard. If I myself wished to be on hand to help with arrangements on the ground, my presence would be welcome
I decided to go. I hadn’t been in my native land of Manipur for many years, and it was a chance to participate in what promised to be a historic turning point in the Aliyah of the B’nei Menashe, which has long been a much- abused monopoly of Shavei Israel. I booked a ticket to New Delhi and another from Delhi to Imphal.
A day later, Almog called again, this time with the news that the delegation’s trip had been postponed due to the need to concentrate the ministry’s energies on the Aliyah of Jewish war refugees from Ukraine. I debated whether to cancel my trip, too. But my tickets had already been bought and I was eager to meet with old friends and the B.M.C executives in Manipur and to see the situation there with my own eyes. I knew that tensions between Shavei Israel and much of the B’nei Menashe community which resented Shavei’s control of the Aliyah process and identified with the democratically elected B’nei Menashe Council, were at a height, and I wanted to get a first-hand impression of them.
There was also another incentive for going: the Mumbai branch of ORT, an organization dedicated to Jewish education and vocational training all over the world, had taken an interest in Churachandpur’s Eliyahu Avichail School, an initiative of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe Council supported by Degel Menashe. A visit to Manipur would be a chance to see the school with my own eyes, to consider plans for its expansion, and to review the prospects for ORT’s participation in the founding of a similar school in Aizawl, the capital of nearby Mizoram. ORT has been conducting talks about such a school with Asaf Renthlei, a prominent figure and educator in Aizawl’s B’nei Menashe community, and this would be a chance to meet with him as well.
And so on Saturday night, March 19, I set out. What follows is a brief diary of my week-and-a-half in Manipur and of some of my thoughts while there.
22.03.23: I landed in Imphal on the evening of March 21. The next morning, after a quick breakfast, I head for Churachandpur, where I meet with members of B’nei Menashe communities, such as Petach Tikva and Pejang, that have been blacklisted by Shavei Israel and denied Aliyah for their refusal to adopt the Sephardi liturgy insisted on by Shavei in place of the Ashkenazi rite that they have traditionally followed.
At this meeting I explain to them the importance of the Ministry of Immigration-Jewish Agency’ impending delegation and of how crucial it will be for them to articulate their grievances to it.
Next, I meet with Asaf Renthlei, who has flown from Aizawl to see me. We discuss the project with ORT and Asaf tells me about the challenges facing the Aizawl community and the determination of a part of it to resist Shavei’s domination. I then return to Imphal to meet with B’nei Menashe Council chairman Lalam Hangshing, who lives there and has just arrived from New Delhi. Lalam and I are visited by the newly elected Manipur state assemblyman Paolienlal Haokip, whose constituency of Saikot, a neighborhood in Churachandpur, harbors the largest concentration of Bnei Menashe in the state. Haokip promises to do what he can as a legislator to help the community. Eventually, I met two other legislators Th. Basanta and Nishikanta Sapam, who are old friends from school.
23.03.22: The next morning, Lalam and I drive to Churachandpur to survey a 200-acre property that he owns on the outskirts of town, a 15-miunute drive from the city center along a twisting, dusty road. He has already agreed to donate a part of it for the ORT- Degel Menashe school and now we discuss a second possible project: establishing a self-sustaining community for hard-pressed B’nei Manashe whose Aliyah is still far-off. This would involve both housing and economic initiatives like farming, a fishery, animal husbandry , and the like, as well as a synagogue.
We return to Imphal to be greeted by the news that Shavei Israel goons have burst into a Bible class of the Eliyahu Avichail School and forced its students to disperse.
The first thing that comes to my mind is the Hebrew expression hillul hashem: what a desecration of God’s name! Here are 20 0r 30 B’nei Menashe, young and old, men and women, come together to study Torah – and here in an organization that can as usual think only of asserting its own power. For years Manipur’s B’nei Menashe have been without a school in which they could study elementary Hebrew and religious subjects because Shavei Israel failed to provide one, and now that such a school has at last been founded, Shavei cannot tolerate its being the work of others. What hypocrisy! Little did I know that this was nothing compared to what was to happen two weeks later, when Shavei goons were to invade the school again but this time met with resistance, leading to an all-out brawl with injuries on both sides.
Everywhere I went on my trip to Manipur, I heard of Shavei’s brutality and disrespect for human values. The atmosphere among Manipur’s B’nei Menashe is extremely tense. The community is divided between several hundred hard-core Shavei supporters, a roughly equal number of Degel Menashe and B’nei Menashe Council backers, and a much larger group of waverers in between who are too afraid of losing their chance for Aliyah to speak out against Shavei.
Shavei’s supporters blame Degel Menashe for this tension. Everything in the community, they say, was peaceful until Degel came along and fomented trouble, turning one faction of B’nei Menashe against another. But this “peace” was the peace of a cowed society over which Shavei had absolute control. Dictators always accuse those who have the courage to oppose them of being trouble makers who need to be eliminated. For nearly 20 years, Shavei Israel had no opposition and could do whatever it wanted. Now that it can no longer get away with it, who can blame it for feeling threatened? It is threatened by the anger and frustration of all those it has trodden on, and it is only a matter of time before the fence-sitters, too, rise up against it.
(Part II will follow next week)