An Interview With Degel Menashe’s Chairman of the Board On Its First Anniversary
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Newsletter: It’s a year now since Degel Menashe was founded. How would you evaluate that year?
Hillel Halkin: Actually, it’s been a year and a month. Considering that we’re a small organization with a tiny budget, that we don’t even have an office or an office staff, and that nearly all of us are working on a volunteer basis, we’ve accomplished a great deal.
Such as what?
We’ve set up a Website with a large number of readers. We’ve established a scholarship fund that has helped many young B’nei Menashe in Israel to launch or continue their academic studies. We’ve brought to a conclusion an oral history project that has recorded the lives of dozens of elderly members of the B’nei Menashe community, some of our interviews with whom will soon be published in a book. We’ve started a music program to collect and preserve the old songs once sung in the community, which are now on the verge of being forgotten.
In general, one of our main goals has been to record and preserve the B’nei Menashe’s cultural heritage and instill a sense of its importance. Unfortunately, the Corona pandemic has kept us from doing as much as we would have liked to. This kind of thing calls for meeting with people, often in groups, and it hasn’t been possible. Yet at the same time, the pandemic unexpectedly gave us a big push forward.
In what way?
It started with our Covid-19 Emergency Relief campaign in Manipur and Mizoram. Many B’nei Menashe were thrown out of work by the pandemic and had little or no money to buy food; some were close to going hungry. With the help of American Jewish donors, we raised enough money to distribute 50 tons of rice in three rounds that started in late April and ended in September. This saved many people from distress -- and led to other things.
What other things?
Mainly, Degel Menashe’s open conflict with Shavei Israel, which has shaken up the B’nei Menashe community and given it a glimpse of a different future.
I’m not sure all our readers understand what an Emergency Relief campaign has to do with Shavei Israel or a different future,
To answer that question, I have to go back a bit in time. When we founded Degel Menashe, we knew Shavei Israel would be unhappy. Until we came along, Shavei was the only organization working in the B’nei Menashe community. It had a monopoly over it and over its Aliyah to Israel, and it used that monopoly to exercise power and control. No monopolist likes competition, and we didn’t expect Shavei to like us. Still, I must say that I was surprised by the lengths to which it went to fight us from the start.
Can you give an example?
I could give many. Here’s one. When we conducted our oral history interviews, Shavei warned people that if they agreed to be interviewed by us, they would face dire consequences. Here we were, trying to record for future generations the lives of the men and women who had started the Judaism movement in Northeast India, the grandfathers and grandmothers of the B’nei Menashe growing up in Israel today – and Shavei Israel wanted to frighten them into not telling us their stories! And that was nothing compared to what happened during our Food Relief campaign.
Which was what?
Shavei did all it could to sabotage the operation, especially in Manipur, where three- quarters of the B’nei Menashe who are still in India live. It told the B’nei Menashe congregations there that if they accepted aid from us, they would be punished. Can you imagine that? Your own people are hungry and you punish them for taking food! And it’s not as though Shavei offered them food itself – it never gave a single grain of rice to anyone. It would have preferred that the B’nei Menashe of Manipur starve rather than receive rice from our relief workers, who did a marvelous job of getting the supplies to the most remote places under difficult conditions. Their determination and devotion were fantastic.
But how could Shavei have punished anyone?
By taking them off, or not putting them on, the Aliyah lists that it alone has been in charge of drawing up. This has given Shavei tremendous power. It has allowed it to say to the B’nei Menashe in India, “If you don’t do as we say, you’ll never get to Israel,” and to the B’nei Menashe in Israel, “If you don’t toe the line, your families in India will never join you.” Shavei means what it says, too. Many B’nei Menashe have been blacklisted and kept from making Aliyah because they defied Shavei’s dictates. Families have been broken up, some members of them allowed to come to Israel and others barred. Degel Menashe has compiled a dossier of such cases. They make for heartbreaking reading.
Did the threats not to accept food relief succeed?
To an extent, yes, especially in the third and last round of distribution, when Shavei stepped up its intimidation. Almost half of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe congregations turned the rice down, even though they all could have used it. But in the end, this had its positive side.
Positive because this time Shavei went too far. For many B’nei Menashe, being told to go hungry for Shavei’s benefit was the last straw. It made them realize how they were being cynically used by Shavei. For the first time in years, there were those dared to speak out openly against Shavei’s reign of fear. The food relief operation energized the community. It made it realize that it could act on its own, that it didn’t need Shavei’s permission.
This led to a call for new elections for the B’nei Menashe Council, a once representative body that Shavei had turned into a rubber stamp. At first, Shavei tried to stop the elections. When it saw that it couldn’t, it decided to compete in them – and when it competed and lost, it set out to destroy the elected body.
In this, it partially succeeded again. The same congregations that were scared into not accepting food were now scared into seceding from the B’nei Menashe Council they had helped to elect. But on the other hand, half of the congregations in Manipur stood firm. They refused to be cowed by Shavei and stuck with the new BMC despite Shavei’s threats and warnings. This is something that never happened before. Shavei wasn’t prepared for it. It was used to being obeyed.
So where do things stand now?
With a split community and a war between Degel Menashe and Shavei Israel that we never wanted. We didn’t want to be divisive. We would have been happy to have had a live-and-let-live arrangement with Shavei. There was room for both of us. But when one organization insists on being the only one, there’s no way for the other to get along with it.
So there’s no possibility of compromise?
Not as far as I can see. We’ve tried to patch things up. Last summer, in the middle of the food relief operation, I got in touch with Michael Freund, the head of Shavei, and suggested that we meet and try to come to an understanding. At first he said he was willing, then he hedged, and then I never heard from him again. Since then, the relations between Degel Menashe and Shavei have deteriorated even more.
In the end, it all comes down to the issue of Aliyah. Degel Menashe’s position is that Aliyah has to be taken out of Shavei’s hands and become the responsibility of the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption. Shavei knows that if this happens, it will lose the hold over the B’nei Menashe community that gives it its power. It’s something it will never agree to. And we won’t agree to anything less. There’s no possible compromise on that.
Why did the government let Shavei have total control of B’nei Menashe Aliyah in the first place?
Because it was a convenient solution to a complicated problem. Since the B’nei Menashe in India are not halachically Jewish even though they lead Jewishly observant lives, they can’t come to Israel as recognized immigrants under Israel’s Law of Return. They have to undergo an official conversion to get such recognition and they can only convert in Israel. When Shavei Israel said, “Here, let us take care of it, we’ll bring them to Israel for you,” it was a tempting offer that the Israeli government didn’t know how to refuse. It didn’t realize the kind of abuses it would lead to. It didn’t even know such abuses existed before Degel Menashe began to point them out, because their victims were too frightened to complain and didn’t know how or to whom to do it.
But if it’s been so convenient for the powers-that-be to give Shavei such exclusivity, how do you propose to put an end to it? Does Degel Menashe have the ability to bring B’nei Menashe to Israel on its own?
No. We don’t. And we’re not interested in having it. We’re not out to become a second Shavei. We want the Ministry of Immigration and the Jewish Agency to do the job, and we want them to do it by establishing clear and fair standards for who gets chosen for Aliyah and in what order. We’ve been in close contact with both bodies and we think they now understand that it’s wrong to put the Aliyah of an entire community in the hands of a private organization, without the slightest public supervision or oversight. It’s never been done with any other community in the history of Israel and it shouldn’t have been done here. It would have led to abuses even if Shavei were run by angels -- and it isn’t. Not only is it morally corrupt, there’s mounting evidence that it’s financially corrupt, too. The embezzlement of large amounts of money from the B’nei Menashe Council’s bank account in Manipur, on which our Website has been reporting, may be just part of it.
How far up in the Shavei hierarchy do you think this scandal goes?
I would guess that it goes very high, but that’s something the Manipur police will have to determine.
Do the Ministry of Immigration and the Jewish Agency know about it?
They’ve been informed.
If we can end the interview by asking you a personal question, how did you get into all this? You’ve been a writer who never held a public position or participated in public life before – what made you help found Degel Menashe and agree to be the chairman of its board of directors?
I ask myself that, too. There are times when I find this job overwhelming and wish I could hand it over to someone else and get back to just writing.
But someone had to do it and there wasn’t any “someone else.” The B’nei Menashe are a wonderful community with a special history. I’ve felt strongly about them ever since I got to know many of them while writing my book Across the Sabbath River nearly 20 years ago. My friendship with some of them, such as our projects manager Yitzhak Thangjom, goes back to those years. When Yitzhak and his wife Jessica, I, and Sabra Minkus, the president of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, decided to found Degel Menashe in the spring of 2019, we did so because we cared deeply about the B’nei Menashe community. Perhaps if we had known what we would be getting into, we would have thought twice about it. We were naïve about some things. And yet look how far we’ve come! We’ve come a longer way in a year than we ever thought we would