Anger Grows As Shavei Israel Seeks To Destroy Newly Elected B’nei Menashe Council
(December 4) A turbulent week went by for the B’nei Menashe community of Manipur as Shavei Israel stepped up efforts to wreck the newly elected B’nei Menashe Council. After first opposing the November 5 elections with threats and intimidation and then, at the last minute, deciding to take part in them, Shavei, its candidates having lost, reversed course again. Its campaign against the new BMC culminated this week with a letter of resignation from the Council sent from the chairmen of 15 of its member congregations -- 12 of which freely took part in the elections just a month ago.
The letter was brief. It said only, “We would like to inform you that we, the signatories of the following communities listed below, have decided to leave the BMC on this day, 1st December 2020.” Beneath this notice appeared the names and signatures of the chairmen of the synagogues of Gamgiphai, Leimatak, New Bazaar, Kankpokpi, Zohar, Patten, Monglienphai, Moreh Beit Shalom, Charongching, Moreshet Moreh, Tupul, Lungaijing, Boljol, Phailen, and Keithelmanbi. Together, they can claim close to 1,500 people, slightly less than half of the B’nei Menashe community of Manipur.
There were some reported irregularities in the list of resignees. Number 4 on it, for example, Khanan Singit, was listed as chairman of the congregation of Kangpokpi, though this office is in fact held by Haolal David Chongloi. Similarly, though listed as chairman of the congregation of Phailen, Signatory 14, who wrote his name simply as “Yoel,” does not occupy that position, which belongs to Yitzhak Lhangal. The BMC is currently checking the list for other possible misrepresentations
Although the letter gave no reason for the resignations, they were clearly the result of Shavei Israel pressure. “Our chairman,” our Manipur correspondent was told by a B’nei Menashe from Patlien who asked to remain anonymous for fear of Shavei retaliation, “was informed by Shavei that resigning would ensure our congregation’s Aliyah in the next group of immigrants that will leave for Israel at Passover time.” (There has been no announcement of any such group on the part of Israel’s government.) Others who agreed to speak to our Newsletter also asked to conceal their identities. “I know that our chairman was forced to sign the letter by threats of our removal from Shavei’s Aliyah list,” said one such person, a 45-year-old man from New Bazaar. B’nei Menashe congregants from Leimatak and Phailen reported that the chairmen of their congregations had signed the letter after receiving threatening phone calls from Shavei Israel activist Alon Lunjang Haokip. Newly appointed Manipur Shavei Adminstrator Shlomo Kipgen was said to have made such calls, too.
Kipgen and Alon Haokip did not limit their phone activity to Manipur. Degel Menashe volunteer worker Jessica Simte, who lives in Israel and has made pro-BMC statements on her widely read Facebook page, received threatening calls from the two men, too. “You’re just a woman,” Haokip told Simte. “You’d better not go on writing such things. Go back to the kitchen and know your place.”
At least one person has already been the victim of anti-BMC Shavei retaliation. Long- time Shavei activist Aharon Vaiphei, a member of the executive of Beit Shalom Synagogue of Churachandpur and the official Convener of November’s elections, had been promised a place by Shavei in the group of 140 B’nei Menashe from Manipur set to make Aliyah later this month.
Now, he told our Newsletter, he has been ejected from the group for his failure to prevent the elections from taking place. “I feel betrayed,” he said. “This isn’t what I deserved for my more than seven years of loyalty to Shavei.”
There has been anger at such actions in the B’nei Menashe community. “If anyone should be denied Aliyah,” said B’nei Menashe congregant and Indian civil servant Hegin Lemuel Haokip of Imphal, “it is those who refuse to belong to the B’nei Menashe Council, not those who leave it. What they have done saddens me.” BMC Vice-Chairman Nechemiah Haokip stated, “Why was Shavei so opposed to the BMC elections? They tried to disrupt and boycott all our meetings – and now that they have lost the elections, they are running away. They’re telling every community that it will lose its chance for Aliyah if it doesn’t leave the BMC. Clearly, they’re determined to split the B’nei Menashe.” Reactions in Israel were strong, too. “Whoever turns his back on the BMC,” typically declared Makhir Lotzem of Kiryat Arba, “is turning his back on his own heritage and identity.”
No less angry was the reaction to the inclusion in the list of resignees of three congregations that are not even part of the B’nei Menashe community. These are the Judaizing congregations of Charongching, Tupul, and Lungaijing, none of which have taken part in B’nei Menashe life or participated in the B’nei Menashe Council, in the past. “What makes this particularly outrageous,” Degel Menashe Projects Manager Thangjom said to our Newsletter, “is that it comes on the heels of a Shavei attempt to bar from the November elections the four congregations of Boljol, Petach Tikvah, Phalbung, and Saikul, which had been part of the B’nei Menashe community until they were booted out for defying Shavei’s dictates. It’s total hypocrisy!”
Exacerbating feelings further was the fact that the three non-B’nei Menashe congregations were ethnically Naga. Ever since the Naga-Kuki armed conflict of the 1990s, in which many Kuki villagers lost their homes, there has been bad blood between the two populations. Shavei’s turning to the three Naga congregations to help tip the scales against the BMC was thus particularly infuriating.
Whether or not the new BMC has been a struck a mortal blow scant days after its birth, in what seemed a moment of hope and excitement, remains to be seen. For the moment, Shavei Israel has scored a victory. It has succeeded in blocking the move toward democratization in B’nei Menashe life. As victories go, however, it may yet prove to be a Pyrrhic one.