B’nei Menashe Come From All Over To Demonstrate
(November 18) They came from Kiryat Arba -- and there would have been more of them had not a last-minute Corona quarantine kept some back. They came from Sderot. They came from Bet-El. They came all the way from Tiberias, and Bet-She’an, and Ma’alot. They almost came from Nitzan, a carload from which got lost in the streets of Tel Aviv and never made it. They came from all over when, for the first time in its history the B’nei Menashe community of Israel turned out to demonstrate for its rights.
The over 50 B’nei Menashe demonstrators gathered shortly after 1 p.m. on Thursday, November 11, in front of the Tel Aviv offices of the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, against whom the protest was partly aimed. Its other target was Shavei Israel, the Jerusalem-based private organization to which Israel’s government has, for the past 17 years, outsourced the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah from India. Shavei Israel’s monopoly on the handling of this Aliyah has led, it has been repeatedly charged, to numerous abuses. These range, the allegations go, from financial corruption to playing favorites in the composition of Aliyah lists, which have been used to reward Shavei’s supporters and punish its opponents, thus turning the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah into a weapon for the exertion of organizational power and control. And though frequently informed of these abuses, it is claimed, the Ministry of Immigration, which is comfortable with an arrangement that produces some immigrants while making few demands on it, has looked the other way.
The demonstrators carried Hebrew placards stating their grievances. One read: “An Entire Community Held Hostage By A Private NGO: Can It Be?” Another asked“Minister [Pnina] Tamano-Shata: How Long Will You Ignore us?” A third declared: “We Want Our Rabbis!” This referred to the fact that while the B’nei Menashe community now has three ordained rabbis of its own, all graduates of Israeli yeshivas, Shavei Israel has shunned them and preferred to bring in paid and easily manipulated able rabbis of its own to vet the Jewish practice of prospective B’nei Menashe immigrants.
The placard that garnered the most attention read “Free Shavei Israel’s Prisoners of Zion!” and bore the photographs of B’nei Menashe said to have been blackballed by Shavei Israel and denied Aliyah by it for long years.
Flyers telling their stories were distributed to the journalists who were present and to passers-by. One of them was handed out by Natan Mangsat Kipgen, 81, of Kiryat Arba, who has not seen four of his children and 22 of his grandchildren, all living in Manipur, since his immigration to Israel in 2003; they were left behind, the flyer explained, in retaliation for their continuing to use the Ashenazi liturgy they were used to rather than the Sephardic one introduced by Shavei Israel when it seized control of the Aliyah process. “I’ve suffered from the separation all this time” Mangsat told listeners.
“This demonstration has finally given me a chance to be heard after nearly twenty years.”
Yehuda Mate, 42, also of Kiryat Arba, agreed.” This is the first time Bnei Menashe have come forward to make public the injustices that have been inflicted on us by Shavei Israel and the government institutions that support it,” he said. “We’ve let ourselves be exploited by Shavei because we’re a quiet people, but just because we haven’t shouted our problems from the rooftops doesn’t mean they don’t exist.” The B’nei Menashe demonstrators were joined by a group of Israelis of Indian origin, who came to show their solidarity.
One, Elias Dandekar of Binyamina, our Newsletter: "As a scion of the Bene Israel, one of the diverse Indian Jewish groups in Israel, I’m shocked by what the B’nei Menashe have had to go through. It’s time the government lent an ear and freed them from their subjugation to Shavei Israel. It’s an honor to stand together with them in a peaceful protest full of soul and song.”
The singing, which included the B’nei Menashe anthem Ka Thange, Ka Thange and Chavang Kolni, a traditional song of longing for Zion, long-standing favorites, brought workers of the Ministry to their windows, They ran to them again when, over an hour into the demonstration, ranking Likud Knesset member Miri Regev, Israel’s former minister of culture and, more recently, of transportation, appeared to express her support. Regev, a vocal supporter of the B’nei Menashe community, spoke to the demonstrators and assured them that she would do everything to see to it that their grievances were addressed. It was unacceptable, she said, for their Aliyah to be in the hands of a private organization and she would fight to have it transferred to the government, which was responsible for the immigration of all other groups to Israel.
No official from the Ministry of Immigration came to speak to the demonstrators, who were turned back when they sought to enter the building. Although promised that the written material they had with them would be passed on to ministry personnel, there was, a week later, still no response to it.
The demonstration ended with the singing of Hatikvah.