Drama, tension, precede third round of food distribution in Manipur.
Updated: Aug 20, 2020
(August 18) A tense week preceded today’s launching of the third round of Degel Menashe’s food relief operation for the B’nei Menashe of Manipur. The drama centered around the Beith Shalom synagogue of Churichandpur, Manipur’s largest B’nei Menashe congregation, which agreed to let its premises serve as a depot and distribution center in the operation’s first two rounds. While Shavei Israel, which rents office space from Beith Shalom, and Degel Menashe hurled charges and counter-charges at each other, Beith Shalom’s executive board first refused to make the synagogue’s grounds available for Round 3, then reversed itself, and then reversed its reversal.
Prior to the struggle over the use of Beith Shalom came another confrontation. Against the backdrop of the expulsion of Yosef Chongloi from the Ohel Menashe congregation of Churachandpur for actively participating in the food distribution’s second round (see our article “B’nei Menashe Congregant Expelled” on this page), the executive of Beith Shalom met on August 5 to consider the similar ejection from its ranks of four members of Degel Menashe’s Covid-19 Emergency Relief Committee. The four, Ohaliav, Benyamin, Nachshon, and Shlomo Haokip, were accused of having collaborated with Degel Menashe. Beith Shalom, they were told, recognized Shavei Israel as the only legitimate B’nei Menashe organization and would not tolerate anyone in the congregation taking part in the activities of another body.
The B’nei Menashe community was thrown into an uproar. Acting through the Beith Shalom executive, Shavei Israel, so Degel Menashe and its supporters charged, was not only being dictatorial and trampling on the right of free association. It was also seeking to frighten away the B’nei Menashe from having anything to do with Degel Menashe’s food relief operation. Put more baldly: it was playing politics with hunger and telling the B’nei Menashe of Manipur to go without food rather than accept it from a rival organization.
Shavei Israel’s supporters argued back. Beith Shalom was a sovereign body, they said, and had the right to its own by-laws. If it thought it in the interest of the B’nei Menashe to have only one organization represent them, and considered Degel Menashe’s existence damaging to their cause, this was its prerogative. If anyone was playing politics, it was Degel Menashe in its interference in the congregation’s affairs.
The argument raged within the executive itself. Unable to come to a decision on August 5, it met for another long session on the following day and again failed to decide. Although it convened behind closed doors and did not make the details of the debate public, it clearly was split, with some of its members taking a hard line toward the four Relief Committee members and others showing sympathy.
On August 8, the Beith Shalom executive handed down its verdict. The expulsion of the four committee members would be put on indefinite hold. At the same time, however, the synagogue would deny them the use of its premises in the third round of food distribution. If they wished to go ahead, they would have to find another distribution center.
Once again there were accusations back and forth. Shavei Israel, it was said by some, was seeking to sabotage the food relief. Beith Shalom was not simply the most convenient distribution point. It was also the most influential B’nei Menashe congregation in Manipur. By refusing to make its premises available, it was sending the clear message to the rest of the community that it should not consort with the Emergency Relief Committee or accept its aid. In a meeting with Shavei Israel’s Manipur community organizer Meital Singson, the Relief Committee claimed, it was told by her that she had received express orders from the Israel headquarters of Michael Freund, Shavei’s founder and chairman, to deny the food distribution Beith Shalom’s facilities.
On August 13, Hillel Halkin, the chairman of Degel Menashe’s board of directors, stepped in and called Freund directly. Freund’s response was emphatic. “That is an absolute lie and categorically false,” he told Halkin. “Shavei does not dictate to Beith Shalom what to do.”
Freund went on to explain what had happened. “In photographs of the previous food distribution at Beith Shalom,” he said, “I saw that the relief workers were not wearing face masks or observing social distancing, which is a serious violation of the health guidelines for preventing the Coronavirus….Therefore I told Meital Singson that if the proper guidelines are not being followed, such gatherings could pose a grave health risk. It is up to the local community to decide how to proceed, but I would urge them to ensure that any distribution of food or other aid be carried out in a manner that helps people rather than harms them.” Freund was not altogether wrong. While photographs taken of the food distribution’s second round at Beith Shalom show many of those involved, distributors and recipients alike, wearing masks and keeping their distance, not all did.
And yet, Halkin reasoned with Freund, why should this affect the new round of distribution? The Relief Committee had no desire to violate the rules and would avoid health infractions in Round 3 by appointing monitors to police the site and make sure all regulations were observed. This was something that could be easily dealt with.
Masks and distancing in 2nd round of food distribution at Beith Shalom. (Click on each photo to enlarge.)
And indeed, the next morning, Friday August 14, Ohaliav Haokip, secretary of the Relief Committee, emailed Halkin: “A few minutes ago, Shlomo, Benyamin, and I talked to Meital and there is a new development. She replied positively that Beith Shalom can be used as a Distribution Center again. She also denied the involvement of Shavei regarding the termination [i.e., expulsion] of Degel’s members from the community.”
The problem appeared to be solved. Yet on Sunday, August 16, Meital Singson contacted the Relief Committee to inform it that she had not yet received a go-ahead from Michael Freund to make Beith Shalom available. Halkin immediate wrote to Freund and Freund wrote back in explanation of the new turnabout:
“Meital informed me that she has been questioned by officers from the Special Investigation Branch and was told in no uncertain terms that opening the center at this time would be a violation of the [Coronavirus] restrictions. They also told her that they were aware of the previous distributions, claimed to have photographs of them, and sternly warned her against any public gatherings. As a result, she is very concerned about possibly being held responsible and rightly so….In light of this development, I want to suggest that you distribute the aid to each individual family at their homes, thereby insuring that there is no risk to public safety or violation of the government’s regulations.”
At this point, Degel Menashe turned to Lalam Hangshing, the Emergency Relief Committee’s chairman and former Chief Commissioner of Customs and Excise in Northeast India. Hangshing explained that there is no such thing in India as a “Special Investigation Branch.” The initials SIB, which either Freund or Meital Singson appeared to have misunderstood, stand for Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau. The SIB, Hangshing pointed out, is a federal counter-intelligence agency tasked with matters of national security and does not deal with Corona regulations or their observance, which are issues delegated to the states of the Indian union. Just to make sure, Hangshing contacted the SIB and asked. The answer he received was as expected. The SIB, he was told, knew nothing about any investigation of Meital Singson or Beith Shalom.
On Monday, August 17, the members of the Relief Committee met with the Beith Shalom executive and requested that it reconsider its refusal to make the synagogue’s premises available. The request was turned down. As a result, the committee decided to relocate the center of its operations to the grounds of the Petach Tikvah congregation of Buoljol, a suburb of Churachandpur.
It is not yet clear how extensively Beith Shalom’s decision will affect the food relief. So far, five
B’nei Menashe communities in Manipur, those of Imphal, Moreh, Monglienphai, Zohar, and the Ohel Menashe congregation of Buoljol, have informed the Relief Committee that, in light of the decision, they will accept no aid from it. These five communities represent close to 1,000 people or nearly a third of the B’nei Menashe population of Manipur. Whether they will seek to impose sanctions on individuals who nevertheless turn to the Relief Committee is uncertain. Beith Shalom, for its part, has let it be known that no such sanctions are under consideration and that members of its congregation are free to accept aid or not as they wish.
Our Newsletter will keep our readers posted on Round 3 as it progresses.