Fear of Shavei Israel Threatens Aizawl’s B’nei Menashe With Hunger
(July 2) “The Corona lockdown has been very difficult for us, but if relief comes in the name of Degel Menashe, we cannot accept it,” a B’nei Menashe woman in Mizoram’s capital of Aizawl who asked to remain anonymous told the organizers of Degel Menashe’s latest food relief campaign this week. “We do not have enough to eat, but we cannot go against Shavei.”
Another woman, also requesting to have her name withheld, said, “I’m a poor widow with several mouths to feed. I need the food very badly. But I will not accept any help from Degel Menashe because it will anger Shavei. I don’t want to do that. I would much rather starve.”
The one member of the Aizawl community to agree to be quoted by name was Shmuel Khiangte, president of the Khovevei Zion synagogue, Shavei Israel’s main Aizawl stronghold. (Khiangte’s son Yehuda is so far the only member of the Aizawl community to fall ill in the recent wave of Covid19.) “Although the situation here is desperate,” the relief drive’s organizers told our Newsletter, “Khiangte told us that the community will accept aid only if its source is not publicized and no mention is made of Degel Menashe.”
“The fact that even the organizers do not want their names mentioned,” says Yitzhak Thangjom, Degel Menashe’s executive director, “shows how great the fear of Shavei is. But how can Degel Menashe be expected to pretend that the food isn’t coming from it? People have to take responsibility for themselves. Sixteen of the 60 or so B’nei Menashe families in Aizawl have had the courage to stand up and accept our assistance. As much as we understand the reluctance of the others to do so because of Shavei’s threats, and as much as it pains us that many of them will go hungry as a result, there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re not looking to score points. As far as we’re concerned, Shavei can take the food bought with our money and distribute it itself, if that’s what it wants to do. But it’s not morally or legally possible for us to deny that we’re the source of that money. That just can’t be done.”
Conditions in Aizawl, our Newsletter has learned, are indeed quite desperate. The Corona closure caused by the soaring number of cases in the city has brought economic activity to a standstill. The only shops allowed to open, which they can do for but a few hours on alternate days, are those selling essential items. Public transportation has come to a halt. Both the 70-80 percent of the work force that depends on the marketing of goods and products and the 20-30 percent that works in agriculture have been equally hard-hit, since the farmers have no outlet for their goods or way of getting them to the market.
The situation, Thangjom says, is similar to that which prevailed a year ago, during the first wave of Corona in northeast India, when Degel Menashe also stepped in with aid. Then, too, Shavei Israel sought to prevent its distribution. “The difference between then and now,” Thangjom says, “is that two planeloads of B’nei Menashe immigrants have reached Israel since then, for which Shavei has been given credit. The fear of losing one’s place on future Aliyah lists is now greater than ever. The fact that in the future these lists will be compiled under the supervision of the Jewish Agency hasn’t penetrated yet. More than ever, Shavei is considered all-powerful.”
The food distribution in Aizawl, Thangjom says, will start this coming week. “Perhaps by then,” he adds, “a few of the reluctant families will have changed their minds. An official announcement by Shavei Israel that it has no objection to B’nei Menashe taking aid from Degel Menashe or, in its absence, a declaration by the Jewish Agency or Israel’s Ministry of Immigration and Absorption that acceptance of such aid will not jeopardize anyone’s chances for Aliyah, could save some people from going hungry.”
At the moment, unfortunately, there is no sign of this happening.