From a Village in Manipur to Nof Ha-Galil: Part I of a 3-Part Series
[Yosef Demsat Haokip joined the B’nei Menashe in Manipur in 1990, yet was denied Aliyah to Israel until last October. Here, in his own words, is Part 1 of his three-part story.]
I was born Demsat Haokip in 1968, in the village of Matjang, in the Ukhrul district of Manipur. The village had some 37 households, and my father was its chief. We owned rice fields and supported ourselves from them.
We boys in Matjang spent our childhood playing games and exploring the jungle around our village. When I was about twelve or thirteen, I started to help around the house by fetching water and firewood, and I occasionally worked in the rice fields. Although there were no schools in our area, I learned the Latin alphabet in which our Kuki language I written from an uncle who had some education and gave me lessons when he had time; he taught me to read and write by using the Kuki-Thadou translation of the Bible. As with other families in such villages, religion played a very important role in our lives. A family had to be part of a Christian congregation. My own family belonged to a group called The Fundamental Church. We prayed and attended services regularly.
In 1978, a lower primary school was established in Matjang, but after I attended it for one year, my family moved to the nearby village of Bongbal Khullen. We did that because of the Naga insurgency. We Kukis were its main victims. Underground bands of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagland had begun roaming the jungles of the Ukhrul region, which had a large Naga population. They were armed with modern assault rifles, against which we were helpless, and they would come to Kuki villages and take what they wanted – livestock, poultry, everything. Refusing them meant risking one’s life. But while my parents thought we might be safer in Bongbal Khullen, which was larger than Matjang, that didn’t turn out to be the case. The Nagas made life unbearable there, too, and in 1987 we decided to move to Churachandpur, where we lived ever since. It was lucky that we did, because thousands of Kukis were killed in the Ukhrul region when the Nagas ethnically cleansed it in the early 1990s.
In Churachandpur, my family joined a church called New Life, It was very strict and disciplined and I liked it. But the city had a large variety of Christian churches and denominations, and this opened my eyes to the range of choices that existed and to the many religious debates that were common at the time. It was then that I heard about Judaism. The man who first told me about it was Yamlet Baite, who called himself Y.D. Israel; he was the father of Sarah Lamsi Baite, who has been in the news recently. [Editorial note: Sarah Baite, as reported by our Newsletter, has been seeking justice for the 2016 rape of her daughter, allegedly committed by a Shavei Israel crony now living in Israel.] After much soul-searching, I decided that this was the religion for me, because it alone was faithful to the Bible. The Bible, for example, commanded circumcision, and Judaism was the only religion that practiced it.
The more I learned about Judaism, the more I grew to love it, On April 8, 1990, my parents, my sister, and my two older brothers joined the B’nei Menashe movement together. All the males were circumcised on that day by Gideon Kailam. After the village of Boljol adopted Judaism in 1991 and changed its name to Petach Tikva, I and Chaim Janglal Kipgen, who now lives in Israel, were the first B”nei Menashe to build new houses there. By then my father had come down with TB, and when he passed away in 1993 he was buried in Petach Tikva in a Jewish ceremony; the man who officiated was Natan Mangsat Kipgen, who now lives in Israel too, in Kiryat Arba. The next year I married my wife, Osnat Lhingneikim, who belonged to the B’nei Menashe community of Moreh. We eventually had six children, a boy and five girls.
When Shavei Israel took control of the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah in 2003-4 and insisted that the movement abandon the Ashkenazi liturgy it was accustomed to and adopt the Sephardic rite, Petach Tikva was one of the congregations that refused to comply. As a result, it was put on Shavei’s blacklist and none of its members were considered for Aliyah. The last of them to come to Israel, in 2002, was Mangsat. Perhaps my association with Petach Tikva, even though I wasn’t living there and was active in the Beit Shalom synagogue in Churachandpur, had something and to do with what came afterwards, but I can’t say for sure.
My family’s first Aliyah interview was in 2014. The procedure was for Tsvi Khaute [Shavei Israel’s head administrator] to come from Israel with a Shavei-employed rabbi for a preliminary screening; we were interviewed twice by him and Rabbi Hanoch Avitsedek and passed. The next stage was to be vetted again by a board of three dayanim [rabbinical judges] who came from Israel several months later, again with Tsvi and Rabbi Hanoch. There must have been some twenty families who were candidates. Our interviewer was Rabbi Moshe Nidam [of B’nei Brak]. A B’nei Menashe companion of Tsvi’s, Thanglal from Kiryat Arba, translated for him. Besides the usual halakhic questions, we were asked about the Mishkan [the Tabernacle in the desert]. I don’t think I or anyone else gave any wrong answers, but after two months we were informed that we had failed. We weren’t given any reason and there was no one to ask about it.
Looking back on them today, I think these interviews were most likely a charade. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tsvi had decided in advance who would pass and who would fail. He had complete control over everything. If you were close to him or were one of his followers, your place on the Aliyah list was assured. There were B’nei Menashe who never sat for an interview at all and who are in Israel today. The whole system is unfair.
We weren’t called for an interview again. Still, I didn’t raise my voice in protest at the time. I tried to stay in Shavei’s good graces. In 2018, I even mediated a dispute between Meital Singson, then Shavei’s Manipur administrator, and Ohaliav Haokip, who is today general secretary of the B’nei Menashe Council. Each had lodged a police complaint against the other over an altercation, and I tried persuading each to withdraw it in the best interests of the B’nei Menashe community. It wasn’t easy, but I succeeded. I was seen as a peacemaker, and at the next Beit Shalom elections, I was chosen vice-chairman of the synagogue.
My first real run-in with Shavei came in 2020. In November of that year, there were elections for a new B’nei Menashe Council for the first time in five years. Having always believed in the importance of the BMC, I was happy to see these held, and when a non-Shavei slate won the vote, I supported it. Shavei then launched a campaign to have the elections declared illegal, and when that failed, it did all it could to destroy the newly elected BMC and sought to enlist me in its effort. Shortly after the elections, Meital Singson came to my home, and told me that if I, as vice-chairman of Beit Shalom, denounced the newly elected BMC and its executive. I would be fast-tracked for Aliyah.
I thought this was wrong and I refused. In whatever capacity I’m in, I’ve always tried to stand up for the truth. I was then summoned to the home of Shlomo Sehjelal Kipgen [Meital Singson’s successor as Shavei Israel’s Manipur administrator] in order to sign a declaration of loyalty to Shavei; without it, I was told, I and my family would never make Aliyah. I didn’t answer the summons and didn’t go. My conscience didn’t allow me to support the lies and manipulations that Shavei was engaged in. Next, I was visited by two Shavei supporters, Zvulun Satkhothang Haokip and Azaria Paokam Haokip, and told to report to Lunjang Alon Haokip of Boljol and explain myself. Alon was Shavei’s strong-arm man, and they said it was up to him whether I would ever make Aliyah or not.
I told them to tell Alon that I would not be intimidated. I said that my Aliyah was not up to mere mortals, because there was Someone infinitely more powerful than any of us in whose hands it rested. They left without being able to persuade me.