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Heads of Degel Menashe, Jewish Agency, Meet to Discuss Changes in B’nei Menashe Aliyah

(January 14) In a meeting held on January 11, senior figures in the Jewish Agency and Degel Menashe discussed the issue of B’nei Menashe Aliyah. Both sides agreed on the need to quicken its pace and to transfer responsibility for it from the private organization that is now in charge of it to a public body. Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, who presided over the meeting, expressed his interest in the Agency’s assuming such a role.

Taking part in the meeting on behalf of the Agency, besides Herzog, were Shay Felber, Director of the Agency’s Immigration and Absorption Unit; Benny Lidsky of its Conversion Department; and Arielle de Porto, head of the Aliyah Division for Special Operations. Representing Degel Menashe were its Executive Director Isaac Thangjom, its Chairman of the Board Hillel Halkin, and Board member Reuven Gal. Originally planned for the Jewish Agency’s offices in Jerusalem, the meeting was rescheduled as a Zoom session due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

The Zoom meeting from Isaac Thangjom’s computer. From left to right, top row: Hillel Halkin, Isaac Thangjom, recording secretary Tal Gelbart. Middle row: Reuven Gal, Benny Lidsky, Isaac Herzog. Bottom row: Arielle de Porto, Shay Felber

The session culminated months of contacts between Degel Menashe and two high Jewish Agency officials, Aliyah Director Felber and recently retired Deputy Chairman David Breakstone. On the day preceding it, January 10, Halkin, Thangjom, Felber, Lidsky, and de Porto participated in a preparatory conference call in which Halkin reviewed the main points of a Degel Menashe position paper that had been previously submitted to the Agency. These called for:

1. The abolition of the administrative monopoly on the B’nei Menashe ‘s Aliyah that has, for the past two decades, been granted to a Jerusalem-based NGO.

2. The full delegation to either the Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Immigration and Integration, or a joint body composed of both of the task of bringing the approximately 6,000 remaining B’nei Menashe in India to Israel and arranging for their initial absorption.

3. The speeding up of this process so that it can be brought to completion within a period of three to five years. It is time, the Degel Menashe paper argued, to end the system in place for the past 30 years whereby small groups of B’nei Menashe have come to Israel in dribs and drabs with long intervals between one group and the next.

4. The creation of an alternate channel for B’nei Menashe Aliyah that would allow individuals and families in the community to immigrate to Israel on their own if they had the wherewithal to do so.

In the discussion that followed, Aliyah Director Felber endorsed the position paper’s first three points while being skeptical about the feasibility of Point 4. It was therefore agreed not to raise it in the meeting with Herzog the next day. Felber concurred with the view that it was undesirable to drag out an Aliyah process whose prolongation only caused continued uncertainty and distress to B’nei Menashe families in both India and Israel. He attached great importance to the fact, brought to his attention by Degel Menashe, that the B’nei Menashe community in Israel possessed three fully ordained rabbis who have not until now been involved in its Aliyah. The three, he felt, could play a key role in the future.

At the Zoom session the next day, Halkin and Felber were again the main speakers. After listening to both, and asking the other participants for their opinions, Jewish Agency Chairman Herzog stated his agreement that the privatization of an entire community’s Aliyah was highly irregular and should not be allowed to continue. He expressed his belief that the Jewish Agency was best equipped to take over the administration of the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah and his intention of taking up the matter with Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata in the days ahead.

David Breakstone

Asked to comment on the meeting, former Deputy Chairman David Breakstone , who was instrumental in putting the B’nei Menashe on the Jewish Agency’s agenda, spoke of his satisfaction with what took place. Breakstone agreed with Shay Felber that the three B’nei Menashe rabbis could be an important part of the process. “The real stumbling block here,” he told our Newsletter, “is Israel’s Ministry of the Interior. The Jewish Agency can only help bring B’nei Menashe to Israel if the Government makes a decision to allow their entry, and this calls for the Interior Ministry’s agreement. The ministry, in turn, has been controlled by the [Sephardic religious] Shas Party, which has been antipathetic to unconventional cases of Jewish identity like the B’nei Menashe’s. If the B’nei Menashe’s own rabbis can be mobilized for the cause, and if their standing is recognized by Shas rabbis, they have a key role to play.”

Reuven Gal

Degel Menashe board member Re’uven Gal was also happy with the meeting. “I think,” he said, “that all of us Degel Menashe participants felt that we were given a sympathetic hearing and good reason to hope that a new chapter in the B’nei Menashe ‘s Aliyah is about to be opened.” Gal was impressed by how much the Jewish Agency’s Chairman knew about the B’nei Menashe community and added: “You could see by the questions he asked that he was really curious about it.”

At the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, Almog Moskowitz, Senior Advisor to the Minister, assured our Website that he was being kept fully abreast of the developments. “I’m in close contact with the Jewish Agency in everything regarding the B’nei Menashe,” he said, “and I was informed immediately of the content of your January 11 meeting.”

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