Jewish Agency To Step In in B’nei Menashe Aliyah
Updated: Feb 19, 2021
(February 18) Negotiations to enable the Jewish Agency to play a major role in the Aliyah of the remaining 5,000 B’nei Menashe in North East India are now close to conclusion, our Newsletter has learned. Such an outcome would successfully culminate a year-long campaign by Degel Menashe to involve the Agency in the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah, which until now has been the exclusive domain of the private Jerusalem-based organization Shavei Israel. This campaign was climaxed last week by a petition, signed by 1,230 members of the B’nei Menashe community, calling on the Agency to take charge of the B’nei Menashe’s immigration to Israel.
Degel Menashe is not a direct party to these talks, which are being held between the Jewish Agency, the Ministry for Immigration and Integration, Shavei Israel, and the Rabbinate. Nevertheless, the development represents a significant achievement for it. “For the past decade- and-a-half,” says Degel Menashe chairman Hillel Halkin, “the Aliyah of the B’nei Menashe has been a Shavei Israel monopoly, and this had led to serious abuses that we have carefully documented and let the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Immigration know about . With the Agency now part of the process, we have been promised that there will be an end to these abuses and we intend to hold the Agency to its promise.”
The agreement in the making, Halkin concedes, is not ideal. “Although we don’t yet know its precise details,” he told our Newsletter, “they will leave Shavei Israel in the picture, at least for the foreseeable future, as a co-participant in B’nei Menashe Aliyah. Degel Menashe would have preferred, like the petition signers, to see Shavei replaced by the Agency completely. Still, this is a big step forward and one that would never have happened without our efforts.”
Halkin was asked about a meeting held this week between Shavei Israel chairman Michael Freund and Israel’s Chief Rabbi David Lau. “It’s no secret that the Rabbinate and Shavei are on cozy terms,” he said. “We know from our sources that the Rabbinate is the main reason that Shavei can’t be sidelined entirely at this point. The B’nei Menashe are not halachically Jewish and must convert once they come to Israel. None can get a visa without the approval of the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of the Interior won’t issue them one without a green light from the Rabbinate, and the Rabbinate trusts only Shavei, with which it has worked for years in vetting the prospective immigrants’ commitment to Judaism. Although there are far better ways of doing this than relying on Shavei, whose assessments have often been untrustworthy and discriminatory, that’s the situation at the moment.
“Frankly,” Halkin added, “the Jewish Agency isn’t happy with this, either. But it’s thinking ahead. A high Agency official has said to me, ‘The agreement with Shavei is a way of getting our foot in the door. Once we do that, we don’t intend to go on standing in the doorway.’ Degel Menashe has been assured by both the Agency and the Ministry of Immigration that the compilation of Aliyah lists in the future will not be left to the whims of Shavei. This means that B’nei Menashe waiting for Aliyah need no longer be afraid of being denied it for getting in Shavei’s bad graces, as has been the case in the past.”
The impending agreement will not cover the 470 B’nei Menashe still in India who were, together with the group of 252 B’nei Menashe immigrants that arrived in Israel last December, approved for Aliyah in 2016. “The 470 are expected to arrive in the course of this year, some perhaps in the coming months,” we were told by Yitzhak Thangjom, Degel Menashe’s executive director. “They were chosen exclusively by Shavei, and while we will be happy to see all of them in Israel, many were included due to favoritism and many were left out because they were on Shavei’s blacklist. Even now Shavei is threatening to keep some of those on the list from coming in retaliation for disobeying its dictates while dangling in front of others the bait of being put in their place. The complete 2016 list is in Degel Menashe’s hands and we will do our utmost to prevent its being manipulated in such ways.
“We believe,” Thangjom says, “that this is the last time Shavei Israel will be given such power. In the future we expect Aliyah lists to be drawn up in consultation with genuine representatives of the B’nei Menashe community, such as the rabbis who come from its ranks, who have been deliberately ignored by Shavei until now, and the B’nei Menashe Council. The Jewish Agency has pledged to make the process a fair one. Degel Menashe will act as the watchdog that makes sure this pledge is kept.”
Briefed by Degel Menashe on the developments, leaders in the B’nei Menashe community in Israel and India reacted with a mixture of satisfaction and disappointment. “It’s good news,” was the reaction of Makhir Lotzem of the B’nei Menashe Council Initiative Committee of Kiryat Arba, “but why is Shavei still a part of it? The Agency must see to it that a fair and just Aliyah selection process is put into practice, one based above all on seniority and the length of time candidates have been waiting to come to Israel. Shavei has caused our community enough grief with its cronyism and coercion. We’ll go on fighting until there is a final end to this.”
Ohaliav Haokip, General Secretary of the B’nei Menashe Council in Manipur, though calling the impending agreement is “a step in the right direction,” also expressed his frustration that Shavei Israel was a side to it. Degel Menashe activist Nachshon Haokip of Churachandpur had similar reservations. “Although it’s nice to think of the process of Aliyah becoming fairer,” he said, “I’ll believe it when I see it. But at least something has begun to change. If not enough happens by itself, we’ll have to make it happen. There will be no turning back until there’s justice for all B’nei Menashe.”
Lalam Hangshing, the B’nei Menashe Council’s newly elected Chairman, stressed the role the BMC could play in the revised Aliyah process. “We’ll need to make the Jewish Agency aware that it has to work with us,” he said. “Shavei Israel doesn’t represent the B’nei Menashe of Manipur. It’s an Israeli organization that doesn’t have any legal standing in India. If the Agency wants to deal with a representative B’nei Menashe body, that’s us.”
It was the BMC that submitted the petition against Shavei, signed by 912 Manipur B’nei Menashe, to the Jewish Agency last week. “We have had enough,” it declared. “We ask the Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Immigration, and the government of Israel to assume direct responsibility for our Aliyah by taking it out of Shavei Israel’s hands and freeing us from its tyranny over our lives.”