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Legal Reform Issue Not Divisive For Israel’s B’nei Menashe

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

(July 20, 2023) As Israel is torn apart by the battle over the government’s proposals for reforming the legal system, the country’s small B’nei Menashe community has been largely unaffected by the conflict.

This is not just because nearly all B’nei Menashe share a religious life-style and right-wing voting preferences that might be expected to put them squarely in the pro-government camp, which some of them indeed strongly identify with. Thirty-eight-year old Aharon Chongloi from Tiberias, for example, who came to Israel in 2015, told our Newsletter:

Yeshiva student Aharon Chongloi.

“I’ve discussed the matter with our rabbis and we are all in agreement that the reforms should go ahead. When we have a democracy in which the leader is elected by popular vote, why is there a need for another body like the courts to interfere in administrative matters? The people have chosen the leadership and kind of government they want. Those who voted otherwise have to wait for the next election and hope to change things then. They have the right to demonstrate and air their views, but not to disturb the normal functioning of the country.”

Natan Mangsat Kipgen, 81, of Kiryat Arba, in Israel since 2002, took issue with Chongloi. “I’m a simple man with a simple understanding of the world around me,” he said to us..” I do try to keep abreast, though, of what’s happening. And while I’m religiously observant and might be expected to support the reforms like everyone around me, I have my doubts about them. As I understand it, if all of them are approved, the government will be able to overrule a High Court decision that it is acting illegally. This would let the government carry on dictatorially, which would not be good for anyone. It’s bad for normal life to be disrupted, but sometimes demonstrations are needed to call attention to a problem that will affect us all in the future.”

Some B’nei Menashe we spoke tried taking a middle position. “Both sides have valid arguments,” said 48-year-old Esther Schomberg from Efrat, who came to Israel from Manipur in 1997. “It's difficult to judge. On one hand, it’s dangerous to upset a status quo that has given us stability. There needs to be a balance between executive and judicial power. But on the other hand, the government is chosen by a democratic process of elections, whereas much quasi-nepotism and many interest groups affect the choice of judges. The crisis will end when it ends. I think the pro-reform will eventually win.”

But Chongloi, Kipgen, and Schomberg, so our Newsletter’s impression is, are atypical in having clearly articulated opinions on the legal reform issue. Most of the B’nei Menashe we spoke to felt that they had neither the leisure, the knowledge, or the ability to judge the matter. Typical in this respect was K.T. Amos, 41, of Ma’alot, who arrived in Israel in 2015 and told us, “I have a full-time job and a family and children to take care of, which leaves me with very little time to worry about how the country should be run. I don’t know anything about the details of the proposed reforms and have only a general sense of them. There are enough competent people in Israel to take care of things without me. It’s not a subject I discuss with friends and family. I’m too busy making ends meet. I can’t begin to worry about things I have no control over. I trust in God to take care of them.”

Migdal HaEmek resident, Aviela Singsit.

Despite their own more clearly formed opinions, both Chongloi and Kipgen concurred with this assessment. “Some of us B’nei Menashe in Tiberias study in Yeshivas and some of us work,” Chongloi said. “We don’t have much time to socialize. Our main concern is to follow Judaism, which is something we all agree on, and we prefer to concentrate on that rather than on politics.” To which Kipgen added: “In my social group of senior citizens, I haven’t encountered any heated discussions of the reforms. We have a club that attends Torah lessons and conducts various activities, but no one has much interest in the judicial reform issue.”

Is this just true of older B’nei Menashe in Israel? Apparently not. Aviela Singsit, 52, from Migdal ha-Emek, in Israel since 2014, was speaking for others our Newsletter talked to when she said, “I have to admit that I’m quite ignorant about the judicial reforms and their implications. It’s an area that’s beyond me and that I don’t feel qualified to comment on.” And many even younger and more Israelified B’nei Menashe seem to share her feelings, such as Osnat Lotzem, 22, whose family came to Kiryat Arba came Manipur when she was a small girl. “To be honest,” she told us, “I’m not really interested in these things, and I don’t have the time for them. I’m both studying and working, and I have to help my mother run the household. I can only hope everything will all turn out all right.”

Although some commentators have compared the situation in Israel to that in other countries where democracy is imperiled by as drift toward authoritarianism, such as the Law and Justice Party’s Poland, Viktor Orban’s Hungary, and Narendra Modi’s India, none of our interlocutors saw an Israel-India analogy. “Both Israel and India are democracies,” says Aharon Chongloi, “but you can’t compare the two. India is so much bigger so that issues that affect one part of the population may mean nothing to another. Take the current situation in Manipur: to the average Indian it’s of no importance. Maybe that’s why Modi has not even found it worth mentioning. [This was said before the Indian prime minister Modi finally spoke out about anti-Kuki atrocities in Manipur this week.] In Israel, every issue affects everyone.”

Mangsat Kipgen thought, too, as did others we spoke to, that “India and Israel are two very different countries. They’re similar in some ways and in others not. India has so many more races, religions, and communities. The prime minister of India isn’t bothered by the conflict in Manipur, but no Israeli prime minister could overlook something like that here. In India, the conflict will only grow worse. In Israel, we’ll be able to look back on all this one day and say to ourselves that we got through it. There will always be new problems, but we’ll weather this one. K. T. Amos also thought that “India is so big and diverse compared to Israel, in which we all speak one language compared to the dozens spoken in India. That makes it easier for us here to stand as one in the end . I wouldn't worry too much about Israel because our economy and military are so strong. The only similarity with India is that both governments have chosen to be silent about Manipur.”

The situation in Manipur was on the minds of nearly everyone our Newsletter spoke to, more indeed than were the legal reforms in Israel. In a way, this is natural. Many B’nei Menashe in Israel have close relatives in Manipur for whom their concern is great and identify with the Kukis of that state in their struggle to defend themselves against Meitei violence. Yet at the same time, one cannot but be struck by how many of Israel’s B’nei Menashe do not yet seem to feel sufficiently at home in it to trust their own judgments about its politics, or even to have such judgments at all. Hopefully, the current crisis will make many of them react as did Levana Chongloi, 29, who has been in Israel since 2012. “It’s a good thing you brought this subject up with me,” she told us. “It makes me want to learn more.”



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