Ministry of Immigration–Jewish Agency Team Visits Manipur and Mizoram
(June 23) It can now be told. After having been asked “for security reasons” to keep its visit under wraps until it returned to Israel, our Newsletter can reveal that a joint Ministry of Immigration and Absorption-Jewish Agency fact-finding mission spent the week of Thursday, June 9--Tuesday June 15 in northeast India. Headed by Almog Moscowitz, a senior advisor at the Ministry, the team included Ephraim Nagosse of the Ministry and Ilai Oz and Yair Kannai of the Agency.
The mission was in Manipur, principally in Churachandpur, from the 9th to the 12th of June, and in Mizoram’s capital of Aizawl from the 11th on. Its supposed purpose to assess the situation of the B’nei Menashe community in the two Indian states; to review repeated accusations that the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israeli has systematically abused its administration of B’nei Menashe Aliyah to Israel; and to make recommendations for reforming the Aliyah process.
As such, the team’s trip to India was ostensibly a victory for Shavei’s critics, and especially for Degel Menashe, which has been calling for such a fact-finding mission for the past two years. And yet though encouraged by the team’s presence, our Newsletter has learned, the non- and anti-Shavei forces in Manipur and Mizoram were disappointed with its performance. Rather than function as an objective commission of inquiry, they say, it behaved throughout its visit as a guest of Shavei Israel that was mainly intent on pleasing its host. Shavei’s representatives and supporters never left its side and its schedule was closely coordinated with Shavei while all others were kept in the dark until the last minute.
The team’s pro-Shavei bias, reports our Manipur correspondent Rivka Dimngel, was evident even before it arrived in Manipur, on its way to which it was accompanied by Edith Blaustein, Shavei Israel’s deputy director-general. (No one in the non- or anti-Shavei camp was even informed of the team’s departure until shortly beforehand, let alone asked to travel with it.) And as soon as the team touched down at Manipur’s Imphal Airport, Dimngel writes, “it was whisked away by Shavei representatives and ushered straight to a grand reception at Churachandpur’s Beit Shalom synagogue that was organized by Shavei in its honor and to which non-Shavei members were not invited.”
The reception ceremony, Dimngnel continued, lasted three-and-a-half hours, after which a single hour and a half was allotted to a meeting with a mixed group of non- and anti-Shavei plaintiffs. These included three officials of the independent B’nei Menashe Council and spokesmen for four communities that had been barred from Shavei Israel’s Aliyah lists because of their adherence, against Shavei’s dictates, to the Ashkenazi rite of prayer.
This meeting, according to Dimngel, “did not go as well as was hoped for. It was all very rushed and most of those present were given no time to air their grievances. This was a huge disappointment, because they had been waiting for this moment ever since Passover.” (The fact-finding team’s trip had originally been scheduled for right after the Passover holiday and had been postponed.) One of the few who got to speak briefly was Sarah Baite, Shavei’s attempt to hush up the 2016 rape of whose daughter has been widely debated in the B’nei Menashe community in recent months. Baite’s account, Dimgnel reports, stirred “a lively discussion” among the team’s members, who responded, however, not by condemning Shavei but by stressing the importance of “peace and harmony” in the B’nei Menashe community.
On the evening of June 11, after Shabbat, the fact-finding team also traveled to the Churachandpur suburb of Pejang for a group session, to which it was escorted by Shavei Israel’s second-in-command Tsvi Khaute, with yet another congregation denied Aliyah by Shavei. (No one from the B’nei Menashe Council, or any other non-Shavei faction, was allowed to guide the team at any point, much less sit in on its meetings with Shavei supporters and activists.) The team members listened to addresses by the Pejang congregation’s chairman, Ya’akov Chungkhohao Haokip, and by executive board member Hosea Kipgen, both of whom expressed their gratitude for having been taken notice of after long years of Shavei neglect. Turning to Khaute, Haokip said, “In all your many trips to Manipur, you never bothered to visit us even once until now.” .
Reactions to the fact-finding team’s visit among non- and anti-Shavei forces, Dimngel writes, were mixed. On the one hand, it raised their morale by making them feel that that they were no longer “invisible.” Yet on the other hand, almost all of the team’s time was put at Shavei’s disposal and there was a sense that the delegates from Israel were merely going through the motions of hearing the case against Shavei when they had already decided in the latter’s favor. Tellingly, they let themselves be freely photographed at Shavei-sponsored events, while asking to have no pictures taken when meeting with the other side.
From Manipur, the team moved on to Mizoram, where on Monday, June 13 it met with a group of “refuseniks” who had been denied Aliyah by Shavei. This group, too, was given barely an hour of the delegation’s time. The meeting took place at Aizawl’s Shalom Tzion synagogue, the oldest Jewish house of worship in Aizawl, which remained in B’nei Menashe Council hands even after Shavei, whose own synagogue is called Khovevei Tzion, took control of the community.
The team was greeted by the BMC’s Mizoram chairman, Gamliel Thomte, who related the synagogue’s history. BMC treasurer Nadav Hauhnar then spoke about the rift between the BMC and Shavei Israel, which has resulted in no BMC members from Mizoram making Aliyah since the early 2000s. Only those who deserted the BMC and Shalom Tzion for Shavei and Khovevei Tzion, the treasurer said, were eligible for Shavei’s Aliyah lists.
This point was driven home when BMC member Ben Tzion Hauhnar told the visitors that, though he was one of the pioneers of the Judaism movement in northeast India, in which he was active starting in the mid-1970s, his support for the BMC has kept him from reaching Israel for the past near-50 years. Another woman, Elisheva Khiangte, described having been turned away by Shavei from all its Aliyah interviews despite her documented seniority in the community. Aliyah refusenik Leah Renthlei, whose two sisters live in Israel, told of being punished by Shavei for the “crime” of having extended hospitality to Israeli tourists without first having received the organization’s permission.
The delegation, having been told by Shavei that the anti-Shavei plaintiffs were not sincere about their Judaism and were simply using it to get to Israel, asked them whether this was in fact true. All vehemently denied it. BMC chairman Thomte pointed out that, on the contrary, any B’nei Menashe whose sole motive was Aliyah would have left the BMC camp for Shavei long ago, as indeed many did. BMC treasurer Hauhnar stated emotionally that he was comfortably-off in Mizoram and had no economic motive for making Aliyah at all. “If it’s God’s will,” he told the delegates from Israel, “I’ll move to Israel tomorrow, even though I’ll have to begin everything from scratch there. If it isn’t, I’ll remain faithful to Judaism here in Mizoram to the end of my life.”
Asaf Renthlei, an educator and leader in the Aizawl community who is not affiliated with Shavei, summed up the team’s visit as follows:
“The visit was positive in the sense that, until now, people like Leah and myself had been told over and over by Shavei functionaries and proxies that we had no chance of making Aliyah unless we cut off our relations with Shavei rivals like Degel Menashe. Following the visit, they’ve changed their tune and are now telling us that there’s no problem with our Aliyah, which Shavei Israel will see to along with the Aliyah of others.
“Clearly, this change of tone was due to the delegation from Israel’s stressing that it would not allow discrimination in the Aliyah process. Nevertheless, it was disappointing that the delegation refused to say whether it would recommend reconsidering Shavei Israel’s role in this process . If anything, its use of Shavei staff to shepherd it around reinforced much of the B’nei Menashe public’s perception of Shavei’s strength and legitimacy. It can only be hoped that its profession of neutrality will be reflected in its report.”
The delegation set out on its return trip to Israel the following day.