Mood is Mixed As 250 B’nei Menashe Leave India for Israel
(December 10) Joy, sorrow, hope, and anger mingled in the B’nei Menashe communities of Mizoram and Manipur this week as some 250 of their members left for Israel under an unprecedented cloak of secrecy.
The secrecy, more befitting a military operation than a journey from one open society to another, was striking. Up to the moment of leaving, the immigrants to Israel were instructed by Shavei Israel, the Jerusalem-based organization in charge of their Aliyah, not to reveal to anyone the details of their departure or their trip – most of which were apparently kept from them, too.
“In the past,” our Newsletter was told by Demsat Yosef Haokip, former vice-chairman of the Beit Shalom synagogue of Churachandpur, “each time a group was selected for Aliyah, it was an occasion for rejoicing. The community would always throw a big farewell party for those leaving. Festive meals were organized by the whole congregation. This time it’s been different. We’ve heard that the group will be flying from Manipur to New Delhi on December 10 and to Israel on the 15th , but beyond that we know nothing. There haven’t even been any private celebrations. I know of only one case in which some guests were invited to a farewell meal, and even then they were restricted to a few relatives.”
No one is sure why the current Aliyah has been conducted in such a hush-hush manner. One theory is that Shavei Israel feared criticism being voiced by B’nei Menashe who were not put on the current Aliyah list and are no longer afraid to express their resentment as they would have been in the past. “People have been frustrated for a long time,” said Nechemiah Lhouvum, a B’nei Menashe Council adviser. “It’s been a dictatorial system in which Shavei decided whom to take to Israel and whom not. It abused Aliyah to control us. Everyone knew it but nobody talked about it. Now that there is hope because of Degel Menashe and the new B’nei Menashe Council, the fear of Shavei is subsiding. Shavei knows that people have a lot of questions, and it doesn’t want to give them an opportunity to raise them in public.”
Ovadia Touthang of Churachandpur agreed. “There is a lot of anger at Shavei in the community,” he told our Newsletter. “People are calling for fair play. Shavei knows that if this is allowed to spread, its days are over.”
The feeling that there has not been fair play is widespread. “Of course, I feel happy for those who are going,” said Demsat Yosef Haokip. “I’m just wondering when my turn will come. I’ve been with the B’nei Menashe since 1992. I’ve seen many people who joined the community long after me depart for Israel. No one can tell me why they’ve been chosen and I haven’t been. The whole system has to be changed.”
In Mizoram, too, hard questions are being asked. Leah Renthlei, a 50 year-old widow who lives in Aizawl with her 26-year-old son and two daughters, aged 24 and 18, is one of those asking them. “In 2016,” she relates, “we were called for an Aliyah interview by Shavei Israel. We passed the first two stages and were then told by our interviewer in the third stage, a rabbi from Israel whom we had to speak to through a translator, that we had failed. No explanation was given us of why we had and no chance to try again. I feel that there has to be a better way of doing things. But we can’t criticize Shavei. If we do, the consequences can be unpleasant.”
“There’s always a feeling of hope when someone leaves for Israel,” Leah Renthlei continued. “Everyone thinks: maybe my turn will come next. But even when your turn comes, it’s not always a happy occasion. Take my sister Shalom, who is leaving for Israel today with her 24-year-old son but has had to leave a daughter behind. They also were invited for the 2016 interviews, and she and her son made it through all three stages. But one daughter, who later died, was sick at home with tuberculosis and the other one had to look after her that day and missed the interview. The family begged Shavei to set another date for her, but it refused. Now, they have had to leave her behind. What should have been a joyous moment for them has turned out to be a very sad one.”
Just as sad is the case of another Aizawl resident, 26-year-old Yo’el Lalmalsawmna Chhakchhuak. Yo’el also passed the 2016 interviews, and subsequently married a woman from the B’nei Menashe community. He and his wife Dana have two children, 3-year-old Yosef and 8-month-old Yonah. Yet when in November Shavei published its list of those chosen for Aliyah, Dana was not on it. “I asked Shavei officials why she wasn’t,” Yo’el relates, “and was told that she hadn’t been interviewed. ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ I asked them. ‘Divorce her!’ they said. ‘Take my children to Israel and leave their mother in Mizoram?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ they said. ‘Maybe sometime in the future she can be interviewed and selected for Aliyah and then you can marry her again.’”
Yo’el declined the offer and chose to remain with Dana in Mizoram. His unmarried brother Mawizuola, who was also on the list, announced that he will stick by his brother’s side and not go, either. The two now face a difficult economic situation. The owners of a taxi business, they closed it and sold their vehicles in preparation for their Aliyah and will now have to start all over.
The brothers’ parents, on the other hand, having been chosen by Shavei for Aliyah too, decided to part with their sons and leave for Israel. “I know the family well,” another Aizawl resident, Elisheva Khiangte, told our Newsletter. “The parents left with a heavy heart. Their grief would have suited a funeral better. I feel bad for them. But Shavei Israel has told us not to despair, because it says there will be another Aliyah after Passover.”