New BMC Chairman Hopes to Visit Israel Soon To Conduct Aliyah Talks
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
(November 12) In an interview with our Newsletter, Lalam Hangshing, the newly elected chairman of the revived B’nei Menashe Council, expressed his intention of visiting Israel in the near future in order to discuss issues surrounding B’nei Menashe Aliyah. He believes, he said, that the BMC has much to contribute to streamlining the Aliyah process and taking it out of the exclusive hands of Shavei Israel, the Jerusalem-based private organization that has controlled it until now.
The 63-year-old Hangshing was chosen to be the BMC’s new chairman in elections held in Churachandpur on November 5 with the participation of all 24 of the B’nei Menashe congregations of Manipur. Hangshing, the son of Aviel Hangshing, one of the founders of the Judaism movement in northeast India, has spent most of his life away from Manipur in various posts in the Indian civil service before retiring two years ago from the last of them, Chief Commissioner of Taxes and Excise for Northeast India. Here are the questions we asked him and
What made you, a relative outsider to B’nei Menashe life in Manipur, decide to run for the chairmanship of the BMC? Did you have doubts about it or about whether you would be accepted by the community?
The BMC was in quite a mess. In fact, it had become totally non-functional and a mere adjunct of Shavei Israel. New elections for it were long overdue. There were members of the community who felt strongly about holding them, because they were aware both of the BMC’s symbolic importance and of the need for it to be revived as an umbrella organization dealing with all aspects of B’nei Menashe life. They approached me and asked me to run because they thought I was the only figure who could muster broad support. Perhaps my having been away for so many years on government postings, as well as the fact that I am a declared supporter of neither Shavei Israel nor Degel Menashe, caused me to be regarded as a neutral, unbiased person around which a consensus could form.
I was initially hesitant. I made it clear that I didn’t want to be the cause of an acrimonious split in the community and that I didn’t regard the elections as a Shavei Israel vs. Degel Menashe contest. My position is that there is room for more than one or even two organizations in the B’nei Menashe community and that the BMC needs to be independent and not identified with any of them. It needs to be a forum of appeal against any injustice or unfairness in community affairs.
Where did Shavei Israel stand in regard to elections?
Shavei made repeated attempts to sabotage the electoral process. My impression was that there were individuals in Shavei who feared losing their grip over the community if elections were held and the BMC ceased to be their personal property. When they realized that they couldn’t prevent elections from taking place, they tried to influence their outcome by disenfranchising the four congregations that followed the Ashkenazi liturgy. [Editor’s note: Shavei Israel has insisted for years that all B’nei Menashe congregations practice the Sephardi rites of prayer and has ostracized those who refused to go along with this.] They knew the four would never vote for a Shavei candidate. When this was put to a free and fair vote of the electoral delegates, however, the four were seated. The principle was firmly established that no congregation should be excluded from the community and I trust that this will never be questioned again.
Now that the Ashkenazi congregations have rejoined the BMC, do you think that the Sephardi-Ashkenazi rift that has plagued the community for so many years has finally been laid to rest?
I certainly hope so. It should never have existed or been an issue. It was wrong and vengeful of Shavei Israel to have excommunicated the four communities in the first place.
The elections were conducted by secret ballot. Was there fear on the part of the delegates and those who sent them that Shavei would retaliate if they did not vote for its candidates – for example, by striking them from future Aliyah lists?
Yes. That was obvious. Shavei s monopoly on the Aliyah process has given it a stranglehold over the community. But the flip side is that Shavei has become the object of more and more disgruntlement and grievances over the years, and this was apparent during the elections, too. The results would have been the same with open ballots.
There have been rumors that now, after the elections, Shavei’s supporters intend to stage a “coup” of some sort and win back control of the BMC. Do you think this is a possibility?
Rumors of such a thing are rife. But Shavei has neither the numbers nor the legal arguments on its side. Let’s wait and see. There are Shavei supporters who have a conscience, too – they just seeming to be fighting against it. Basically, they’re worried that the Aliyah lists, which until now have been drawn up by Shavei alone, will become subject to public review.
Now that the BMC has been re-established as an independent body, what are your plans for it? What do you hope it can accomplish for the community?
It should and must serve the community as a focal point. It should be a forum of discussion and debate concerning the community’s activities and its roadmap for the future, anda court of appeals for any dispute between its different factions. The BMC should serve as a bridge between the community in India and Israel and represent the community in its dealing with the Israeli authorities.
How do you see that affecting the Aliyah process? Do you intend to seek a relationship with the bodies in Israel involved in this process, such as the Ministry of Immigration and the Jewish Agency?
Definitely. Shavei’s days as the sole arbiter of who gets to make Aliyah and who doesn’t are over. There is much the BMC can contribute to streamlining the Aliyah process and making it fairer. A direct relationship with the relevant bodies in Israel is a must. I intend to visit Israel as soon as possible to institute it.
So far we’ve been talking only about Manipur. What about Mizoram?
There has been a disconnect between the B’nei Menashe communities of Manipur and Mizoram that I’m still trying to understand. There’s no doubt that the BMC should include Mizoram too and that Mizoram should be represented in it. It’s one of the first issues I want to take up with our new Advisory Board when it meets to talk about our vision for the future.
It’s now official that a group of over 250 B’nei Menashe will be arriving in Israel under Shavei Israel’s auspices on December 10. Does this strengthen Shavei by reinforcing the belief that it alone can bring B’nei Menashe to Israel?
Perhaps. But there are already murmurs of discontent over the unfairness of the selection. There is also unhappiness over the distribution between Manipur and Mizoram, because although over three-quarters of the B’nei Menashe of northeast India live in Manipur, it accounts for barely fifty percent of the group. People are complaining about the lack of transparency, which means that nobody knows why some are on the list and some aren’t.
With the election of the new BMC, it seems that a real revolution has taken place in the B’nei Menashe community of Manipur. Do you think it has? Is the era of fear of Shavei and incurring its disapproval over? Has its grip over the B’nei Menashe community now been broken?
Not yet. Its grip will continue as long as it controls the Aliyah process. Resentment over the way it has been using this process to exert power has been growing, but Shavei needs to be brought to heel. This will happen only when the BMC is given a role in Aliyah. There should be direct communication between it and the authorities in Israel on all matters concerning the B’nei Menashe.