On Hunger and Hypocrisy: An Editorial
Updated: Sep 4, 2020
Recently, Degel Menashe undertook its third round of food relief for the B’nei Menashe affected by the
Covid-19 pandemic in Manipur and Mizoram. Round 3 was supported by the same American Jewish organizations that gave generously to make the first two rounds possible: the Jewish Federation of Long Beach, the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, and Scattered Among the Nations.
The first two rounds went off with hardly a hitch. In each of them, over 40 tons of rice were distributed to more than 600 families. Appreciative thank-yous, some of which can be read in the “Letters” section of this Website, came from many congregations, including northeast India’s largest, Beith Shalom of Churachandpur. Many families slept better at night because they no longer needed to worry about going hungry.
Then, three weeks ago, came a rude awakening. Just as final preparations were being made for the third round, word reached Degel Menashe’s Relief Committee on Covid-19 that Beith Shalom, which had agreed to serve as a food distribution center in Rounds 1 and 2, was now refusing to do so.
Why was this decision taken? Beith Shalom has long been a bastion of Shavei Israel, and Meital Singson, Shavei’s community organizer in Churachandpur, having earlier declared her support for the relief program, now said that she had not received “permission” from Shavei’s chairman Michael Freund to let Beith Shalom participate a third time. Degel Menashe’s chairman-of-the-board Hillel Halkin immediately called Freund and was told by him that the reversal was caused by his having learned that mask wearing and social distancing were not properly observed at Beith Shalom in Rounds 1 and 2.. In a follow-up email, Freund wrote Halkin:
“Meital informed me that she has been questioned by officers from the Special
Investigation Branch and was told in no uncertain terms that opening the center at
this time would be a violation of the restrictions. They also told her that they were
aware of the previous distributions, claimed to have photographs of them, and sternly
warned her against any public gatherings.”
Quite apart from the fact that Shavei Israel does not own Beith Shalom’s premises, in which it merely rents a few rooms, this was absurd for two reasons. In the first place, there is no such thing in India as a “Special Investigation Branch.” There is a body called the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau and known as the SIB, but it is a counter-intelligence organization dealing with matters of national security, and health regulations do not fall within its jurisdiction.
Secondly, on August 20, just as all this was taking place, Shavei Israel posted photographs of Freund and his chief assistant Tsvi Khaute meeting with Immigration Minister Penina Tamano-Shata in which they alone, of all those present, were not wearing masks. Nor was Khaute distancing himself from the minister, who fell ill several days later with Corona.
Michael Freund and Tsvi Khaute with Penina Tamano-Shata.
The hypocrisy of this was staggering. Shavei Israel was obstructing food relief in Manipur under the pretense of defending Corona guidelines while its leaders were openly flouting them in Israel!
Nor was this all. At the same time that this was happening, a concerted effort was being made by Shavei Israel and its representatives in Manipur to oust members of the Relief Committee from their congregations. In Churachandpur’s Shavei-controlled Congregation Ohel Menashe, Relief Committee member Yosef Changloi was summarily informed of his expulsion. In Beith Shalom, Ohaliav Haokip, secretary of the Relief Committee, along with three other members, was faced with an expulsion vote too, although to the credit of the synagogue’s executive, the motion failed to pass. Other relief workers received threats, too, and the B’nei Menashe of Manipur were warned to accept no further aid.
The results of Round 3, in which the number of relief recipients was nearly halved, testified to the partial success of Shavei Israel’s efforts. Several large B’nei Menashe communities told their members to stay away from the food distribution, while in other places the response was limited. In a word, a large number of B’nei Menashe families were denied needed food by an organization that claims to represent them and to have their interests at heart!
A particularly galling aspect of this is that many of these families have been reduced to poverty not only by Corona but by Shavei’s own policies. It was Shavei that told them to sell their homes, lands, and rice fields in their native villages and come to Churachandpur because their Aliyah to Israel was imminent – and now, years later, with Aliyah still an unfulfilled hope, they have been turned into day laborers burdened with rental and food bills, their jobs lost to the pandemic, their children unable to attend school for lack of money to pay tuition fees.
Shavei Israel has accused Degel Menashe of “political motives” in undertaking its food relief campaign. This is laughable. Who, one must ask, is being political: Degel Menashe for seeking to come to the aid of hungry families, or Shavei Israel for seeking to block that aid because it considers the B’nei Menashe community to be its private property on which no one is allowed to trespass?. One is reminded of the story about King Solomon and the two mothers: the false mother, you will recall, was the one who would rather the child were cut in half than lose her proprietary rights over it.
An innocent outside observer might wonder what gives Shavei Israel the power to make its followers spurn badly needed food relief when it is offered them by their own brethren. We inside observers know the answer: it is Aliyah. As long as Shavei Israel continues to have a monopoly over the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah – as long as it and it alone draws up the Aliyah lists – as long as it, unchallenged, can put whomever it wants on them and keep whomever it wants off of them – it will go on being feared and, by many, obeyed out of fear. Aliyah is the key. It cannot be entrusted just to Shavei.
Degel Menashe Project Manager