Regev, Tamano-Shata, In Knesset Showdown Over B’nei Menashe
(December 23) An empty Knesset floor did not prevent Likud MK and former cabinet minister Miri Regev, and current Minister of Immigration and Absorption Pnina Tamano-Shata, from sending sparks flying when they faced off this week over the issue of B’nei Menashe immigration to Israel. Although the confrontation was a prearranged one, set for a December 22 plenary session in which Tamano-Shata had promised to reply to a Parliamentary Question filed by Regev weeks earlier, it had all the emotion of a spontaneous clash.
The query put by Regev to Tamano-Shata concerned the Israeli government’s longstanding policy of placing the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah in the exclusive hands of the Jerusalem-based NGO Shavei Israel. Why asked Regev, were the B’nei Menashe, alone of all immigrants to Israel, being made “the prisoners of a private organization?
And why, especially, were they subjected to such an arrangement when this organization had been repeatedly accused of abusing the monopoly given it? Was she aware, Tamano-Shata was asked by Regev, of the charges of corrupt practices made against Shavei Israel? Why was The Jewish Agency not involved in the Aliyah of the B’nei Menashe, as it was with other groups of immigrants?
Tamano-Shata then took the podium to reply. After praising the B’nei Menashe for being a “wonderful community,” she stated that seeking the help of NGOs in the Aliyah process was not unusual. Although she was aware of the complaints against it, Shavei Israel, she said, was the sole organization involved with bringing B’nei Menashe to Israel because no other body had asked to participate in public tenders related to their Aliyah.
As the first minister of immigration to seek to involve the Jewish Agency in the process alongside Shavei, she was happy to report that it was now “studying the subject,” and she hoped that it would play a greater role in the future.
It was now Regev’s turn to follow up on her original question. Speaking with evident passion, she held up a batch of letters that were, she said, but a few of the complaints against Shavei Israel that had come to her attention.
Many of these, she declared, had been originally written to the minister herself. Was Tamano-Shata, she asked, aware of them? Did she know that they included dozens of accusations that Shavei had played favorites with B’nei Menashe candidates for Aliyah, accepting those that had curried favor with it and rejecting those who had refused to obey its dictates? That it had often resorted to threats and intimidation in order to keep the B’nei Menashe community under its control? That one letter even accused it of covering up the rape of a B’nei Menashe widow’s young daughter by one of its cronies? Why hadn’t the Jewish Agency intervened in such a case? Why had the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption let the B’nei Menashe community be Shavei Israel’s plaything?
As per Knesset protocol, the last word was reserved for the minister. Visibly stung and angry, she retorted that the charges against Shavei Israel were unproven. “If anyone has a complaint,” she declared, “let them go to the police!” It wasn’t her job, she said, to investigate such things. Shavei Israel had been operating on its own for long years before her term of office and had amassed “a fund of experience.” Nevertheless, she said, no one had done more than she had to bring The Jewish Agency into the picture. “There’s nothing to any of your insinuations!” she exclaimed to Regev.
With this, the brief but fiery exchange ended. Contacted by our Newsletter, Degel Menashe’s chairman of the board Hillel Halkin reacted to it by saying: “The minister’s reply to Miri Regev was at its best evasive and at its worst simply untrue. Her claim that no organization other than Shavei Israel has sought to play a role in the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah by participating in a public tender is doubly false. In the first place, there has never been any such tender. And secondly, last June the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption specifically asked the Finance Ministry to award Shavei Israel a 10 million shekel contract for B’nei Menashe Aliyah without a tender and then requested that the matter be kept a secret. We have the documentation to prove this. How the minister could have said what she did with a straight face is beyond me.”
Halkin also scoffed at the minister’s call to the B’nei Menashe to take their grievances against Shavei Israel to the Israeli police. These grievances, he said, citing the case of alleged rape, had to do with Shavei’s behavior in India, not Israel. “If the minister didn’t realize that the appeal of the raped girl’s mother was sent to her from Manipur, she must never have read it in the first place,” Halkin said. “And in that case, one can only assume that she never bothered to read any of the other letters sent to her by Shavei Israel’s B’nei Menashe victims, either.”
Meanwhile, our Newsletter has learned from Miri Regev’s office that, following the Knesset debate, Regev was approached by Tamano-Shata with the request that she help arrange a Zoom meeting between her and the heartbroken mother so that she might hear the latter’s story. No confirmation of this could be obtained from the ministry.