Shavei Israel Again Seeks To Block Food Relief

(June 24) It all began with an email received by Degel Menashe a month ago from a B’nei Menashe correspondent in Mizoram’s capital of Aizawl, whose name, for obvious reasons, we will refrain from disclosing. “As you may be aware,” the letter writer wrote, “the entire B’nei Menashe community here is in need of urgent aid.”


This SOS was referring to the lockdown imposed on the city because of rocketing Covid19 infection rates, which had spread from central India to outlying northeastern regions of the country like Mizoram, until then a relatively Covid-free area. The figures speak for themselves. In mid-February, Mizoram saw several days with zero cases of Corona. By the end of April, there were 150-200 cases per day. On May 25, that month’s high of 315 was recorded. By mid-June this had risen to 350, and June 22 witnessed a new record of 430. At a time when the rest of India was beginning to see a drop in the disease, the situation in the Indian Northeast was only getting worse.


Degel Menashe requested further information. Our letter writer provided it:


“The full lockdown has been particularly detrimental to our community, most of which has not finished middle school and is extremely indigent. Since the lockdown strictly forbids leaving one’s home, its effects have been greatest for the kind of day laborers that most of us are. Others are small shopkeepers who have been forced to shut down. Due to the restriction of hospital services to all but the most critical cases, many B’nei Menashe who suffer from chronic illnesses have had to go without treatment. The government has been concerned only with issues of bare survival with no regard for the livelihood of daily wage earners. The effects of the lockdown have led to intense mental and emotional strain in the members of our community."


Degel Menashe wrote back with an offer of aid. To this our correspondent replied that, even if aid was sent, “As much as we would want it to reach everyone, especially the most needy among us, only a few, no matter how dire their circumstances, will be brave enough to accept it due to their fear of Shavei Israel. Many B’nei Menashe in Aizawl who accepted non-Shavei aid a year ago [when Degel Menashe distributed over 50 tons of rice in Mizoram and Manipur] now say they are sorry they did so. Some have gone to the extreme of saying that had they known that it would incur Shavei’s displeasure, they would have vomited up the rice they ate!”


Although Shavei has offered no assistance of its own to hard-pressed B’nei Menashe, just as it offered none a year ago at the time of the first Covid19 surge, it clearly has been able to frighten them into refusing it from others. A second email, sent to the Jewish Agency by another member of the Aizawl community who will also remain anonymous, confirms this. It read:


“I would like to clarify a matter of grave urgency. Given the straits in which the B’nei Menashe community in Aizawl finds itself, I would like the Jewish Agency to tell us whether it is permissible to received tsedakah [charitable aid] from organizations or bodies besides Shavei Israel.


“This may seem an odd question, but it is actually one of grave consequence. Recently, Degel Menashe has offered to send us emergency funds to help us after two months of a grueling lockdown. However, we are being told by Shavei functionaries to refuse this aid and warned that taking it will result in our being blacklisted from upcoming Aliyah lists.


“Could the Jewish Agency please let us know if we are indeed supposed to starve rather than accept help from organizations other than Shavei Israel? Will accepting it indeed lead to our being kept from making Aliyah?"


Asked for his response to this letter, Shay Felber, the director of the Jewish Agency’s Aliyah Department, wrote to Degel Menashe chairman Hillel Halkin, “I would think it evident that whoever is in need of aid should be able to receive it without feeling threatened.” At the same time, Felber declared, since the Agency has not yet officially assumed the role in the Aliyah process recently assigned to it by an Israeli government decision, “We can’t intervene directly at the moment. If you would like me to turn to Shavei Israel, inform them of the letter that was sent to us, and stress that, as far as we are concerned, whoever needs assistance should not feel frightened to receive it, I will.”


Halkin requested Felber to do so. For the moment, however, Shavei’s announced boycott of Degel Menashe’s proposed food relief remains effective. Our Newsletter’s sources in Aizawl have told it that of an estimated 60 B’nei Menashe families in the city, only a quarter are prepared to receive Degel Menashe’s food relief. Of these, six belong to the anti-Shavei B’nei Menashe Council. They and the BMC are all that remains of an organization, successfully revived now in Manipur, that was once the representative voice of all the B’nei Menashe of northeast India before Shavei Israel silenced it.


“There are 16 families left in all of Mizoram that still adhere to the BMC,” we were told by Mrs. Biaki Hauhnar of Aizawl. “We’ve been steadily losing members,because the only way to get to Israel is to join Shavei. We’ve remained loyal to the legacy of Rabbi Eliyahu Avichayil, who was the founding father of our community. When Shavei took over and pushed him into retirement in 2003, we tried working together with them, but they simply disregarded us. My oldest son Dolev, who today lives in Bet El, is the only one of us to have made it to Israel. He was in one of the last groups of olim organized by Rabbi Avichayil. Since then, Shavei has ignored us.”


Biaki Hauhnar with a grandchild.

Hauhnar and her husband Nadav, who serves as BMC chairman in Mizoram, attend the old B’nei Menashe synagogue, the community’s original one, in the Aizawl neighborhood of Dawrpui. Although it has remained a BMC stronghold, “nowadays,” she says, “we have difficulty even getting together a minyan [prayer quorum]. The situation isn’t good, but we’re hopeful that things will change. The BMC has always worked for the community and will try to continue in whatever capacity it can.”


Another BMC holdout, and member of the Dawrpui congregation, Elisheva Zodingliani Khiangte, is on the same blacklist. “I was ready to leave for Israel as far back as 1991,” she told us. “That was the year," she went on, "we joined the B’nei Menashe and my sons were circumcised, and as soon as they were, we applied for passports. I never knew I would have to wait this long.”

Elisheva Khiangte.

Degel Menashe is now about to send an initial sum of money to Mizoram for food relief. Meanwhile, our Newsletter has learned, the B’nei Menashe of Aizawl have suffered their first two cases of Corona. Although both were of individuals, one elderly and one young, who had prior medical conditions and had to be hospitalized, the two of them are now said to have been discharged and to be recovering.