Shavei Moves To Again Assert Control Of B’nei Menashe Aliyah
(October 28) As attention shifted from the 250 B’nei Menashe who arrived in Israel earlier this month, the last of 722 cleared for Aliyah in 2015, to future groups yet to come, the private Jerusalem-based organization Shavei Israel has acted quickly to assert its continued control over these groups’ composition. Despite past assurances from officials in the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption that they would from now on curb Shavei’s unlimited freedom to choose or reject whatever Aliyah candidates it pleased, there was no sign of these promises being kept.
Shavei’s attempt to create incontrovertible facts on the ground started with its B’nei Menashe Coordinator Tsvi Khaute’s visit to Manipur in late September, when the group of 250 was organizing to leave for Israel.
While there, Khaute distributed a “Benei [sic!] Menashe Shavei Israel Aliyah Interview Candidates Form for the year 5782/2021” to most of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe congregations. This form had a line for each candidate with space for his or her name, sex, date of birth, marital status, Indian ID card number, and date of embracing Judaism. At its bottom was space for the signature and seal of the congregation’s Chairman and Secretary.
Notably, Khaute did not distribute the forms to the four congregations of Petach Tikva, Pejang, Saikul, and Phalbung, all of which have been at odds with Shavei Israel for years and are on its “Aliyah blacklist.” The main reason for Shavei’s boycott of them has been their refusal to adopt the Sefardic rite of prayer in place of the Ashkenazi one now practiced by Manipur’s other B’nei Menashe communities. (Originally introduced in the 1980s by Rabbi Eliyahu Avichayi, the original bringer of Orthodox Judaism to Manipur, the Ashkenazi rite was banned by Shavei as a demonstration of its power after it won an organizational battle for control of the B’nei Menashe community in 2003-4.)
“Khaute’s flagrant discrimination against these four communities, which continues long-standing Shavei policy, is appalling,” said Yitzhak Thangjom, Executive Director, Degel Menashe, in speaking to our Newsletter.
“Yet it’s not half as appalling as is the fact of these forms being handed out in the first place. By what right does Shavei take the matter of B’nei Menashe Aliyah in the years ahead entirely into its own hands and again make itself the sole arbiter of who in the community will make Aliyah and who won’t? Who gave it such authority? Where is the Israeli government? Where is the Jewish Agency? How can they let Shavei get away with this?”
On the heels of Khaute’s visit, Shavei sent an emissary, Yehuda Singson, from Israel to Manipur in order to give lessons in Judaism that will prepare the next batch of Aliyah candidates chosen by Shavei Israel for interviews with Israeli rabbis. These interviews, traditionally held to certify the candidates’ eligibility, have long been considered farcical, since the rabbis and the interviewees speak no common language and communicate via a Shavei translator who can put whatever words he wishes in their mouths. “They’re a joke,” says Rivka Chong Lhungdim of the Israeli town of Sderot, who has been through one of them herself. “There are those who deserve to pass but do not make it to Israel, those who deserve to fail but do, and those who do even though they were never interviewed at all. In the end, Shavei takes who its wants.”
An unpleasant incident took place shortly after Singson’s arrival in Manipur on October 22. The day was a Friday, and B’nei Menashe Council general secretary Ohaliav Haokip and Council advisor Nehemia Lhouvum paid a call on Singson at Churachandpur’s Beit Shalom synagogue before Shabbat. Singson received them cordially, and asked by them if it was true, as rumored, that only supporters of Shavei Israel would be admitted to his lessons, he answered that, on the contrary, everyone would be welcome, whether pro--Shavei or not. (Since then, however, no one not in Shavei’s good graces has received an invitation to these lessons.)
The two B’nei Menashe Council officials were leaving the synagogue when they were approached by Sehjalal Shlomo Kipgen, Shavei Israel’s chief Manipur administrator. Having heard that the two B’nei Menashe Council officials had paid a call on Singson, he was furious that this had taken place without his permission, and after a heated exchange he charged at Nehemia Lhouvum and tried to assault him.
“He had to be restrained physically,” relates Ohaliav Haokip. “It was quite clear that he was agitated. It’s common knowledge that he's edgy.”
Meanwhile, a second Shavei Israel emissary, Itzhak Colney, has arrived in Mizoram with a mission similar to Singson’s and has begun to give pre-Aliyah lessons at Aizawl’s Khovevei Tzion synagogue, a Shavei stronghold. As in Manipur, non- or anti-Shavei B’nei Menashe were not invited to participate. Ironically, one of the non-invitees was Asaf Renthlei, a 28-year-old Aizawl resident and doctoral student in anthropology who has taught himself Hebrew, of which he now commands a good reading and writing knowledge – the only member of the B’nei Menashe community in all of northeast India of which this can be said.
Asaf, indeed, has served as the Jewish pedagogue of Aizawl’s B’nei Menashe, giving bar-mitzvah lessons and teaching groups of adults, all on a voluntary basis.
Asaf’s crime in Shavei’s eyes? Participating in a Degel Menashe-organized Covid-19 food relief campaign last summer despite Shavei’s threats to punish whoever took part in it, and subsequently, after he was declared unwelcome at Khovevei Tzion services, taking part in an anti-Shavei demonstration. “Shavei has tried to kick me out of the B’nei Menashe community,” Asaf told our Newsletter. “I’ve been removed from its social networks and have stopped receiving invitations for its events.
“The odd thing,” Asaf revealed, “is that all the time that Shavei was attacking me in public, it was sending me messengers in private with the offer that, if I agreed to behave myself and return to the Shavei fold, I would be put at the head of the next Aliyah list – and this despite the fact that I only joined the community three years ago and lack all seniority. I told them to take their offer and clear out. I’m not for sale. I have my principles and I’ll stand by them.”