Shavei Violence, Aliyah Blacklist, In Aizawl
(January 12) Most reports of verbal and physical assaults on B’nei Menashe who defy the dictates of Shavei Israel have come in the past year from Manipur. If this has made anyone think that the situation in Mizoram is different, two accounts that have reached our Newsletter of recent Shavei behavior there should put such illusions to rest.
Here, in their own words, are the stories of two B’nei Menashe residents of Aizawl. Translated from Mizo, each has been abbreviated for reasons of length.
1. The story of Zodingliana Chenkual.
“My Hebrew name is Ben Aryeh. I live in Aizawl with my mother Rohmingthangi (Ruth) and my sister Laldingngheti (Eva). Neither is in good health. My mother has stage 3b prostate cancer and has been undergoing chemotherapy, and my sister has been diagnosed with schizophrenia since 2007. My sister’s son, my nephew, who lived with us too, died of bone cancer two years ago.
“In the past, we were members of the Shavei Israel-run Khovevei Tzion congregation. Having a professional background as a singer, I had previously organized and directed a youth vocal group, the Mizo Cardinal Choir, that won many accolades, including three gold medals and a championship trophy at an Asian Pacific Choir tournament and a silver medal at a World Choir tournament, and when I joined the congregation in 2021, I started a synagogue youth choir. Although it met for rehearsals in my home and was not sponsored by Shavei Israel, Shavei sought to take the credit for it and to name it The Shavei Israel Youth Ensemble.after its warm reception when it performed for a Ministry of Aliyah/Jewish Agency delegation that visited Mizoram last June.
During the Covid epidemic, my mother’s condition made exposure to public gatherings inadvisable for her, as it was for me, too, as her and my sister’s sole caretaker. Since the B’nei Menashe Council-affiliated Shalom Tzion synagogue was closer to where we lived, and its congregation was smaller, it made sense for us to start attending prayers there. This past Hanukkah, when my mother was too weak from a chemotherapy treatment to light candles with the congregation, some of its members graciously came to our home and joined us in candle lighting there.
“That same week, on December 21, when my mother was feeling better, we attended a BMC Hanukkah celebration. On December 28, the chairman of Khovevei Tzion, Jeremiah Hnamte, phoned me. He told me that he had seen my family in a photograph of the BMC celebration and that I had to choose sides: either I was with Shavei Israel or with the BMC. I answered that we were all B’nei Menashe practicing Judaism and should be allowed to pray in the synagogue of our choice without repercussions. Jeremiah thought otherwise, and subsequently I was barraged with calls from friends and acquaintances at Khovevei Tzion warning me that my participation in Shalom Tzion’s activities was a grave mistake and urging me to reconsider it. Among them was Khovevei Tzion’s secretary, Azriel Pachuau. Once again I replied that I was a member of neither Shavei Israel, the BMC, nor Degel Menashe, and that, as opposed to Khovevei Tsion, no one at Shalom Tzion had asked me to take sides or to cut my ties to Shavei.
“I soon found myself the target of slander and defamation. Several of these attacks were so ugly that, had I wished to press charges, I could have done so under the Indian Penal Code. Khovevei Tzion also revoked my position of youth leadership on the pretext that I was no longer a member of the congregation, even though my absence from it was temporary and due to my mother’s illness. This hurt me to the core, because I had taken great pains in encouraging the synagogue’s youngsters to be active in its services and affairs. Still, my affection for these young people, my knowledge that they continue to hold me in esteem, and my attachment to Judaism have enabled me to take the campaign against me in stride.
2. The story of Hmingthangsanga (Elishama) Hauzel
“I was born and raised in Kolasib, a town north of Aizawl, and moved to Aizawl in 2020 because it was the center of Jewish life in Mizoram and I wanted to be able to prepare for my interview with the rabbis who would approve my candidacy for Aliyah. Once in Aizawl, I also tried helping other families that had come from the provinces as I had. Although some of them had been nominally practicing Judaism for twenty or even thirty years, they were not as well-versed in it as they should have been.
“One day in June, 2021, I paid a Shabbat visit to three of these families, They came from Rengdil [a town in the far northwest of Mizoram] and had been denied the opportunity for an Aliyah interview by Shavei Israel because of their affiliation with the B’nei Menashe Council. Now, however, they had agreed to accept Shavei’s authority and move to Aizawl like me to prepare for their interviews. When I saw that they did not even know the basic blessings of Jewish ritual, I said to them, ‘You’ll never pass an Aliyah interview unless you study and know more.’ Their answer was: “We don’t have to bother, because when Yitzhak Kawlni [a Shavei emissary from Israel] was in Rengdil he told us, ‘Don’t worry about studying – Shavei Israel will see to it that you pass your Aliyah interviews anyway.’ I made some remarks critical of Shavei, these families then told others what I said, and I was accused by Shavei of conceit and not minding my own business.
“The whispering campaign against me grew worse in 2022 when I ran in elections for the leadership of Khovevei Tzion’s Youth Division. In September of that year, my one-year-old daughter Edna had to be hospitalized for pneumonia; not a single member of Khovevei Tzion called me, let alone came in person, to express their solidarity. Things came to a head one day last December, when I went to a Khovevei Tzion Hanukkah celebration.
“What happened was this. As it got on toward evening and the holiday meal was about to be served, an announcement was made that the women and children should take their food first. When the turn came of the young people and the men, I took my place in line. At that point, Lalnunpuia Khiangte, the Youth Division’s Assistant Director, told me to go to the back of the line. When I said I was hungry, not having eaten since morning, he physically pushed me from my place. I declared that in that case I would go home and eat there. As I was heading for my motorbike, Amos Khawlring, Khovevei Tzion’s Vice-Chairman, yelled at me, ‘Go on, get out of here, we’ll never allow a fathead like you to make Aliyah.’ I answered him, ‘Fine, if Shavei Israel won’t let me make Aliyah, I’ll count on The Jewish Agency to do it.”
That enraged him. He ran toward me and tried to punch me and I grappled with him to deflect the blow. Meanwhile, someone else, Rony Lalruatdika, struck me in the head from behind. Amos was now able to land his punches, and several others piled on and attacked me, too. No one came to my defense. All I could do was cover my head for protection. Several onlookers took out their cell phones and photographed the incident to record my humiliation.
“The next day, I went to the Aizawl Police station to file a complaint. The officer on duty suggested that, since the charges were serious, I try first to resolve things harmoniously. I agreed and he proceeded to phone all the people I had named as my assailants. None was willing to meet with me, let alone apologize. On December 21, I was officially informed by the synagogue leadership that I had been blacklisted for Aliyah for the rest of my life.
“Following this, I went back to the station on December 24 and filed a formal complaint. That night, Amos Khawlring called me at a late hour to tell me that news of the incident had reached Israel and to threaten to take me, the victim, to court. Since then I have cut all my ties with Khovevei Tsion .and I now attend prayers at the BMC-sponsored Shalom Tzion synagogue.”
Both these accounts are damning, Elishama Hauzel’s in particular. It confirms once again two things that have long been known. One is that Shavei Israel keeps an Aliyah blacklist on which it places, or threatens to place, whoever does not toe its line. The other is that Shavei manipulates the interviews of Aliyah candidates, who must communicate with the rabbis sent from Israel to vet them via a Shavei translator, thus determining their outcome in advance. Elishama puts his trust in The Jewish Agency’s to take the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah into its own hands. Let us hope he will not be disappointed.