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Two Wars and the B’nei Menashe: A Degel Menashe Editorial

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

B'nei Menashe residents of Sajal being evacuated by the Indian Army, early May 2023. File photo.

(November 16, 2023) Although 2023 still has a month-and-a-half to run its course, it’s not too early to say that, for the B’nei Menashe, it will have been a pivotal year, defined by two wars -- one the ethnic conflict between Kukis and Meiteis in Manipur, the other Israel’s war against Hamas. Seen from an Israeli and a global perspective, the two can hardly be compared. The conflict in Manipur is a small-scale local one that had aroused little interest elsewhere, while the Gaza war has riveted the world’s attention. Yet for the B’nei Menashe both have been equally momentous.

Seen in retrospect, the war against Hamas will be seen as the turning point at which Israel’s 5,000 B’nei Menashe made the transition from becoming Israeli to being Israeli. Until now, Israel’s B’nei Menashe community has been, understandably, concerned mostly with itself. A small immigrant group that arrived in Israel without many of the means to deal successfully with the demands of the dynamic, competitive, technologically oriented society that it suddenly found itself in, it has had to learn to adjust and transform basic patterns of thinking and behavior. This process has taken place, naturally, at a faster pace among young, Israeli-born-or-raised B’nei Menashe than among their elders who reached adulthood in India, but it has been shared by all. Not that Israel’s national problems haven’t mattered to its them, but these have seemed distant, almost abstract, next to their own struggle to cope and get ahead.

B'nei Menashe IDF soldiers on duty, serving with pride and distinction.

The current war has changed all this. With many hundreds of B’nei Menashe serving in the army and many hundreds more volunteering on the home front, and with the entire B’nei Menashe community of Sderot evacuated from its homes after living through a Hamas attack in the first days of the war, the B’nei Menashe are now fully part of Israeli reality as they have not been before. For the first time, they can feel that they are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their fellow Israelis and giving to their country instead of just fretting about what services they can get from it. They have become participants and not just lookers-on. And although all this is a result of the war, it will not end with it. The change will be permanent. If Israel, as one often hears said these days, will emerge from the war a different country, its B’nei Menashe are already a different community.

B'nei Menashe women help with the shortfall in labor, southern Israel.

But so, as a result of their own war, are the 5,000 B’nei Menashe still in India, three-quarters of them in Manipur. Although they have dreamed day and night of joining their brothers and sisters in Israel, life in India, while waiting for the dream to be fulfilled, has been supportable until now. It no longer is.

While India’s B’nei Menashe have thus far not had to confront anti-Semitism, they now realize that they are sitting on an ethnic powder keg. This exploded last spring and early summer, leaving many of them homeless and destitute, and it can explode again, and even more violently, at any moment. Their Aliyah to Israel, until now a desirability, has become an urgent necessity. For the moment, the other war, the war in Israel, has put this Aliyah on hold. It cannot be allowed to remain there, however. The long period between 1990 and 2023 in which India’s B’nei Menashe acquiesced in immigrating to Israel in dribs and drabs is over for them. As soon as the war against Hamas is won, they must insist on being admitted to Israel immediately, all 5,000 of them. The war in Manipur has changed everything for them, too.

And one more thought. Readers of this Newsletter know about Ma’oz Tsur, the 200 acres of land outside of Lamka (the former Churachandpur) on which B’nei Menashe families in Manipur that have lost their homes to ethnic cleansing are now re-establishing themselves as a jointly run farming community – “a kind of B’nei Menashe kibbutz,” as B’nei Menashe Council chairman Lalam Hangshing has put it. But this undertaking, as promising and exciting as it is, will not outlast the B’nei Menashe’s hopefully short remaining stay in India. Why then, it might be asked, go to such effort to build it?

A farm at Ma'oz Tsur, a possible solution for the future.

Recently, Degel Menashe has been in contact with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption about the possibility of turning Ma’oz Tsur into the nucleus of a B’nei Menashe farming community in Israel. The ministry is interested. “The B’nei Menashe have always been farmers,” a senior ministry official said to us. “It’s been sad that in Israel this aspect of them hasn’t so far been given expression. Suppose we could put the two things together: the B”nei Menashe’s love of the soil and the need that there will be after the war to resettle the agricultural kibbutzim and moshavim near Gaza. It may sound right now like a fantasy, but we need to think about how Ma’oz Tsur could contribute to this.”

We really do!



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