Bnei Menashe community disputes Israeli reports of 7 killed in India violence

World News

(JR) — Members of the Bnei Menashe Jewish community are rejecting an Israeli parliamentary report that a missile strike in Northeast India killed seven community members this week.

The news spread rapidly on Tuesday after Israel’s Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Aliyah put out a press release announcing the deaths, following a meeting about potentially jumpstarting efforts by the Bnei Menashe to move to Israel amid ethnic tensions in the Manipur region of India.

It cited Tzvi Khaute, director of the Bnei Menashe in Israel for the nonprofit Shavei Israel, as saying that the community urgently needed permission to immigrate, or make aliyah, and that it had “buried seven people who were killed as a result of a bomb falling next to the synagogue.”

But Khaute did not make that comment in a video of the hearing reviewed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. A Bnei Menashe member in India offered a different account about violence near a local synagogue. And the information about the deaths was false, the Bnei Menashe Council in India said in a press release Wednesday.

Responding to the Knesset press release, the group speculated that Shavei Israel, one of two feuding nonprofits seeking to help the Bnei Menashe move to Israel, had misrepresented the facts on the ground when testifying during the committee meeting.

“The situation of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe after months of ethnic violence that has left many of them homeless and with no means of livelihood is indeed extremely difficult and their resettlement in Israel is urgent,” the council said in its statement. “Spreading lies as a way of arousing sympathy for their plight is despicable and can only work to their detriment.”

But the video from the hearing, coupled with reports from India, suggests that the Knesset committee’s press release might well have stemmed from more straightforward confusion.

The video shows Khaute saying that a bomb fell at a synagogue and that six people died in India, but he did not say when the incident occurred or whether the victims were Bnei Menashe. When asked by the chairman if it was Bnei Menashe who were killed, Khaute did not offer confirmation, instead segueing to talking about a seven-month-long delay in burying Bnei Menashe community members who were killed last year. It is unclear which deaths Khaute was referring to as only one community member is known to have died in the conflict.

At multiple points later in the hearing, lawmakers asserted that seven people were killed, though Khaute himself never said so.

A spokesperson for Shavei Israel said the organization was not involved with the Knesset press release and added that no Bnei Menashe member was known to have been killed in Manipur recently.

“He wanted to express how Bnei Menashe are in danger and how they should be brought to Israel as soon as possible,” a spokesperson told JR said about Khaute. “There was a misunderstanding and no one from the committee verified with him that seven Bnei Menashe were killed yesterday. Nobody checked back with us or with him.”

Reports from Manipur suggest another possible source of confusion. In their regular updates on social media, the Manipur Police have not mentioned an attack on or near a synagogue. But they wrote on Tuesday that “armed groups” launched an attack on security forces in Moreh, a town on Manipur’s border with Myanmar, “employing gunfire and explosives.” Six security personnel were injured in the crossfire.

Kaikholal Haokip, a member of the Bnei Menashe Jewish community in Moreh who is also a spokesperson for the Kuki Inpee organization, representing one of the warring ethnic groups, told JR that no one was killed in the incident. But he said neighbors and the caretaker of the local synagogue told him that a bomb was detonated by police on a highway close to the synagogue.

The bomb caused no damage to the synagogue or anyone inside, Haokip told JR, adding that some Jewish community members, including the synagogue’s caretaker, have fled to other areas amid the violence and all remain safe.

JR reached out to Oded Forer, the Knesset member who heads the committee, as well as to spokespeople for the Knesset and to the Israeli Ministry of Aliyah and Integration for clarification about the inaccurate press release but did not receive a response before publication.

The Bnei Menashe are believed to be descendants of the “lost tribe” of Manasseh, a claim that researchers dispute. Shavei Israel, a nonprofit organization that aims to bring “lost tribe” Jewish communities to Israel, has been responsible for the Bnei Menashe aliyah for more than two decades and has helped about 5,000 Jews immigrate so far. Another 5,000 still live in India.

Some Bnei Menashe Jews have protested the organization and say it abuses its power over their aliyah. Another Israeli nonprofit that formed in 2017, Degel Menashe, has been advocating for this group and says it wants the Jewish Agency to have more control over the immigration process.

“We recommend their immigration to Israel, but in a low-profile manner to avoid criticism of interfering in India’s internal affairs,” Michal Vilertal, head of the Asia division at the foreign affairs ministry, said, according to the press release. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will assist in every way with the community’s immigration to Israel.”

Bnei Menashe Jews in India belong to the Kuki-Zo ethnic minority in Manipur, which clashed with the majority Meiteis in May when the Meiteis demanded “scheduled tribe” status, which offers benefits traditionally reserved for minority tribes. Tensions between the Meiteis and the smaller tribes in Manipur had been building for decades, and now Kukis say they are being targeted by Meitei groups and military and police collaborators.

The conflict has so far claimed 200 lives and 70,000 people have fled, according to Indian news reports. There has only been one known Bnei Menashe casualty; some are fighting on the frontlines, sources on the ground say. Hundreds of Bnei Menashe Jews have been forced to flee their homes with no hopes of returning as new informal borders form between the Meitei and Kuki areas.

The latest incident took place with tensions rising across Manipur this week as the conflict approaches its ninth month. In Thoubal, near the capital of Imphal, four Meitei Muslims were shot dead on Tuesday by “armed Meitei miscreants,” local media reported, leading to the imposition of a curfew. Meanwhile, minority tribes called a 24-hour total shutdown until Wednesday in protest of alleged mistreatment by state police.

While Shavei Israel emphasizes that the Israeli government press release misunderstood Khaute on the specifics of recent incidents, the group said the release had gotten right the urgency he expressed about the safety of the Bnei Menashe in Manipur.

“I am begging that this community be allowed to immigrate to Israel,” the release quoted Khaute as saying. “Every day that they stay in India and do not immigrate to Israel, they risk their lives.”