(JTA) — In the 2000s, as the small Israeli town of Sderot endured heavy rocket fire, thousands of residents left the city. Around the same time, a new population began moving in: Bnei Menashe Jews from the northeast Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram.
More than 100 Bnei Menashe families called Sderot their home until Oct. 7. The community was deeply proud of what it created: the first synagogue and beit midrash — or Torah study hall — run exclusively by Bnei Menashe Jews. It was a dream, for many, that began halfway across the world in India.
The dream was interrupted when Hamas terrorists infiltrated many towns and kibbutzes surrounding Gaza. By the end of Oct. 7, 50 civilians in Sderot had been killed, as well as 20 police officers, according to the Times of Israel.
But none of them were Bnei Menashe Jews.
That day, about 40 people gathered at a new synagogue building given to the community by Sderot’s mayor, Alon Davidi, only a few weeks before. Rabbi David Lhungdim recalled feeling rushed by Davidi to begin high holiday services there long before the community felt ready to make the move.
But in the end, the building saved them. The new synagogue, Alfei Menashe, is located to the east of Menachem Begin Road. While Hamas terrorists patrolled that road on Oct. 7, shooting people in the street, in their cars and in their homes, the Bnei Menashe prayed.
“I told them, let’s finish our morning prayer, we have no choice,” Lhundgim said.
After the attacks, “I questioned myself, why was the mayor in a state of hurry? When it was Simchat Torah, everything was clear,” Lhungdim said. “I said, wow, this is a miracle that God gave us … Had we been praying at the old site [a caravan on Natan Elbaz Road, which does not have a bomb shelter], the terrorists would have seen us because they were on the main road and shooting everyone that they see. But because the mayor gave us the new site, we don’t need to cross the main road.”
Rivka Guite, Lhungdim’s sister, and her husband Zevulun had been visiting Guite’s mother for the holiday. Their home, located near the old synagogue where Hamas had been active, was destroyed in a Hamas rocket attack. Nothing could be salvaged from the rubble, Guite said.
But Guite is just thankful to be alive and living in Israel.
“It’s a miracle indeed. I really do not have an explanation for these things,” Guite said through a translation provided by Isaac Thangjom, project director at the Israel-based nonprofit Degel Menashe. “How many of us would have died if the old synagogue had been used?”
Now, most of the Bnei Menashe community in Sderot has been evacuated to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, where they are waiting out the war in refugee hotels. An estimated 200 young Bnei Menashe men have joined the Israeli military’s war effort, Thangjom told JTA. One soldier, Natanel Touthang, was injured by a rocket while on duty at the northern border.
“When I went to the reserves without being called up,” Touthang said, “I did it for my family. It sounds selfish, but I did it for my family.”
From Manipur to Sderot
The Bnei Menashe Jews are said to be descendants of the “lost tribe” of Manasseh, separated from their fellow Israelites after exile over two thousand years ago. They are part of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo ethnic groups that reside in northeastern India, western Myanmar, and southern Bangladesh.
Researchers say the group came to Judaism via Christian missionaries, who introduced them to the Bible in the late 19th century. Bnei Menashe tradition recalls the story of Met Chala, a Christian local tribal leader in Mizoram who was told by God in a dream to return his people to the land of Israel and their true religion: Judaism.
They began immigrating to Israel in the late 1980s with the help of Israeli Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail and his organization Amishav, undergoing formal conversions upon arrival. The immigration process was handed over to the Israeli nonprofit Shavei Israel in 2004, headed by Michael Freund, a former advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu.
Both Avichail and Shavei Israel have faced intense criticism and accusations of right-wing political motives from the Israeli left, as new Bnei Menashe immigrants moved to West Bank settlements upon arrival — particularly Kiryat Arba, which today hosts a community of about 700 Bnei Menashe Jews.
Shavei Israel halted that practice over a decade ago following the criticism, but some still move to settlements upon arrival to Israel to be with their families who already live there. Many have also settled in other towns within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
Their settlement in the West Bank and on the border with Gaza has been less a product of political motivation than of convenience and accessibility, said Gideon Elazar, an anthropologist at Bar-Ilan University who researches the Bnei Menashe and other “lost tribes.”
“These were the communities that would accept them,” he said.
New Bnei Menashe immigrants have experienced difficulty learning Hebrew, finding profitable work and assimilating into Israeli society. Some experience discrimination and racism. Last year, Yoel Lhunghal, an 18-year-old Bnei Menashe Jew who had immigrated just a year earlier, was murdered in northern Israel. Though police found no evidence of a racial motive behind the attack, his father believes Yoel was “a victim of racism.”
The case of Lhungdim’s Sderot community is a slightly different story. The 120-family-strong community moved there on their own accord, Lhungdim said. Some came from other areas such as Carmel and Kiryat Arba — both towns where Lhungdim lived before coming to Sderot — and some directly upon arriving from India to join their families. Affordability was a major factor, as costs were lower due to Sderot’s location on the Gaza border. The area also offers work that corresponds with the Bnei Menashe community’s skills, such as fruit and vegetable packing.
“We want to strengthen Israel, that’s why we go to live in Sderot. And I’m proud to be from Sderot,” Lhungdim told JTA. “As a convert Jew, I would have been ready to sacrifice my life to the Jewish nation.”
Like other Israelis in towns near Gaza who survived the Oct. 7 attacks, the entire Bnei Menashe community in Sderot was relocated to hotels in Jerusalem. The more than 100 families staying there have kept busy by continuing religious education, praying at the Western Wall and enjoying free admission to local museums. Many had never before enjoyed stays at four-star hotels or had the opportunity to spend much time exploring Jerusalem.
But they are still eager to get back to their hometown. Guite and other community members have been making day trips to the south to tend to vegetable fields that have been left abandoned since the evacuation.
“The government is doing so much for us, and of course, we are only too happy to contribute and give something to Israel in forms of service,” Guite said.
The other war in India
Bnei Menashe Jews are now facing war and displacement on two fronts: within Israel, and in Manipur, where an ethnic conflict has been raging for nearly eight months.
There, hundreds of Bnei Menashe Jews are rebuilding their lives in the midst of an ethnic conflict that began in May and has no end in sight. Human rights groups say the ethnic Kukis — the group to which the Bnei Menashe belong — have been targeted by the majority Meiteis in what some have called an “ethnic cleansing.” Many Kukis have been forced out of their local valley, which is now mostly occupied by the Meiteis, to the hills, which have become Kuki territory.
Others have moved to the neighboring Mizoram state, where other Bnei Menashe Jews live.
Unlike in Israel, the hundreds of displaced community members in northeast India have no hope of returning home, as new informal territorial borders based on ethnicity have become the norm. Many are living in newly-built houses with vegetable plots on a picturesque 200-acre piece of land donated by community leader Lalam Hangshing. It has been named “Moaz Tzur,” and Degel Menashe, which advocates for the community, proudly refers to it as India’s first kibbutz.
These Jews have dreamed of immigrating to Israel for more than two decades. Thangjom called the war a “setback” to the process and will lengthen the timeline before the next slate of immigration, but conversations with the government are continuing, he said.
The war in Israel also impacted the amount of aid that Degel Menashe has been able to provide to Bnei Menashe refugees in India, as international Jewish organizations pour money into Israel.
“Since the war started in Israel, I don’t know if I’ll be able to give the same amount of help. But we are approaching our donors,” Thangjom said.
Harvard Alumni File Lawsuit Claiming Campus Antisemitism ‘Devalues’ Their Diplomas
A group of ten Harvard University alumni filed a lawsuit against the institution on Wednesday, accusing it of “devaluing” their degrees through permitting and fostering an environment of antisemitism, support for terrorism, and anti-Israel sentiment.
Filed in a Massachusetts federal court, the alumni claims that Harvard has breached an implicit contract with its graduates, promising to maintain the institution’s prestige, which they allege has been compromised due to a toxic campus environment. This, they argue, has led potential employers and prestigious law firms to distance themselves from Harvard alumni.
“Harvard has directly caused the value and prestige of plaintiffs’ Harvard degrees to be diminished and made a mockery out of Harvard graduates in the employment world and beyond,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit argues that the university’s administration has failed to combat campus anti-semitism, and has consistently overlooked assaults on Jewish students and calls by students and faculty for the annihilation of Israel. It highlighted, among other things, an open letter signed by more than thirty student organizations blaming Israel for the October 7 Hamas-led attack, and campus protests which included chants like “Long live the intifada!” and “There is only one solution: intifada revolution!” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine is Arab!”
The suit also points to then-Harvard president Claudine Gay’s testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where she stated that calls for genocide against Jews would only violate bullying and harassment policies “depending on the context,” as indicative of the school’s tolerance of antisemitism.
The lawsuit is part of a growing dissatisfaction among graduates over what they perceive as rampant antisemitism on U.S. campuses, according to attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president of legal aid group, Shurat HaDin, who is representing the alumni alongside New York-based lawyer, Robert Tolchin.
Darshan-Leitner criticized the colleges for becoming “hate centers” under the guise of academic freedom.
The lawsuit, Darshan-Leitner said, reveals the “growing outrage and contempt that graduates all across the US are feeling over the wild antisemitism and hate speech being encouraged and explained away on the American campuses.”
“This dangerous weaponization of higher education by radical faculty and students as well as the impotent administration response, all justified under the guise of academic freedom, has turned the colleges into hate centers which has greatly devalued their reputation and diplomas,” she said, adding that the suit could prompt similar actions from graduates of other institutions.
Tolchin accused the university of succumbing to “the flavor of the month, the lowest level of discourse.”
“Harvard’s seal proclaims “Light and Truth” in Latin and Hebrew–yes, Hebrew, the language spoken by the indigenous Israelites. Yet light and truth have been hard to find at Harvard. The darkness of antisemitism and the dishonesty, hate, and discrimination have cast a pall over Harvard so embarrassing that people do not wish to be associated with Harvard,” Tolchin said.
Harvard has been accused of facilitating an educational environment that is unwelcoming to Israelis and Jews for years, with the lawsuit citing annual events such as “Israel Apartheid Week” and incidents targeting Jewish students and symbols on campus.
Antisemitism expert Dara Horn, a Harvard alumnus who was asked to join Gay’s anti-Semitism advisory committee, authored a damning essay published this week in The Atlantic in which she detailed the Jew hatred on campus predating October 7.
She noted that staff members “who grade Jewish students used university-issued class lists to share information about events organized by pro-Palestine groups;” In one instance, a professor continued teaching after rejecting the findings of an investigation by Harvard after he was found discriminating against several Israeli students. Last spring, a student was asked to leave because her identity as an Israeli was making her classmates “uncomfortable.”
She also pointed to courses themselves “premised on anti-Semitic lies”, pointing to one called “The Settler Colonial Determinants of Health”, and noted that lecturers invited to speak at the campus included some who peddled in blood libels that Israelis harvest Palestinians’ organs or that the IDF uses Palestinian children for weapons testing.
“The mountain of proof at Harvard revealed a reality in which Jewish students’ access to their own university (classes, teachers, libraries, dining halls, public spaces, shared student experiences) was directly compromised,” Horn writes. The alumni’s legal action comes alongside another lawsuit filed by six current Harvard students on January 10, claiming that the university has not done enough to combat antisemitism on campus which had become a “bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.” It also comes a day after a professor at the university, Walter Johnson, resigned from two anti-Zionist campus groups after they posted antisemitic cartoons.
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Israel Not Budging After Eurovision Disapproval of Song Commemorating October 7
Israeli Culture Minister Miki Zohar sent the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) a letter on Thursday urging them to approve Israel’s submission to the Eurovision song competition, after the EBU called it “too political.”
“As you know, the State of Israel is experiencing one of the most difficult and complex periods since its establishment. We lost our loved ones, and there are women, men and children who are still held captive by a terrorist organization,” Zohar said.
Israeli media reported that the broadcasting union would not approve the song, called “October Rain,” after a number of countries even issued threats to boycott the event if Israel participates. The EBU issued a statement saying “We are currently in the process of carefully examining the lyrics of the song – a process that is confidential between the EBU and the Public Broadcasting Corporation until a final decision is made. To all broadcasters, they have until March 11th to officially submit their songs. If a song does not meet the criteria for any reason, the corporation will be given the opportunity to submit a new song or new lyrics, according to the contest rules.”
“The song that Israel sent to the Eurovision Song Contest was chosen by a professional committee made up of well-known names in the local music and entertainment industry,” Zohar added. “It is a moving song, discussing renewal and revival from a very fragile reality of loss and destruction, and describes the current public mood in Israel these days. We see now most clearly because our lives – as one, united society – manage to overcome even the greatest suffering. This is not a political song.”
Despite the news that the song by Israeli singer Eden Golan would not be approved, The CEO of KAN, Israel’s national broadcasting service, and the body that approves the song, Golan Yokhpaz, said “We will not change the words or the song, even at the cost of Israel not participating in Eurovision this year.” Adding “The Israel Broadcasting Corporation (KAN) is in dialogue with the EBU regarding the song that will represent Israel at Eurovision.”
Zohar said later in a television interview “The songwriters, KAN, and the singer will have to make the decisions at the end of the day… I do think that Israel should participate in Eurovision because it is important for us at this time to be represented there, and to express ourselves throughout Europe.”
Speaking to the EBU, he said, “We trust that you will continue in your important task of keeping the competition free from any attempt at political manipulation.”
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UN Representative to the Palestinians Claims Israelis Are ‘Colonialists’ with ‘Fake Identities’
The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur to the Occupied Palestinian Territories referred to Israelis as “colonialists” who have “fake identities” while quoting another Twitter/X account on Wednesday, raising questions about the impartiality of the international body.
She highlighted the following quote from Mizrahi: “free Palestine scares them [Westerners] bcs it is the ghost of their own sins, rediscovered as a living, breathing human. The current political structures of colonial projects cannot afford it, so they try to uproot it. Bcs it is a fight between all colonialists and their fake identities.”
” free Palestine scares them bcs it is the ghost of their own sins, rediscovered as a living, breathing human. The current political structures of colonial projects cannot afford it, so they try to uproot it. Bcs it is a fight between all colonialists and their fake identities..” https://t.co/N1wkOPgKJs
— Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur oPt (@FranceskAlbs) February 21, 2024
The original post claimed that “All colonial powers work together to guarantee the supremacy of made-up identities over genuine, native ones. Because if this model breaks anywhere, it will collapse everywhere.”
Mizrahi argued that “A Palestinian state would be a major, major moral blow to white, Western colonialism.”
The tweet was met with immediate condemnation.
David Friedman, who served as the US Ambassador to Israel from 2017 to 2021 under former President Donald Trump wrote that her tweet was “Exhibit A why the UN is a failure and why we no longer belong in that bastion of hypocrisy and corruption.”
An account documenting Hamas’ October 7 atrocities asked, “If Israel is indeed a ‘colonialist project’ Where should all the Israelis go if this project should be dismantled?”
The perception of UN bias against Israel has also been boosted by the fact that, in 2023, Israel was condemned twice as often as all other countries combined.
It is not the first time Albanese has made comments that raise eyebrows. Earlier this month, in response to French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron calling the October 7 attack “largest anti-Semitic massacre of the 21st century,” she said “No, Mr. Macron. The victims of October 7 were not killed because of their Judaism, but in response to Israel’s oppression.”
Following backlash, she wrote that she opposes “all racism, including anti-Semitism, a global threat. But explaining these crimes as anti-Semitism obscures their true cause.”
Hamas’ founding charter, in a section about the “universality” of its cause, reads: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
Albanese has also argued that Israel should make peace with Hamas, saying that “It needs to make peace with Hamas in order to not be threatened by Hamas.”
When asked about what people do not understand about Hamas, she added, “If someone violates your right to self-determination, you are entitled to embrace resistance.”
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