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A Lot of Questions To Be Asked: A Degel Menashe Editorial

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

(August 11, 2023) Part I of the story of Yosef Demsat Haokip and his family’s Aliyah to Israel, which appeared in last week’s Newsletter, told of a brave man’s refusal to be cowed or intimidated by Shavei Israel’s discriminatory Aliyah policies and its cynical manipulation of them to enhance its power. Demsat’s victorious insistence on maintaining his dignity and self-respect despite Shavei’s bullying tactics should serve as a model for all B’nei Menashe. He has proven that it is possible for his people to reach Israel while continuing to stand tall in the face of Shavei’s threats and intimidation.

Part II of Demsat’s story tells of his and his family’s five months in a Shavei Israel-run absorption center, along with the 250 B’nei Menashe immigrants who arrived with him in Israel last October. Here, Shavei's harassment of him continued. Part ll's revelations are even more disturbing than Part I’s because they cover new ground. Until now we have heard a great deal, in large measure due to this Newsletter, about Shavei’s abuse of its monopoly over the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah. This week we hear from Demsat about Shavei’s abuse of its monopoly over the B’nei Menashe’ absorption in Israel – that is, over what happens to them in the first stage following their arrival. He paints a scandalous picture.

What is scandalous is not so much the physical conditions in the absorption center in the Galilee village of Goren that Demsat and his family were sent to – the two rooms with one toilet that their eight-member family had to live in for nearly half a year, or the daily food prepared without the slightest consideration for the diet they were accustomed to. No one promised the B’nei Menashe a life of luxury upon their arrival, and if crowded quarters and a thoughtless disrespect for their eating habits are part of it -- well, immigrants to Israel (and other countries) have had to face worse things.

No, what is truly scandalous is the educational and cultural aspect – or should we say the educational and cultural vacuum? -- of those five months. For day after day, as Demsat describes it, he and his fellow olim were made to sit from morning till night through one poorly prepared and incompetently taught class after another, broken only by lengthy prayer sessions and quickly eaten meals. The teachers were Shavei Israel staff members with no professional background or qualifications whose only subjects were Judaism and Jewish law. There were no rabbis among them (although the B’nei Menashe community has several of its own) and no experienced educators (although the community has these, too). Shavei Israel preferred to hire its own operatives, however unsuited for the job they were.

Worse yet is the fact that, during their first five months in Israel, all Demsat and his fellow olim were exposed to was, as he puts it, “religion and prayer, prayer and religion, all the time.” Outside the windows of their classroom was a new country, the country of their dreams. Were they taught anything about it? No. Were they instructed in its language? No. Were they once taken to see something of it? Again no. Were they introduced to any Israelis or offered a chance to talk to them? No once more. Were they given the slightest preparation for the life that awaited them once they left the absorption center and had to strike out on their own? Not if Demsat is to be believed. They were too busy – read Demsat’s description of his giyyur interview – learning the laws of de-boning a fish on Shabbat to have time for such frivolous pursuits.

Granted: a successful giyyur is a necessity for new B’nei Menashe immigrants and they need to be taught all that is required for it. Shavei Israel is not responsible for the questions asked a giyyur candidate by a rabbinical court, and if one of these is how to extract a bone halakhically from a fish, so be it. But Shavei is partially responsible for the adjustment to Israeli life of the B’nei Menashe it brings to Israel – and in its total neglect of this in its absorption center in Goren (and presumably, in other absorption centers run by it in the past) it is guilty of shocking negligence, Knowing the minutest laws of Judaism is not going to help newcomers in Israel to find a job, communicate in Hebrew with their neighbors, navigate Israeli bureaucracy, or understand the culture and mentality of their new homeland. In this respect, the five long months that Demsat Haokip and his family spent in the Goren absorption center were wasted ones.

And where, pray, was the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption in all this? The ministry not only paid the costs of the Goren absorption center, it bore full responsibility for what went on there. Did it know what this was? Did it care? Did it send anyone to talk to the B’nei Menashe immigrants, sit in on their classes, listen to their complaints and suggestions for improvements? Not to the best of Demsat Haokip’s knowledge, and not to the best of ours. As is the case with the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah from India, the ministry’s attitude seems to have been to dump their absorption into the hands of Shavei Israel while saying, “Here, it’s all yours. You take care of it. Just send us the bills. We’ll pay them and ask no questions.” But there are a lot of questions to be asked.



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