“A Pretty Average Place:” Afula and Its B’nei Menashe
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
(February 4) “The fact of the matter is that we’re a pretty average place,” says Elkhanan Fanai, the municipal coordinator for the B’nei Menashe community of Afula, a city of 55,000 inhabitants in Israel’s Jezreel Valley. Fanai was responding to a question asked him during an interview with our Newsletter about how the city’s B’nei Menashe compared with their counterparts elsewhere. “I was talking the other day to the B’nei Menashe community coordinator of Nof Ha-Galil [formerly Upper Nazareth],” he related. “We were discussing our work and we discovered that we were dealing with the exact same situations and problems. There’s nothing very special about Afula.”
Apart from the fact that it’s one of the most spread-out cities in Israel with a low population density, sprawling over the eastern edge of the Valley of Jezreel and up the 500- meter-high hill of Givat Ha-Moreh that overlooks it, Afula is indeed a fairly ordinary place -- a cross-section of Israel that is slightly poorer and slightly older than the statistical mean but not by much Although its 320 B’nei Menashe inhabitants, Fanai told our Newsletter, are economically toward the bottom of the wage-earning scale, few are below the poverty line or suffer from economic distress. Even now that many have been laid off as a consequence of Covid-19, the fact that most are salaried employees in factories and retail businesses like shops and supermarkets (many of the men also work as security guards) has insured their getting regular unemployment benefits that keep them afloat.
“On the whole,” Fanai says, “I would say that the B’nei Menashe in Afula are happy with their economic situation. Most enjoy a higher standard of living in Israel than they did in India. This isn’t true of everyone – those who had white-collar or government jobs in Mizoram and Manipur may now be slightly worse off – but it’s generally the case. In most families, both parents are employed and many have cars and own their own apartments, mostly on Givat Ha-Moreh, where these are subsidized by the government housing corporation Amidar. There’s an overall sense of satisfaction.”
The B’nei Menashe population of Afula is almost totally a Mizo one, and Fanai himself was born and grew up in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, and came to Israel as a young man with his mother and a sister in 2007. “In my mother’s generation,” he says, “the Mizo speaking B’nei Menashe of Mizoram and the Kuki speaking B’nei Menashe of Manipur tended to gravitate to different places in Israel and form separate communities. They don’t know enough Hebrew to communicate well in it and have trouble understanding each other’s language” (Mizo and Kuki, though closely related, are not mutually intelligible.) “With their Israeli-born children, of course, it’s a different story, but having largely grown up in different places, there’s not that much socialization between them, either.”
Is there any difference between the two groups’ adjustment to Israeli life? “Not a great deal,” Fanai says. “Perhaps at first there’s a bit more homesickness among the Mizo. The Kukis of Manipur live in a society in which they’re a minority and that they don’t identify with. We Mizos feel that Mizoram is our country. That makes it more difficult for us to take up a new life elsewhere. Whereas practically every B’nei Menashe in Manipur wants to come to Israel, there are quite a few in Mizoram who say they intend to remain there. But in Afula, I know of only one case of someone who has actually returned to Mizoram and the Mizo community has done well here.”
Fanai lived for several years in the northern town of Ma’alot when he first came to Israel, spent a while in Jerusalem, where he worked as a security guard in the Knesset, and settled in Afula in 2019, joining his mother and sister, who already lived there. He found a part-time job in the Youth Division of the municipality working with B’nei Menashe youngsters and in 2020 was appointed to the newly vacated post of community coordinator – a kind of para-social worker that is part of the Israeli welfare system. “I function alone,” he told us. “That’s different from those working with other immigrant communities in Afula, like the Russians or the Ethiopians, who work in teams. But they’re dealing with much larger populations. The 320 B’nei Menashe of Afula don’t justify more than one position.”
Although he has an office in the Afula municipality, visitors are discouraged from entering it because of the epidemic and Fanai generally meets with those seeking his help in the street outside the building. “They’re mostly elderly members of the community who need assistance in getting things done in government offices, medical situations, and similar things,” he says. “Today, for example, I had someone come to me who wanted to apply for a reduction on his municipal real estate tax. To get it he was told that he had to obtain a statement from National Insurance regarding his income and employment status, and he couldn’t understand the Hebrew instructions. I went with him to the National Insurance bureau and we solved the problem.”
Younger B’nei Menashe can deal with such situations themselves and don’t need Fanai’s help for that. What he can do for them, he believes. are two things. One is to convince them that they need to study and have careers. “Quite a few young B’nei Menashe are already doing this,” he says, “but others say, ‘What’s the point?’ They need to be shown that there is one.”
The second thing, Fanai thinks, is to be a sympathetic listener. As is so often the case with immigrant populations, especially with one coming from a region of the world so different from Israel, young B’nei Menashe often feel that their parents cannot understand them or their dreams and ambitions. Although most continue their parent’s religious observance, it plays less of a role in their lives, in which Israeli secular culture is a major force. For their parents, Fanai says, for whom Judaism was everything, this can be difficult to comprehend. “The young people need someone they can talk to,” Fanai says. “For many, I’m the only adult they know with whom they can do that.”
He is optimistic about the younger B’nei Menashe. “When I look at the closest parallel to our community,” he says, “which is the Ethiopians, I think our young people are doing better. They’re advancing more quickly and - here in Afula, at least – they’ve stayed clear of juvenile delinquency. And they all serve in the army, the girls too. In this respect, Afula is different from some B’nei Menashe communities. The environment here is more secular than in places like Kiryat Arba and Bet-El, where religious pressures are greater.”
Nor, Fanai believes, do young B’nei Menashe feel affected by racism, as do so many young Ethiopians. “I would say,” he says, “that they feel accepted by Israelis and Israeli society. The complaints about racism that I sometimes hear come from the generation of their parents, and I think they’re usually the result of misunderstanding Israeli behavior. In Mizoram and Manipur, there is great stress on norms of politeness. In Israel it’s the opposite – and when Israelis behave toward members of my mother’s generation with what they take to be rudeness, they may think it’s because they look different. The young know better. They realize it’s just
Israeli manners.” In fact, Fanai says, there have already been several “intermarriages” in Afula between young B’nei Menashe and ordinary Israelis, and this is a growing trend. “The parents aren’t happy about it,” he says. “They would rather that their children marry other B’nei Menashe and have grandchildren who look like themselves. But they know that it’s not up to them. They understand that this is the consequence of having chosen to live in Israel.”
Asked whether he thinks Israel’s tiny B’nei Menashe community will eventually disappear or lose all distinctiveness, Fanai answers, “That’s hard to say. Maybe it will. I hope not. But from what I see, there’s no strong sense of B’nei Menashe identity in the younger generation that might keep a collective sense of ourselves going.”
Can such a sense of identity be fostered while encouraging the full integration of the B’nei Menashe into Israeli society? That’s a question our Newsletter forgot to ask.