The Mistakes of Nof Hagalil: A Degel Menashe Editorial

Part II of Demsat Haokip’s account of his Aliyah, posted in last week’s Newsletter, painted a depressing picture of a Shavei Israel-run Absorption Center for 250 new B’nei Menashe immigrants in the Upper Galilee village of Goren. This week’s Part III describes the immigrants’ transition to a permanent life in the town of Nof Hagalil, once more under Shavei’s supervision. Together with the accompanying story of another of the new olim, Hanna Singson, it portrays an even sadder reality.


It would be bad enough had Demsat and Hanna simply pointed out the inexcusable negligence of Shavei’s Nof Hagalil staff in regard to the newcomers. At a loss in a country whose language they do not speak and whose customs are strange to them, these olim desperately need help and guidance. What they get is cynical indifference from Shavei’s operatives, who receive paychecks for pretending to assist them.


This is not, however, the main problem. That is something much bigger. It is the entire complex of policies, set by the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption in collaboration with Shavei Israel, that determines the new immigrants’ lives.


One might begin with their housing – that is, with the transfer of all 250 of them from their Absorption Center to Nof Hagalil, a middle-sized city in the Lower Galilee. As Demsat Haokip writes, this was done without asking them if this was where they wanted to live or if they had other preferences. They were simply bused there and put in apartments as if where they lived was none of their business Why was Nof Hagalil chosen for them? No one bothered to explain. Perhaps it was because the town had available and reasonably priced rental housing. Perhaps because its mayor, a figure with known political connections, wanted to increase its population. Perhaps for other reasons. What these may have been, the immigrants weren’t told.


Not that Nof Hagalil is necessarily a bad place to live, or that the apartments given the newcomers were unsatisfactory. But many of the Goren group had friends and relatives who had reached Israel from India before them and were already acclimatized – in Bet-She’an, in Migdal Ha’emek, in Sderot, in Kiryat Arba, in other B’nei Menashe communities. The B’nei Menashe have a strong sense of social and familial solidarity. These friends and relatives would have been happy to take the new olim in, to help find them housing and jobs, and to orient them in their new lives – and they would have done it a hundred times better than Shavei Israel’s apathetic staff. As Demsat Haokip puts it: “It would have been good if we could have been absorbed into an existing B’nei Menashe community, one with people who had been living in Israel for at least a few years and whom we could have communicated with and been helped by.”

This is how immigrants have traditionally been settled in new countries – not by bureaucrats but by those who came before them and speak their language and understand their needs. It is how the 250 B’nei Menashe should have been settled, too. If they had been given, besides the standard benefits, the right to decide where to apply them, they would have been far better-off. This is precisely what most olim to Israel nowadays – from America, from France, from Argentina, from Russia – are given. Nobody tells them where to live. Why should the B’nei Menashe be different?


Yet even if, for some unknown reason, Nof Hagalil had to be the destination of all 250 of the Goren group, surely they might have been asked where they wanted to live in it. Demsat Haokip speaks, as does Hanna Singson, of the new immigrants’ feelings of loneliness and isolation because they find themselves at a distance from those they knew in Manipur or befriended in Goren. Some of this may have been unavoidable: there were only so many places for rent in Nof Hagalil and they weren’t all near each other. But why, given this limitation, weren’t the newcomers consulted about whom they wanted to live close to? They have no cars, after all, and public transportation is slow and costly; whoever can’t be conveniently walked to is far away. A nearby friend or two would be an enormous comfort. Only non-caring minds that think of people as mere statistics would have failed to take this into account.


And what about work? While B’nei Menashe immigrants have to earn a living like everyone else, it is shocking to be told by Demsat Haokip that he was simply instructed by Shavei Israel to report for work at a factory chosen for him with no knowledge of what pay he would receive or of what his job would entail. Have the B’nei Menashe been brought to Nof Hagalil as indentured servants who have no say in their own employment? True, most of them were farmers or day laborers in India; few have come to Israel with the skills or education that would benefit them in the Israeli job market. But is this a reason why, accompanied by a translator, they should not be allowed to visit an employment office and decide for themselves what is most suitable for them? How is it even possible to know what this might be unless they are interviewed fist? Many of the newcomers, even if they lack formal training, are good with their hands and with tools. Is putting swimming pool cleaners in boxes, as Demsat Haokip was assigned to do, the most they are capable of?


Demsat is in his mid-fifties: it may make little economic sense to invest in teaching him a trade that would equip him for a better job. Yet most of the B’nei Menashe immigrants of a working age are younger – and the Israeli economy is crying out for construction workers, mechanics, plumbers, welders, electricians, drivers, heavy-equipment operators, technicians of all kinds. Are the newcomers in Nof Hagalil who are in their twenties, thirties, and forties being offered vocational courses in these areas? Has anyone sat down with them and told them what the opportunities are? Are they being given any horizon in Israel other than decades of minimum-wage drudgery on factory production lines? And without a horizon, is it any wonder that some of them, according to Demsat, joke sadly about returning to India?


Of course, one can’t function well in Israel even as a mechanic or a welder without a basic working knowledge of Hebrew – and perhaps the greatest blunder in the Goren group’s absorption has been the failure to provide them with this. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry when Demsat’s describes, on the one hand, the unqualified Hebrew teachers in Nof Hagalil whom he gave up on after a few lessons, and on the other hand, Shavei’s requirement that the immigrants attend nighttime classes in Judaism. More classes in Judaism after months of them in the Absorption Center in Goren – is this, rather than Hebrew, what the immigrants need? Without Hebrew, their path to advancement in Israel is blocked, no matter how much religion they are taught


It may not be too late to correct at least some of the mistakes made in Nof Hagalil --- mistakes that replicate those made with every other group of B’nei Menashe olim brought by Shavei Israel in the last two decades . It is certainly not too late to prevent their recurrence in the future. This will only happen, however, if responsibility for the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah is transferred from Shavei to The Jewish Agency. After a long campaign waged by Degel Menashe, the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption has promised in writing to do this. (See our July 21 Website article: “Ministry of Aliyah: Ties With Shavei Ended.”) Now, it must be held to its promise.