Bnei Menashe Less Welfare-dependent Than Most Israelis

Only 4% of immigrants from northeast India require welfare compared with national average of 9%.

Cnaan Liphshiz
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Cnaan Liphshiz

New immigrants from northeast India are half as likely to require welfare payments than the average Israeli, according to the first socioeconomic study of this immigrant group.

The report, which was released Sunday, surveyed some 1,700 Israelis belonging to the Bnei Menashe - a group of a few thousand people from India and Myanmar (formerly Burma) who practice Judaism and trace their origins to 721 B.C. Israel.

According to the study conducted by Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit working to facilitate Bnei Menashe immigration, only four percent of Bnei Menashe in Israel require welfare payments. The national average is approximately nine percent.

Last month the government agreed to bring 7,232 Bnei Menashe from India, who will join the 1,700 already living here. The group first started immigrating to Israel in 1982; in 2003 they numbered 1,250.

Israel's government does not automatically recognize Bnei Menashe as new immigrants, but has allowed them to enter Israel in small groups on tourist visas. They receive new-immigrant status only after completing a one to two-year process of Orthodox conversion supervised by the Chief Rabbinate.

Michael Freund, the U.S.-born founder of Shavei Israel - which attempts to bring "lost" Jewish communities back into Judaism's fold - said that for this reason most Israeli Bnei Menashe never received "a [standard] absorption process with job training and Hebrew classes," forcing many to find low-paying jobs.

"Despite this, demonstrations of discontent are rare," the new study states. Its findings were compiled via questionnaires, interviews with hundreds of Bnei Maneshe and processing their socioeconomic data.

Noah Massil, who heads the Central Organization of Indian Jews in Israel, said he was not surprised by the study's results. "Welfare is not a concept that new Indian immigrants immediately understand, and the ones who do are very reluctant to accept charity because it's humiliating for Indian Jews," he said.

Massil, who immigrated to Israel from Mumbai 40 years ago, added that the Jewish community of India "had heard nothing about the Bnei Menashe before Israeli rabbis started flying there."

Freund said the Bnei Menashe are "fully aware" of all social benefits available to them. The study found that "nearly all" speak English, and all have a good command of Hebrew. Literacy is at 100 percent.

In 2006 and 2007, Shavei Israel brought 450 members of Bnei Menashe to Israel, setting up and funding an absorption process for them which included free housing, Hebrew classes and job training. Most graduates settled in the Galilee and the Negev. By contrast, most Bnei Menashe who did not undergo an absorption process settled in the West Bank, where the majority of community members reside today, the report noted.

"The Bnei Menashe are a close-knit community, and the ones in Israel will undoubtedly serve as the absorbing foundation for the 7,232 who will soon make aliyah," Freund said. "The study shows that this [group constitutes] a high-quality aliyah, which strengthens this country in whatever field one chooses to examine."



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