The Bnei Israel Indian Community of Midbarit, Israel

Guy, Cynthia A.

     This study of the "Bnei Israel Indian community" of an Israeli town called Midbarit opens with a description of "the historical context in which Israeli immigrant absorption policies developed" and an explication of "the implicit cultural assumptions and explicit ideological values which inform the official Israeli policy toward Asian and African immigrants." Then "I . . . demonstrate how the cultural and ideological dimensions of immigrant absorption ideology . . . have informed the formulation and functioning of immigrant absorption policies and institutions in Israel. I . . . also describe the pattern of social relations among Asian/African and European/American Israelis which has emerged in these institutional contexts." Next, "I . . . describe the articulation and adaptation of the centralized policies and institutions described . . . to the specific local conditions in my fieldsite, the development town of Midbarit." This chapter demonstrates that the "formal organization of social life in Midbarit serves to reproduce the separation and class stratification of Asian/African and European/American Israelis, even as the policy makers and local administrators seek to operationalize the pioneer paradigm." In addition, it discusses "those features of the local structure of group relations which are not imposed by central institutions, but have emerged in the interaction of Midbarit's residents and through their adaptation to the formal institutional structure of the town. The discussion . . . [demonstrates] that in the emergent, informal social organization of Midbarit, country of origin is a relevant unit of identification and affiliation for Asians and Africans . . . . This chapter ends with the history and description of the Indian community of Midbarit, which is the focus of all subsequent discussion."
     The study reviews "Bnei Israel history and social structure and then proceeds to an analysis of Bnei Israel traditions relating to the constituting of their community in India. In this analysis I . . . examine Bnei Israel beliefs and practices relating to food transaction and marriage -- acts critical to the constitution and ordering of community life among Hindu South Asians. The objective of this analysis is to define and evaluate the Bnei Israel's 'Indian cultural heritage' in order to better understand the cultural construction of Bnei Israel communal identity and its institutionalization in Israel." This chapter shows that the "Bnei Israel utilized traditional South Asian strategies of communal inclusion and exclusion to constitute their community in Indian society. Characteristic normative patterns of conjugal union and food transaction served to generate solidarity and order differences within the immediate community and beyond its boundaries." The study then examines "the sociocultural construction of Bnei Israel community in Midbarit, Israel, to see if these conceptual aspects of their 'Indian cultural heritage' have survived in Israel, and how they have been expressed in the adaptation of the Bnei Israel to a new milieu. . . . I . . . examine native exegesis of the nature of their community and their relationship to non-Bnei Israel in India as compared to Midbarit. Then I . . . consider food exchange and marriage -- substance transactions most directly constitutive of community in the South Asian world view -- encountered in Midbarit. Finally I . . . discuss the cultural strategies and social organizations in which the Bnei Israel people constitute a distinct and special community, which is also part of the larger Jewish community."
     The study goes on to "demonstrate that over the years, the unity, separateness and uniqueness of the Indians in Midbarit has come to be interpreted by members of that community not only in terms of their biomoral nature as Bnei Israel Jews, but also in terms of their rights and expectations as Israeli citizens from India. In activities undertaken to achieve fulfillment of these rights and expectations, the Indian community of Midbarit is constituted as a social interest group." The concluding chapter looks at the broader question of "ethnicity in Midbarit and in anthropology.