Single Mom, Former Black Hebrew, Aspiring Politician

Ayelett Shani
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Ayelett Shani

Evonyah Fowler, a single mother with five children, lives in Mitzpeh Ramon and works in a garment factory. Originally one of 14 children from a family of Black Hebrews, she left the community and decided in recent years to work to promote change in her workplace and in her city. This week she ran on the Meretz ticket in the local election, but failed to make it into the city council.

Prior to the election, Haaretz cought up with the aspiring politician to find out what change she had hoped to effect in the city.

If you're elected, will you keep working at the garment factory?

"Of course. The garment factory is my livelihood. It's my job. I find time for things that are important that could help my future and my children's future. So I have no problem working all day, even until 2 A.M."

What do you do at the factory?

"I'm in charge of automatic machines that sew buttonholes and pockets. It's a job where you're on your feet all the time, there's no sitting down. I start at 7 A.M. We have a 15-minute break in the morning and then another half-hour break in the afternoon. Until

4 P.M. I'm in the sewing section, near the machines, and from 4 P.M. until 6 P.M. I do cleaning around the plant."

Very hard work.

"Yes, but I'm used to it. It's okay."

You were born here in Mitzpeh Ramon, as part of the Black Hebrew community from Dimona.

"Yes, I was born in a place called Beit Hayim that belongs to the community. All the babies are born there."

And how did you come to head the Meretz list in Mitzpeh?

"We joined forces, a few of us who wanted to create change. We sent an email to Meretz. We wrote that we had a group of people who want to do good things, to have an impact on the Mitzpeh Ramon city council. [Meretz head] Zahava Gal-On read it and three days later we were there having a meeting."

Your manager at the garment factory, Itzik Berger, is No. 2 on the list that you head.

"Yes. I told him I wanted to run for the council and be more involved in the city. I insisted that he come on board, too."

Your social involvement really started because of the garment factory. Three years ago you led the struggle against its threatened closure.

"Yes. When I understood what was behind the closure of the factory debts from years before I decided to fight. I thought that we, the workers, shouldn't have to pay the price for other people's mistakes. So Itzik Berger and I, and two other women who work at the factory, decided to make phone calls, to speak with journalists. We brought Channel 10 here."

What did you learn from that experience?

"That I have power and that I have something to say. And I was heard. I really felt like an Israeli, that I was shouting something and being heard."

And why did you decide to go into politics now?

"I and a few other people from the community, who left, realized that we've been living here for nearly 40 years but we're not involved in what's happening around us in education, welfare, community center services. It's our fault because we closed ourselves off, but if we take ourselves in hand, we have a lot to contribute and can improve a lot because of our way of life. Just look how many people are becoming vegan now, for example."

Many of the principles of the Black Hebrews from Dimona are really in tune with the spirit of the times: ecology, veganism, reduced consumption.

"That's true. We think that people shouldn't be running to the store all the time. It's not good for the environment, either. Many things can be made at home. We know how to sew, we thought of opening a small place, to sew and sell clothes. We thought of getting some land, to build a farm and grow things. What better place could there be than Mitzpeh Ramon?"

Tell me a little about your life.

"I come from a family of 14 brothers and sisters. My father is a kohen (priest) in the community. My biological mother had 10 children, and my 'second mother' had four more."

You have five children.

"Yes, they were all born at home. The father of the eldest is from the Black Hebrews and the other four are from another father. An Israeli. Most of my time is devoted to supporting the family. I'm the sole provider. Always."

Family trauma

What is your family's story with the Black Hebrew community? When did your mother make aliyah?

"In 1973. She was 18 and grew up in a devout family in Chicago. They raised her on the idea that God exists and that the United States is not really their country. My mother thought there was a better way to live, to get close to God, and when she heard about this group, she joined. She was in Dimona for a few months and then moved to Mitzpeh Ramon. It's is a small place. Everyone knows everyone. In Mitzpeh it doesn't matter what ethnicity you are and what color your skin is. Or at least that's what I thought before I started to run for office."

What's happened since you became a candidate? What have you seen?

"I've seen that a lot of the kisses and hugs, and the way people call each other 'my brother' and 'my sister,' are not real. We get a lot of nasty responses on Facebook, saying that our group is crazy and who do I think I am. And that they could send me back where I came from and that the state doesn't owe me any rights and that we ought to be thrown out."

Who is writing these things?

"Local residents."

You never experienced any displays of racism before you got into politics?

"I did, but just a little. And it was just on the part of the religious. I always felt different because of the color of my skin, but I truly felt that people liked me."

Relations between the community and the outside are very complex.

"Yes. In the community, power is reserved for the adult males. Knowledge is power and they want to keep all the information to themselves. The people leading the community hid many things. It's still happening. Women and children, and men who don't have a high standing, are only permitted to go to certain places. If they travel outside the city they have to inform someone above them. They have to obtain approval for [taking a job in] their place of work. We have a lot of intelligent people in the community and I never understood why they never did anything with this. Higher education is acceptable only up to a certain limit. Not just for women, for men too. At this point the leader of the community doesn't have much power anymore. The newer generations are leaving. There's nothing to go back to. There's no continuity."

So your community is crumbling.

"Yes, it's over. The new generation won't agree to the rules, it sees that these rules are all about control, that they're not designed to help us get ahead. I'm so glad I'm not inside all that anymore. Even now they're still trying to tell me what to do."

You left the community?

"Yes, years ago. I don't represent the Black Hebrews of Dimona, but there is a big group that left the community and still lives here in Mitzpeh. Almost all of them have mixed with Israelis; they have an Israeli husband or wife. And among ourselves we talk about what we've been through in life, and about the future that we'd like to have. When we were kids, the leaders sent the men and the women to work, and they had to give their money back to the community. At the time we didn't yet have any rights or status from the state, an members of the community were getting expelled from the country. I have a lot of friends whose parents were expelled, while they remained here and were divided up among the other families.

"I grew up in a home with one father and two mothers. We were 14 brothers and sisters in a two-room house. We had only the basics. We didn't buy clothes, we sewed everything ourselves. By age 8 I'd learned how to sew. We ate the cheapest food: bulgur, cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes, a lot of [things made with] flour. The nutrition wasn't good. A lot of children weren't healthy because of the food. When I was 8, the community decided to take all the children from Arad and Mitzpeh, and transfer them to Dimona, and that's when I began living away from home. We had no way to go home, not even for a visit. There was no money for any traveling."

Your parents didn't object?

"I remember that my mother cried. Even now we still keep trying to tell her to stop being a pushover, that she's losing her children and the family because of the foolishness of the leaders. She's gradually learning. She cried then and didn't want me to go, but it didn't help. She's had a very hard life. My father is hardly ever home, because he has to support the family. The elders in the community could just come in the house and tell her what to do and what not to do. Their control is very strong. They tell you what they think and expect you to follow suit. They put me with a family in Dimona. It was very hard for me. I started wetting the bed. I became a different girl."

I've read some terrible stories about the community, about sexual abuse and violence.

"They [the new family] were nice. Just one woman with a daughter and two older sons. I lived there until I was 10. For the most part it was okay. Certainly compared to what I heard from some of my girlfriends, but things happened. I cried a lot. It was hard to be far from home. To move from one family to another. When I was 10 I was placed with another family. Things happened when I was with this second family, too. By then I took it as something normal. Our world was not easy. I have a brother and sister who are still in a bad way because of the trauma they suffered in the community."

What happened to them?

"We were raised to be fearful. Woe to anyone who showed self-confidence. What the adults say is what goes. My father still believes that an older person always knows better."

You managed to return home?

"When I was 15, the leaders selected a group of children - I was one of them - and they took people from the community who taught acting and music and dance, and we all moved into a very big house in Arad. They called it an 'academy.' We lived there for three years. We studied acting, singing, dance. We performed in Israel, we also traveled to America and Ghana. It opened my eyes. Suddenly I saw things. This place really boosted my self-confidence, it gave me the sense that I was worth something.

"In my last year in Dimona, we were recruited to be what they call 'brother and sister.' This means that men can come to us and propose marriage. But after I was at the academy, and after I'd seen the world a little and saw what there was outside the community, I didn't like the fact that there were men hovering like vampires around the girls. I didn't like the much older men proposing marriage to young girls. It was disgusting. I didn't feel I had anything in common with people of my generation either. I had a different mindset. I was living in Mitzpeh, with my parents and whichever siblings were at home, and I started to work."

Where did you work?

"Where I work today, at the garment factory."

Name deleted

What did you think about life? What did you want to be?

"I didn't think too much. I knew that I wanted to help my mother and my family. To help support them. I took all kinds of course. I learned how to be a preschool teacher. I opened a nursery school but after a couple of years a lot of religious people came to Mitzpeh and started to make trouble for me. They didn't want to send their children to my nursery school. I went back to the garment factory."

Why did you leave the community?

"When I was 20 I had a relationship with someone from the community. I didn't really have any knowledge about my body yet. I got pregnant, even though we were hardly ever together. After I got pregnant I left the community because I didn't want to go through all the punishment. Having your head shaven, for instance. They wanted to force us to be together. I refused."

What was the reaction in the community? They must have been angry.

"Very, very angry. First of all, there was an older man who'd been interested in me since I was very young. He wanted me to become his wife. So they were very angry. They issued an announcement, they went from house to house and said: 'No one is allowed to speak with Evonyah. We're deleting her name from all the books.' My father didn't speak to me for a long time. He tried to prevent my siblings from being in touch with me. My mother cried a lot."

That was a very brave step. Do you think it was the boldness of youth, or is it part of your character?

"Both. When I make up my mind about something, I see it through. I saw my mother crying and that was very painful for me, but I stuck to my decision."

Sad. It also echoes your leaving when you were a young child. Again your mother is crying and again you're leaving, but this time because you want to.

"Yes, that's right. And I also did it right in her face. I already knew the children's father then, we were friends, and I asked him if I could move in with him. He came to pick me up. I came home from work, he arrived, I packed up all my things and got into his car. Everyone was watching. Usually, even if somebody leaves the community, they do so quietly, at night. But not me. I also knew that I was going to stay here in Mitzpeh, that they would still see me. A lot of people who leave go to Tel Aviv or Eilat, to avoid the shame of being seen. I didn't feel any shame at all."

How are you promoting yourself now, before the election?

"I'm only speaking with people who know me. That's it. I'm taking baby steps now. I have very good, strong people behind me. I think I have integrity. I genuinely care about the people who live here. There's no other reason. There's no money in this. It's not about personal gain."

Do you have dreams?

"I'd like to be in politics, but not in the dirt, or for the power. Just for the sake of strengthening women and telling them that they're worth something. Especially the young women."

You've had a tough life. But you seem at peace with it. There's no anger in you.

"Yes, what I went through will stay with me for the rest of my life, but I also don't forget the good that I received. That I got to be in that academy. Lately I've been hearing a lot of older people in the community talking with the younger people about how things were. Some even ask for forgiveness. They came here as young people, it was hard for them too, maybe they didn't really understand what it does to the children."

So you forgive.

"Yes. I forgive but I don't forget."

Evonyah FowlerCredit: Gali Eytan
Evonyah FowlerCredit: Gali Eytan
Evonyah FowlerCredit: Gali Eytan

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