By Andrew Esensten, The Forward
Elyahkeem Ben Yehuda could have become another statistic, growing up poor, black and fatherless on the west side of Chicago during the 1950s.
But he never had a run-in with the law, nor did he see the inside of a jail cell, until he moved to Israel to join the African Hebrew Israelite community. "I had to come to Israel to get my first experience in jail," he said. "But in those days, that was like a badge of honor, to be arrested for God and His people."
Last month, the 62-year-old Ben Yehuda - father of 10 children and husband of 3 women - became the first member of his community to gain full Israeli citizenship. Looking back on the hurdles he overcame since his 1971 arrival, Ben Yehuda mused, "I can only describe this journey in relationship to my forefathers," referring to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. "They were able to endure. As long as we put fulfilling the will of the God of Israel first, there's no challenge that we can't overcome."
The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem - or Black Hebrews, as they are more commonly known (though not all members are black) - have sparred with the Israeli government for decades over their right to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. It is a right they still do not have. But presaging Ben Yehuda's achievement last month, Israel granted the community permanent residency status in 2003, offering its 3,000 members a five-year path to apply for citizenship on an individual basis. It's a process that many others are now undertaking.
The Promised Land took many decades before putting out a welcome mat for the Black Hebrews. Asked by a newspaper reporter in 1980 what would happen if the Israeli government attempted to expel the entire community, as was widely expected then, the group's leader, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, replied: "If they send soldiers and the police, they could probably succeed in getting two-thirds of us out. The other third they would have to kill."
For much of its 40-year existence in Israel, the Hebrew community has been the subject of intense and hostile scrutiny, owed, in part, to its reputation as a cult, its belligerent attitude toward outsiders and its secrecy about the sometimes illegal methods used to bring its members to Israel.
As recently as 2005, The Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli police and the National Insurance Institute, in coordination with the FBI, were probing allegations of widespread insurance fraud within the community. The investigation ultimately led nowhere. At the time, Israeli officials blamed the closed nature of the community for hindering their investigation, while community leaders dismissed the charges as spurious and the investigation as racially motivated.
Yet, in contrast to the Post's depiction of a shadowy sect, the community is more open today than it ever has been, and it actively works to promote awareness about its unique culture. [The author was hosted inside the Black Hebrews? village from September 2007 to November 2008 while conducting research on an academic fellowship.]
Indeed, the community has gone from the fringes of Israeli society to the mainstream, with its gospel choir performing for heads of state, and its youth enlisting at age 18 in the Israel Defense Forces. Several Black Hebrews participated in IDF ground operations in Gaza during the most recent war against Hamas, according to community spokeswoman Yafah Baht Gavriel.
The past year has brought even greater acceptance for the Black Hebrews. In August 2008, Israel's president, Shimon Peres, celebrated his 85th birthday in Dimona, where he visited their settlement, the Village of Peace, and was effusive in his praise of Ben Ammi and his people. "Your community is beloved in Israel," Peres said. "You give the country happiness and song and hope for a better world." He assured the Black Hebrews that Israel does not tolerate discrimination, and he pledged to facilitate their transition to citizenship. "Our hands are in yours; your destiny must be our destiny," Peres said.
The founders of the Hebrew community are blacks, primarily from Chicago, who identify themselves as descendants of the Tribe of Judah and view Israel as their ancestral homeland. The Chief Rabbinate has never accepted their claim to Judaism - and they have always refused to convert as a group - but their relationship with the Israeli government has evolved over the past 40 years.
The Hebrew community was born of the black-separatist movement of the early 20th century, which rejected the possibility that African Americans could live as equals with white people in the United States. Even today, many Hebrews believe there is no future for blacks in America, although they operate missions in such places as Atlanta and Washington.
Ben Ammi Ben-Israel - born Ben Carter - is a former metallurgist from Chicago who says that the angel Gabriel appeared to him in a vision in 1966 and instructed him to deliver his people to the Promised Land from America. He is 69 years old and lives in Dimona with his four wives.
The first members arrived in Israel in 1969 via Liberia, where they had spent two-and-a-half years cleansing themselves of spiritual impurities in preparation for what they refer to as their prophetic return to Israel to establish the "Kingdom of God." Officials at what was then Lod Airport, however, did not know what to do with them when they stepped off the plane.
The government decided to send the initial group of 39 Black Hebrews to the impoverished Negev town of Dimona, expecting them to leave after their first taste of desert life. Despite their isolation and limited resources, the Black Hebrews thrived by drawing closer to one another and to Yah, the God of Israel, members of the community said.
Newer members seeking to join the community after 1969 were turned around at the border and told that their status as Jews was under debate. So they found other ways of entering the country - in one case, posing as a Christian tour group and sneaking down to Dimona in the middle of the night.
The 1970s and '80s were characterized by mass arrests and deportations on one side, and by accusations of racism and denials of the legitimacy of the Israeli government on the other. Israeli authorities threw Ben Yehuda and other community members in prison in 1973 when they tried to renounce their American citizenship at the American embassy in Tel Aviv. The Black Hebrews had hoped to avoid deportation for overstaying their temporary visas by becoming stateless, but many, including Ben Yehuda, were sent back to America.
The government did, in fact, send soldiers to Dimona on April 22, 1986. During what has become known in Black Hebrew lore as the Day of the Show of Strength, community members faced down dozens of Israeli troops who surrounded their village. Dressed in white robes, the Black Hebrews had threatened to march to Jerusalem to attract publicity for their plight. The army eventually backed down, and the planned march to Jerusalem was called off.
Relations began to improve steadily, beginning in 1990, when the government allowed community members to receive work permits.
According to Ben Ammi, the racially charged environment in America that the Black Hebrews left behind prevented them from having an uncomplicated relationship with the Israelis. "We arrived here with a chip on our shoulder," he admitted. "We weren't ready for any Europeans to tell us who we were."
The Black Hebrews strongly reject such labels as "sect" and "cult," and insist that they are not a religious group of any kind, but rather a community of truth seekers who live according to God's laws, as recorded in the Torah. Their lifestyle incorporates Baptist worship practices and elements of traditional African culture. The government appears to ignore their practice of polygamy, which is illegal in Israel. They fast on the Sabbath and are strict vegans. They also manufacture kosher vegan foods at their Dimona factory.
Like Karaite Jews, the Black Hebrews observe biblically mandated holy days but not those instituted by rabbinical decree, such as Hanukkah and Purim. They also celebrate their own holidays, including an annual spring festival called New World Kingdom Passover. Members from all over the world converge on Dimona for this two-day commemoration of the anniversary of the 1967 "exodus" from America, which they call the "Land of the Great Captivity."
This Hebrew community is perhaps best known outside Israel for the accomplishments of its performing artists - including Eddie Butler, who represented Israel in the international singing competition Eurovision in 1999 and 2006 - and for hosting such popular musicians as Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston. With former husband Bobby Brown, Houston visited the Village of Peace in 2003.
Still, it is a visit by Louis Farrakhan in 1975 and his public embrace of Ben Ammi in 2000 that leave many Jews in Israel and America still suspicious of the community. Farrakhan, head of the black nationalist Nation of Islam, is widely regarded by Jews and many others as antisemitic, because of speeches in which he has condemned, disparaged and threatened Jews as a people.
During his address at the October 2000 Million Family March in Washington, Farrakhan invited Ben Ammi to the podium and embraced him rhetorically as his "brother."
In a statement to the Forward, Ben Ammi described the relationship between the two groups as "cordial."
"Our contacts remain through the African-American social arena, where both communities are almost always represented," he explained. "During those gatherings, the subject matter has to do with issues of concern for the African-American community at large. Beyond that, there is an understanding that we voice the positions of the State of Israel and the NOI (Nation of Islam) the positions of the Arab world."
Another source of concern has been the alleged association of the Black Hebrew community with the more radical and often brazenly racist and violent Hebrew Israelite camps in the United States, including the Nation of Yahweh. There is no evidence to suggest this is the case, and Ben Ammi has long denied any relationship with such groups.
Over time, Ben Ammi said, the community leadership has learned to tone down its own anti-white and anti-Zionist rhetoric and to preach a more inclusive message. The group still hews to a theology that asserts the status of African Americans as the authentic descendants of the original Israelites, who they argue were dark-skinned. But, Ben Ammi said, "We've matured. The message has matured. And I feel that the people in the land, with the visit of President Peres, have matured also."
Their presence in Israel no longer contested, the Black Hebrews have established an urban kibbutz called Shomrey Ha'Shalom (Guardians of Peace) and secured a plot of land in the Mamshit area of Dimona for a new settlement that can better accommodate their rapidly growing community. A new gym will be built this year, next to their school, Beit Sefer Achvah (the Brotherhood School), with money from the national lottery.
Meir Cohen, mayor of Dimona, said that this group of people makes a valuable contribution to the cultural life of the city and country. Asked if he believed they were from the Tribe of Judah, he replied: "There is no doubt that the descendants of the Tribe of Judah and the other tribes traveled all over the world. You just have to discover them, or they have to discover themselves."
Andrew Esensten received a fellowship from Harvard University in 2007 to study the Hebrew community. He lived inside their village in Dimona from September 2007 to November 2008 and is currently writing a book about them.
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