They Have No Other Country

The Hebrew Israelites of Dimona consider themselves Israelis in every respect. Now they want the state to give them citizenship and minimal living conditions. In return, they will agree to end polygamy.

Daniel Ben Simon
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Daniel Ben Simon

Even if their living conditions, which are unfit for humans, do not change in the future, the attitude of the Hebrew Israelites will remain the same. They will continue to love Israel, to see it as the land of their forefathers and to bless every moment they enjoy its sacred atmosphere. However, their connection to Israel also has a more material side.

"Take the great United States and you'll understand that there is no place more dangerous than it is," explains Mazael Ben Israel. "Here in Israel you can walk out of the bank with a big wad of dollars and count the money and no one will touch you, or try to steal the money from you. But if, heaven forbid, you take $20 out of the bank in New York, several thugs jump on you to rob you."

Tsfira, the third of Ben Israel's wives, chimes in enthusiastically: "A while ago," she relates, "I went to visit my family in America. My cousin told me to take all the jewelry off my neck and hands, because she was afraid they would be stolen from me. Here I go around without the fear that I will be robbed or mugged."

Ben Israel knows what he is talking about. Before he discovered that Israel was the land of his forefathers, he was a tough cop in New York. He was 23 when he divested himself of his uniform and immigrated to his new country. Since then, 27 years have gone by and he now feels Israeli in every respect: up-to-date Hebrew studded with slang, Israeli friends, an Israeli way of life. He lacks only two things to feel truly Israeli: "I want the state to recognize my status and give me citizenship," he says, "and I want minimal living conditions so that I can feel like a normal person."

Ben Israel's living conditions are unbearably difficult, and his extraordinary lifestyle is one reason why. In his small apartment in the tiny ghetto of the Hebrew Israelites in Dimona crowd his 20 children, his three wives and several grandchildren. And as if this were not enough, there are three additional families living in this improvised tin shack, which has been stretched as far as it can go. In recent years he has added, one after the other, two small rooms to house his growing family, but the "population explosion" in the apartment still threatens to disrupt the inhabitants' lives.

"Look, look," says Ben Israel as he leads his guests among the tiny rooms. "On this bed sleep three children, on the bed above it sleep another two and here my second wife sleeps with two of the children. Eight children sleep in that room. It's impossible to live like this. We're really living like sardines. It's a nightmare. You want to go to the bathroom in the morning and you discover that there's someone inside, and a long line waiting outside."

Dozens of children, his and the neighbors', sit on the living room floor with their eyes glued to a small television set that has been placed in the center of the room. They are so involved in the cartoon that they are not bothered by the stifling heat in the room, where breathing is difficult. The curtains on the window are drawn and prevent air from coming in. The smaller children roll around on the floor, whining and restless.

"It's true that it's hard, but we hold out because of our faith," explains Yedah Bat Israel, a veteran member of the community, who is wearing an African outfit, with her head covered in an elaborately arranged length of cloth. Before she came to Israel as a "new immigrant" 30 years ago, she worked as a television producer in Washington. Her Hebrew is fluent, but now and then she has to borrow a word or two from her native language to stress something in particular. Yedah is a neighbor of Mazael Ben Israel and in her apartment other members of the community are crowded in with their dozens of children.

"Don't think that I don't have doubts sometimes," she adds in fluent Hebrew. "Sometimes I get up in the morning and I ask myself why I need all this. The noise, and the children who cry at night, and the crowding, and the hardship and all the rest of the problems. But very quickly I straighten out and return to my faith in the path I have chosen. To my regret, the Israelis do not yet understand why we have come to this country. We came from the United States, which had been the country of our slavery for hundreds of years. For us, coming here is like the Exodus from Egypt for the Children of Israel. The black nation in America has become a destroyed nation. There are more than two million black people in prisons and the rest live just like slaves. We came to Israel after a long interval during which we wandered in Africa and were taken into slavery in America. We were a nation of slaves and we survived thanks to our faith that one day we would return to our promised land of Israel."

The `Soweto of Dimona'

More than three decades after they "returned to their historical homeland," they are hoping for a change in their status - no longer trespassers who have settled illegally on state land, but rather full citizens, entitled to live in this country as equals among equals. Their first aim is to free themselves of the insulting nickname, "Black Hebrews," which has stuck to them and continues to bother them. They would like to be called "Israelites" or "Children of Israel" or "Hebrew Israelites." Defining them by the color of their skin seems to them to be an obstacle to their integration into Israeli society.

If new obstacles do not crop up (see box), the members of the community might win their new status, as well as new housing in Dimona or elsewhere. According to Dimona Mayor Gabi Lalouche, the existing situation cannot go on. He expects the government to find a permanent solution for the members of the community; otherwise, he says, he will demand that they be expelled from the small strip of land that is within his municipal jurisdiction. The problem became urgent after a fire broke out in the compound and threatened to burn down apartments with their inhabitants. Firefighters who were called to the scene were astonished to discover a faulty electricity system that had been rigged up by the residents. Prior to that, the national fire chief had contacted Lalouche and informed him of the gravity of the safety hazards that exist in such a small and crowded compound. After that warning and the fire, Lalouche issued evacuation orders for the thousands of members of the community, and at the same time took up the problem with the relevant state authorities, first and foremost the prime minister.

"It is a disgrace that an enlightened country accepts the fact that dozens of people are living in one room," he explained. "It's inhumane. This is the Soweto of Dimona."

Five years ago, the "Hill Neighborhood" was completed, a prestigious development of stylish villas and cottages. Yossi Ohayon's house overlooks the compound of the Hebrew Israelites, located only meters away from the broad verandas of the upscale area. Ohayon says that his opinion reflects those of other residents of the neighborhood: He says the members of the traditional community should be evacuated from the land on which they are living. "Their behavior is different from ours," he says. "Their food is not like ours, their norms are different. Everything is different. So they should decide. Do they want to be like us - or different from us? If they don't want to be like us - they should go."

But his neighbor, Mrs. Zini, will miss the members of the community if they have to leave. In her opinion, they have brought life and color to the neighborhood. "They're so nice," she says, "and they're so quiet. We should be as clean as they are. You won't find any dirt in their homes, even though there's no room to move in the rooms." She says she would especially miss the sounds of their singing on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. On those days, the members of the community gather to sing songs of praise for their new land.

Polygamy is natural

The community's dream is to become an old-style kibbutz - like in the days before privatization. Or if not a kibbutz, then a moshav. When this happens, they say, they will all live together and earn their bread directly from the land, to fulfill the vision of organic nourishment they have imposed on themselves. They will open a guest house to attract tourists and Israelis who are seeking an alternative lifestyle. The members of the community live an ascetic life that includes a vegan diet, fundamentalist education and rules of behavior appropriate to a closed sect. They have a permanent spiritual leader, Ben Ami Carter, and 12 princes who are subordinate to him.

The polygamy that is practiced among members of the community has attracted the attention of the authorities. "We live in a holistic way," explains Gabriel Ben Israel, one of the 12 princes. He is married to four women, is the father of 13 children and the grandfather of more than 50. Soon one of his granddaughters will be married in a festive ceremony to be held in the compound. "We are like a clock in which all the parts are connected," he added. "The veganism is based on the Bible and so is the polygamy."

However, polygamy still causes some discomfort among the women of the community, who seem to have been obliged to come to terms with the phenomenon because of pressure from the spiritual leaders. Ben Israel, the one with three wives, is considering taking a fourth and adding her to his extended family. According to him, no normal man does not lust after other women in his heart. "I am realizing what other men dream of and fantasize about," he explained. Before he decides, he will consult his three wives and convince them that the move is inevitable.

Yedah, the former television producer, listened to his comments and nodded in agreement. "It's natural for a man to marry several women," she explained. "There are more women than men and therefore it is better that they be married to the same man than to be single. Monogamy is not a truthful thing. In any television movie you see that the man has a mistress in every town. Only if you stop thinking about this with a Western mind will you understand that polygamy is good for men and women."

The members of the community are aware that the day they become Israeli citizens, their lifestyle - especially the polygamy - could be seen as contrary to the laws of the state. Judging from their expressions, they would be willing to pay the necessary price in order to become full Israelis. "We have no other country," explains Tsfira, Mazael Ben Israel's third wife. In performances around the country, she often sang the song "Ein lanu eretz aheret" ("We Have No Other Country") and noticed the great emotion on the part of her audiences. She felt it, too.

The permanent status precedent

Before they decide on permanent status for the members of the black community, the decision-makers will have to peruse an internal document of the police intelligence department, which expresses clear reservations about awarding such status to what is called "the Black Hebrew cult."

"The Black Hebrews see themselves as part of the Ten Tribes that were exiled from the Land of Israel by the Romans in the year 70 C.E.," explains the document. "The leader of the group, Ben Ami Carter, worked as a driver before he studied Judaism and began to gather black believers around him who called themselves Jews. In 1966 a voice from heaven informed Carter that he had been chosen by God to lead his people to the Land of Israel. They went to live in Liberia and after being expelled from there, decided to come to Israel.

"Ben Ami Carter is the absolute ruler of the community and is considered by the members of the cult to be the holy Messiah and the redeemer of his people. The members of the cult call him `father' and `rabbi.' They bow down to him and his words are sacred to the members of the cult. Ben Ami serves as the supreme judge and is entitled to marry and excommunicate members of the cult.

"Children constitute 60 percent of the members of the community, who live as a commune. They do not smoke, their diet is based on fruits and vegetables, they do not drink alcohol and their clothing is made of only natural materials. From the beginning of the Sabbath until its end they are obliged to fast. The children are also obliged to fast.

"The members of the cult are polygamous, and are allowed to take up to seven wives. All the children are born through natural childbirth. The members of the cult refuse to be counted in the census and the numbers of births and deaths are not known to the authorities. The community buries its dead in the Dimona dump.

"In return for a permanent residence arrangement, the Black Hebrews have committed themselves to end polygamy. The state will recognize the existing situation at the time of the initial registration, but in future there will be no possibility of registering additional marriages. ... there is scope for discussing whether granting residence rights to the members of the cult will lead to processes of mingling and integration into Israeli society ... Granting permanent status is an act that expresses legitimacy [conferred] by the state on the group and its way of life. We find it necessary to note that such a decision could serve as a precedent for other groups living in Israel."

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