Recalling Their Show of Strength

Dimona's African Hebrews enjoy widespread support, but 25 years ago they had to stand down Israel's full might to avoid deportation of some of their members.

David Sheen
David Sheen
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David Sheen
David Sheen

It was 25 years ago today that 200 Border police officers, armed with guns, tear gas grenade launchers, helicopters and tanks descended on the communal village of African Hebrew Israelites.

Wearing all white and heeding their leader's call to "stay in your places" the community, known more commonly as Black Hebrews, stood its ground, a day it memorializes as the Day of the Show of Strength.

Black Hebrews facing off against Israeli Border policemen in 1986. Credit: Courtesy

Sitting in a modest meeting room filled with books and photographs, Yafah Gavriel recalls being one of the 1,500 African Hebrews besieged that day. "I remember a soldier who was standing right in front of us, and this soldier just had his gun trained on my daughter," she says. "But I could see, looking him straight in the eye, that he was afraid. He was afraid, because I'm sure that he didn't know what to expect, I don't know what [his commanders] had told him [about us]."

"I was like, 'Why do you have your gun on my daughter? Take your gun off of her, this is a baby, she is not going to hurt you.' It was just unbelievable," Gavriel recalls.

The soldiers were sent to prevent a peaceful march on Jerusalem to demand the release of 50 members of the Hebrew community that had been taken out of their beds for deportation, under the orders of then-Interior Minister Shimon Peres.

The African Hebrew Israelites have recently achieved a modicum of respect in Israeli society. Members of the community have represented Israel in international competitions, most notably the Eurovision song contest. Many of their children serve in the Israel Defense Forces. A few dozen members have even received full Israeli citizenship.

In 2008, President Peres celebrated his 85th birthday in Dimona with the Hebrews, and told them, "Your community is beloved in Israel." But 25 years ago, the situation couldn't have been more different.

Their spiritual community was founded by African Americans from Chicago in the late 1960s, led by Ben Carter, a factory worker who took on the name Ben Ammi Ben-Israel. The group drew its inspiration from the writings of 'back-to-the-land' activists like Marcus Garvey and Martin Delany - who wrote of Jewish national aspirations in 1852 - and the biblical narrative of the Passover exodus and the Israelite redemption from slavery to freedom.

The group made its way to Israel, via Liberia, after concluding they could not improve their political and spiritual condition in the U.S.

"Great African American civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others, had certain principles that they had championed in the midst of our people, but those things were never fully realized there. But we've done more to make real the dreams that they articulated, here," says Nasikh Immanuel Ben Yehuda, a community leader. "We've had the opportunity to forge here a new social, political, economic structure to a whole other standard."

The African Hebrews started to arrive in Dimona soon after the Six Day War, but didn't have proof to qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return.

Without residency permits, the African Hebrews were forced to work under the table for low wages, without any benefits, and at the mercy of their sometimes-unscrupulous employers. Without decent income, the African Hebrews were forced to live in abject poverty, close to starvation, up to 40 people per four-bedroom apartment. Without legal status, they were always at risk to be rounded up and summarily deported.

"You remember that Passover where all we had was honey water," asks Ben Yehuda. "I think we had one meal a day and the children had two per day."

The appearance of people with different skin tones, food customs and clothing styles - the health-conscious Hebrews adhere to a strict vegan diet and only wear clothing made of natural fibers - set them apart from their Negev neighbors.

The story of their struggle and eventual acceptance is striking against the backdrop of the government's current policy vis-avis asylum-seekers and foreign workers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Far East.

Just as Black Hebrews were accused of bringing criminal elements into Israeli society, an idea refuted by a Dimona police spokesperson in a 1978 Haaretz article, a knesset report from earlier this year shows asylum-seekers as more law-abiding than average Israelis.

Black Hebrews were also systematically refused places to rent, according to a Haaretz article from 1977, and some still are, according to community-member Cathrielah Baht Israel.

In 1972 Haaretz reported that MK Menachem Yadid, who founded and chaired the south Tel Aviv chapter of the Herut party (forerunner of the Likud party ), accused the African Hebrews of being a front group for hostile foreign forces, an accusation that has also been leveled against asylum-seekers.

Some Black Hebrews also draw parallels between their own past experiences and the current struggles of the African refugees in Israel.

"Historically, we know that the people who lived in this land two, three, four thousand years ago were much darker than those sitting in the Knesset offices today," says Sar Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, a community spokesperson. "So there's an irony to making it problematic for those who are refugees, when the state was created for and by refugees, those in need of refuge."

"Naturally we can't just expect the country to open its doors to all comers, just whoever can make it here, we'll accept you. There must be some middle ground," says Ben Yehuda. "But certainly there has to be some type of enlightened way in which we approach the issue, without just blanketly trying to build fences, and then detain those in the Negev to keep them from 'defouling' the great State of Israel. There has to be some middle ground."

Michael Chereshsky, John Maloney, Nicole Yeo and Riva Gold also contributed to this article.

President Shimon Peres celebrating with community leader Ben Ammi Ben-Israel in 2008 to mark Peres’ 85th birthday.Credit: Alex Levac



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