Leaving the Hebrew Israelite Community May Cost Uninsured Ben Brown His Life

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Ben Brown.
Ben Brown.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Ben Brown was kicked out of the Hebrew Israelite community in Dimona several times until he left for good. Now it appears that this move may cost him his life.

The first time Brown, 43, was expelled from the community was when he was 16. “They caught me drinking cola,” he says. “We weren’t allowed to buy or eat anything outside the community.”

Last week Brown came to Soroka Medical Center after being diagnosed with a massive stomach tumor pressing on his liver. The doctor who diagnosed him wrote in his referral: “Requires immediate attention! Constitutes a danger to his life.”

After four days of hospitalization Brown was called in for surgery, but was told he would not be operated on without a referral from one of the HMOs to finance the procedure. However, Israeli-born Brown is not entitled to state health insurance or any health services at all. Officially, he has been an illegal alien since July 2015, when the Interior Ministry informed him that he had two weeks to leave the country. Had he stayed with the Hebrew Israelites, his status would have been completely different.

Brown was born in Dimona to parents who were among the founders of the Hebrew Israelite community established by Ben Carter (later Ben Ammi Ben Israel). He has 12 siblings. “I’m from the first generation born in the community. We didn’t go to a regular school but studied in the community,” he says.

The community’s rules and regulations did not suit him and he left. “My father used to convince me to return, but they’d throw me out again, for various reasons. For example, I refused to see Carter as God and ask him for forgiveness on Yom Kippur,” he says.

The Hebrew Israelites received legal residency in 1990, some two decades after settling in Israel, when the state gave them tourist visas with work permits. They were later given temporary residency and in 2003 then Interior Minister Avraham Poraz granted them permanent residence. In 2004, some of the youngsters started joining the army and in 2006 the community was recognized as an urban kibbutz.

The Hebrew Israelites' naturalization passed Brown by. Unlike his family members, his name wasn’t included in the list the community leaders gave the state authorities and he did not receive permanent residence. From 2004 to 2010 he held the status of temporary resident, which he had to renew annually. But the state has refused to renew his status 2011, after a trip to the United States.

Since then, he has spent his time between Israel and the United States, where his mother, who is very ill, lives.

In July 2015, after repeated residence requests, the Population Registrar refused to extend Brown’s stay in Israel, stating that the “center of his life” was abroad. “That’s where your parents and children are too,” the office said in a letter.

Brown’s is an American citizen and his parents are in the U.S., but he denies that his life is centered there. “I was born here and didn’t leave Israel until I was 20. I rent an apartment and am raising my 15-year-old son here, and work renovating houses, because I have no legal status at the moment,” he says.

Brown has nine children from five women. Two of the children live in Israel, one of them with Brown.

If he leaves Israel he won’t be allowed to enter the country again. The state's health coverage does not apply to non-residents, and they are not entitled to receive health services. This policy is mainly intended against labor migrants and asylum seekers. Brown, however, is neither a refugee nor a migrant worker. The only difference between him and the rest of the Hebrew Israelites is that he isn’t counted as a community member, so doesn’t have the same privileges and protection.

The Population Registrar commented: “Brown received temporary status in 2004. After that he left for a long period and has spent long periods out of Israel. The center of his life is no longer in Israel. His status was renewed in keeping with his life center. Seven of his nine children live in the United States. So do his parents. After examining his last request to renew his status, it was decided to refuse it.”