Ben Ammi Ben Israel, the spiritual leader of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem who led his community out of the inner cities of America through the jungles of Liberia to redemption in Israel, died Saturday. He was 75. The cause of death was not disclosed, though he had appeared gaunt in recent months.
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Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda announced his death at a community gathering on Saturday night. According to someone who was there, Ben Yehuda stated simply: “Abba has ascended.” (Ben Ammi was often referred to as “Abba Gadol,” or Great Father.)
His death came as a shock to his followers in Dimona and around the world, not just because he was revered as a messianic figure but also because he preached that death is an aberration and that physical immortality is attainable through a healthy, righteous lifestyle. Many turned to social media to express their grief and uncertainty about the future of the community; a number changed their profile photos to black squares. Classes at the community’s school in Dimona were cancelled on Sunday.
The African Hebrew Israelites, or Black Hebrews, are a spiritual community of African American expatriates and their Israeli-born offspring who believe they are the descendants of the Biblical Israelites. There are approximately 3,000 members living in Israel today.
In a statement released Sunday afternoon, spokesperson Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda said: “While obviously deeply saddened at the loss of our Holy Father’s physical presence, we are nevertheless emboldened in knowing that his spirit truly lives in each and every one of us. His example and focused commitment to Yah and His people will be an eternal flame in our hearts and a guiding light on our path.”
Ben Ammi Ben Israel was born Ben Carter on October 12, 1939 in Chicago, Illinois. After dropping out of high school, he joined the U.S. army and later worked as a metallurgist. (Over the years, many reporters erroneously identified him as a former bus driver from Chicago.) He recalled in a 2008 interview how his life changed when a black co-worker approached him at a water fountain in 1961 and asked him, “Did you know we are descendants of the Biblical Israelites?” In fact, he said, his parents had told him this when he was growing up but it did not seem relevant. Now he took the idea seriously. He began studying the Bible and learning Hebrew in hopes of finding his roots, along with a solution to the black struggle for civil rights in America. He allied himself with other Hebrew Israelites who favored migration over participation in the civil rights movement, and they established their own Hebrew Israelite congregation, Abeta Hebrew Culture Center.
In February 1966, he said the Angel Gabriel visited him while he was meditating and revealed that the time had come for Hebrew Israelites to return to their ancestral homeland of Israel and establish the Kingdom of God. The following year, he led an “exodus” of about 350 Abeta members and their families to Liberia. Isolated in the interior of the country, they struggled to support themselves and began moving to Israel in waves beginning in 1969.
The Chief Rabbinate did not recognize them as Jews, though, and they lived in Israel illegally for decades with no access to education or health care. In April 1986, the Border Police surrounded the Hebrews’ village in Dimona to try to stop them from undertaking a protest march to Jerusalem. Ben Ammi delivered an impassioned speech that day—later dubbed the Day of the Show of Strength—that is legendary within the community: “We returned to this land simply to worship the God of Israel! We’re sons and daughters of peace. We will not leave. We will wait. We will wait.”
The waiting would eventually pay off: they received work permits in the early 1990s and permanent residency in 2003. Community members can now apply for citizenship, and dozens have done so and received it. Ben Ammi’s application was initially rejected, allegedly because he was married to more than one woman in contravention of Israeli law. He petitioned the Supreme Court, which ordered the Interior Ministry to reconsider, and finally received citizenship in August 2013.
He was the author of many books, including “God, the Black Man and Truth,” and traveled widely in the U.S. and Africa, advocating a lifestyle predicated on veganism, regular exercise and strict adherence to Biblical law.
“It was an honor and a blessing to have known him,” Yafah Baht Gavriel, a community spokesperson, said by phone early Sunday morning. “We will continue to live our lives according to his teachings.”
When asked in 2008 why he thought the Angel Gabriel visited him and not somebody else, he replied: “When the vision first came, I didn’t feel that I was worthy. Prior to the coming of the vision, I was always in sorrow, I was experiencing the pain of my people. How did we get into this predicament, and how do we get out of this? What did we do to cause this calamity to fall upon us? And somehow I feel that the Creator felt some genuineness [in me]. I feel that as a result of that I was given the opportunity to alleviate the pain and the suffering that was continuously upon our people.”
Ben Ammi is survived by his four wives and more than 20 children.