Black Hebrew sect gains acceptance in Israel UPI

Yadah Bat-Yisrael grew up believing Israel was a place in heaven, a spiritual wonderland.

But 20 years ago, in the course of her work as a television producer in Washington, D.C., she met a representative of the Black Hebrew sect. He convinced the young African-American woman that she belonged to one of the lost tribes of Israel and must move to the land of her dreams.

”My soul didn’t rest in America,” she said.

She quit her job at the local CBS affiliate, changed her name from Lorraine Newman to Yadah and flew to Israel. For the past two decades she has lived as an illegal alien in a country that rejects her claim to being Jewish.

Now Yadah and the other 1,500 Black Hebrews are on their way to becoming citizens of the Jewish state. In return they have dropped the anti-Zionist rhetoric that had antagonized previous governments. In March, Israel granted the Hebrews temporary residence permits under a 1990 agreement opening the door to full citizenship in 1998.

”We see our destiny as tied to that of the state of Israel,” said the group’s spiritual leader, Ben Ammi Ben-Yisrael, 53. ”We are part of the state of Israel, and anything confronting Israel confronts us.”

The group’s unique style also has become a subject of fascination for Israelis.

Hebrew ”soul bands” and choirs have started bringing their vibrant music to audiences around the country. One even performed at an Israeli Independence Day concert in their desert hometown of Dimona. Handmade Black Hebrew clothing is becoming the rage in Tel Aviv, and Ben Ammi himself has become a recognized face on television talk shows.

The Hebrews, often disparaged as cultists and child abusers, were formed in 1966 when Ben Ammi, a welder, began preaching his philosophy from a Chicago storefront. He said God had told him many of the blacks taken to America as slaves were originally Jewish and it was time for them to return to the Promised Land.

”The word of God came unto me,” he said. ”I believed it. I followed the plan.”

Most of Ben Ammi’s recruits expressed their newfound Jewishness by adopting Hebrew first names and changing their last names to Ben- or Bat-Yisrael, son or daughter of Israel.

Followed by a few hundred adherents, Ben-Ammi traveled to the West African country of Liberia in 1967 for a time of ”adjustment” before re-entering the Promised Land.

In 1969 a small group of Hebrews entered Israel on three-month tourist visas and never left. Over the years their numbers grew, and the government gave the poor community housing in the Negev desert town of Dimona while it debated whether to deport them.

Because they were not recognized as Jews under rabbinical law, the Hebrews did not have the right to instant citizenship that the state of Israel grants other Jewish immigrants. Their case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the government had the legal right to deport them, but recommended against such action, arguing it would be viewed as racist by other countries.

The Black Hebrews live a firmly structured life based on Ben Ammi’s interpretation of the bible.

The Hebrews do not smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. They are strict vegetarians who refrain from eating even milk and eggs, and they wear colorful fringed clothing made from natural fiber. They observe the Sabbath by fasting from Friday night to Saturday night in order to rest their inner as well as outer bodies.

For many Hebrews this strict lifestyle is the salvation that rescued their children from the American ghetto. They consider the inner-city life they left a prison in which their families were doomed to live with drug wars, gang violence and racist attacks.

”I’m really scared to go to the States,” said Adiv Ben-Yisrael, 19, whose parents brought him to Israel when he was 10. ”It seems no one has any type of control over their destiny.”

The Black Hebrews have about 3,000 followers in America, and Ben Ammi claims there are about 500,000 blacks of Jewish descent living there.

The sect has gained influence in the black community, and is often visited by the black rhythm and blues band The Neville Brothers when the band performs in Israel.

The Nevilles, who met some Hebrews at a concert in Israel a few years ago, dedicated an album to the sect.

The Black Hebrews live in three towns in the Negev desert: Dimona, Arad and Mitzpe Ramon. The Hebrew villages in these communities are run as partial communes. The members pay a portion of their salaries to the village to support a communal dining hall, a shared sewing room and the Hebrew’s own school and maternity ward.

In the community in Dimona, the largest Hebrew village with 1,000 residents, boys with knit head coverings play basketball under the glaring desert sun. Children swarm between white buildings the Hebrews built themselves and small garden plots where the Hebrews are experimenting with agriculture.

After their arrival in Israel, the Black Hebrews got into the habit of attacking the government and the Jewish establishment. European Jews, they said, were not true Jews. Ben Ammi exhorted American blacks to rescue Israel from the usurpers.

The sect also has been plagued for decades by scandals such as a 1972 axe murder and their neighbors’ accusations of child abuse, a charge Ben Ammi vehemently denies.

”There is no child abuse, but there is certainly firm discipline,” he said. ”With no discipline there is no order, with no order there is no God, with no discipline there is no God,” he said.

Those allegations, along with the anti-Zionist rhetoric, prompted Israel to deport more than 50 Hebrews, among them Yadah’s husband. But the government ran into trouble when the rest of the Hebrews renounced their American citizenship, said David Efrati, an Interior Ministry offical dealing with the sect.

”If we wanted to deport them, we would have had no place to deport them to,” he said.

Eventually realizing the Hebrews weren’t going to leave Israel, the government acquiesced and granted them legal status. Under a 1990 agreement, the Hebrews were reinstated as American citizens and given a U.S. grant of $1 million to build a new school and pay off debts.

In March, the government gave the Hebrews temporary residency status, which will change to permanent resident status in 1995 if there are no problems.

But Ben Ammi still dreams of ”complete citizenship with all the responsibilities.”

For the first time this dream seems possible.

After three years as permanent residents, the Hebrews will be able to apply for citizenship — at the expense of their newly-regained American citizenship.

”I am optimistic that in the future they will be good citizens of Israel,” Efrati said.

Dimona residents also believed that the Hebrews, many of whom have spent most of their lives in Israel, have deep roots in the town, which is a mosaic of immigrants from around the world. ”They have a connection here,” Dimona municipal spokesman Motti Chiyun said. ”They are working here, they are living here. People love them.”

But even with the new warmth in the relationship between the Hebrews and their Israeli neighbors, Yadah, who is now in charge of public relations for the sect, admits it will take time for them to be accepted as equal members of society.

”We’ve all been in the Diaspora in different places in the world,” Yadah said. ”Upon this return it will take a little while for us to get to know each other.”

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