An oasis of African-American soul in Israel’s desert
Deep in the heart of Israel’s Negev desert, where you would expect to find mostly camels and sand, a community of expatriate black Americans has made a new life for itself in towns like Dimona, Arad and Mitzpe Ramon.
They call themselves the African Hebrew Israelites, but they are better known in Israel as the Black Hebrews, a 2,000-strong religious group dressed in colorful African prints made of natural fabrics like silk and linen according to their doctrine. And while it’s taken most of the 40 years they’ve been residing in Israel to feel like part of the country, today Black Hebrews can be found in many facets of Israeli society – from the army to the entertainment industry.
“We are a people who have pride and are able to point to certain successes that have been elusive for the African world,” says national spokesman Ahmadiel Ben-Yehuda, who lives in Dimona, but spent time in Ghana, South Africa, and other African locations studying African cultural connections and migration patterns.
The Black Hebrews movement originated in Chicago in 1966 when their leader Ben-Ami Ben-Yisrael, then a steel worker named Ben Carter, had a vision where the Archangel Gabriel revealed to him that African Americans were descended from the lost tribe of Judah. In 70 CE, the Israelites were exiled from Jerusalem by the Romans and ended up in West Africa where they were later transported to America as slaves.
“Our only form of expression left when we got to the Western Hemisphere was songs and our only songs were of places in Israel,” Ben-Yehuda told ISRAEL21c on a visit to Dimona. “We didn’t sing about Mawi or Timbuktu, we sang about Jericho and Jerusalem. This is part of a tradition that they carried with them from West Africa into the Americas. Ben-Ami’s vision was not born in a vacuum.”
After the vision, Ben-Ami felt he had to return to life in Israel in order to fulfill the prophecy to create what the Israelites call a “Kingdom of Yah” or God on earth. He and 30 followers headed towards Israel by way of Liberia, because the prophecies said they would return the same way they came.
“It was a difficult experience for those who came out of the urban areas in America. It was not a return back to Africa. It was a return back to God,” said Ben-Yehuda.
After a two and a half year respite in Liberia, the first group of Black Hebrews entered Israel in 1969, eventually settling in Dimona, a desert town of 30,000 created in 1955 to accommodate an influx of new immigrants to Israel.
The Israeli government denied the group Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return because the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has ruled they are not halachically Jewish. But by 1990, the Black Hebrews acquired temporary resident status in an agreement reached with the Israel Ministry of the Interior, and in 2004, that status was upgraded to permanent residency.
“Who defined that?” Ben-Yehuda says about the status issue. “We do not let others define for us who we are. That’s why we would not convert, because that would mean acknowledgement that we were not who we said we were. Our lifestyle and our history are validation enough.”
“We hope to be recognized as citizens but citizens have to be halachically Jewish. We’re hoping that will change,” says another community spokesperson, Avichaim Ben-Israel.
Even if the government does not consider the Black Hebrews true Israelis, they do and have even adopted Israeli names in place of their former American names. The first
member of the Black Israelite community to enlist in the IDF, Uriahu Butler, was inducted into the army in July 2004. He has been followed by 100 other enlistments.
Despite the obstacles, the community, which allows the practice of polygamy and forbids the use of birth control and other pharmaceuticals unless absolutely necessary, has multiplied more than 60 times over since it first came to the Negev.
The presence today is ubiquitous throughout the Israeli landscape. They have created a 40-person professional choir and R&B;singing troupes which perform throughout the country and on TV. One member of the community, Eddie Butler, has represented Israel twice at the annual Eurovision Song Contest.
“I’m more than happy to represent the country I was born in. I love Jerusalem, I love Israel, I live for this country,” Butler told ISRAEL21c back in 2004 before his solo performance at the contest. “This is my home.”
Butler also represented Israel in the competition back in 1999 as part of a group, Eden, placing a respectable fifth.
The community, which maintains a strict vegan diet and exercise program, has also shown other ways to integrate into its adopted land, establishing famous vegan catering companies and restaurants throughout the country.
Regardless of their ongoing struggle for recognition, the African Hebrew Israelites continue to take pride in their practices and believe they will achieve their goal of becoming fully-fledged Israeli citizens this year.
“It’s all about lifestyle, it’s all about life choices, it’s all about an environment you can have control over,” Ben-Yehuda says with a smile. “We are certainly wanting and desiring to fulfill the prophecies that spoke about the great role of Israel to be a light unto other nations. That’s been our prophetic mission.”