Hebrew Israelite Youths Gear Up for Draft

Some 63 Hebrew Israelite teenagers reported to the Be’er Sheva draft office last week – for the first time in the community’s three-decade history in Israel. The youths are slated to be drafted for military service in the IDF over the next few months. ?The draft letters that the 17 and 18 year-olds received last month represent a big step forward in the community’s long and difficult struggle with the Ministry of Interior. After more than 30 years in Israel, Hebrew Israelites received blue identity cards late last year, and the half hour journey to Be’er Sheva was just one manifestation of their newly coveted status. “I was born in Israel, I live in Israel, and so I should help defend Israel,” Toosheyah, a soft-spoken 17-year-old with a loosely fitting dress and perfectly braided hair explained.

In the past, community requests to volunteer for army service had been repeatedly and systematically ignored, says Avraham, who moved to Dimona in 1969, and goes by the uniform Hebrew Israelite surname of Ben Israel. “We never had the proper paperwork, and so serving in the army was never seriously considered,” he says. “It never seemed fair, though. I grew up watching other people die, watching other people’s parents grieve, and here we were, playing around and having a good time. We wanted to take responsibility.” Believing themselves to be descendants of the 10 lost tribes, the community members were led out of the U.S. in 1967 in an organized exodus by Ben Ami Carter, a former Chicago bus driver. They settled temporarily in Liberia in Western Africa before moving to Dimona in 1969, but were only granted temporary resident status in 1991. Permanent residency came late last year.

Serving in the army is therefore one way for the community to prove its connection and dedication to a society that continues to regard it as a somewhat extraneous other. The insular community of 2,500 in Dimona is very much sheltered, both geographically and culturally, and though members of the community say they’re more open now than in past decades, the gap that divides these twelfth graders from their Israeli peers is wide and rather gaping. The teenagers were born in Israel, and yet they speak English as though they were raised in urban America; their Hebrew is fluent, and yet there is no getting around the thick and decidedly non-Israeli accents that mark their speech patterns. “Hebrew is our native language,” one boy explains in English. “We were born here, and grew up here, and this is our home.”

Many of the teens see the army as an opportunity to negate the racism that haunted them during their childhoods in Dimona. “I used to walk around and people would try to put me down and call me kushi in Hebrew, which is like someone calling you a black nigger,” 18-year-old Benamadiel recalled, his classmates nodding in agreement. “They just don’t understand us.” The army, he imagines, will be different; people will be mature, respectful, and curious about their customs and ways of life.

The community is clearly committed to the lofty ideals of national service and commitment to the State of Israel, but behind the overstated enthusiasm lies a clash of cultures that hasn’t yet been resolved with the army bureaucracy. Community members practice polygamy, are strict vegans, wear clothes only made of pure cotton, fast once a week in commemoration of the Sabbath, and because some believe themselves to be descended from the priestly tribe, a portion of Hebrew Israelites not only do not allow a razor to touch any part of their face or head, but refrain from cutting their hair.

Military haircuts and uniforms, which are sometimes made of synthetic materials, will therefore be a major problem, as will food. The Hebrew Israelites do not eat canned foods or anything with coloring, preservatives, or sugar, and beginning at an early age, they also fast once a week in commemoration of the Sabbath. All these issues, according to community members, are currently under negotiations with the military.

The test case
Tall and lanky, Oriyahu is first in line to be drafted – the community’s test case in many ways. His legal status is different from that of the rest of his community, however, though the traditions he lives by remain identical. Oriyahu’s grandmother is a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Holland who later married an African American. His mother was born in Israel, lived in the U.S. for a period, and later returned to Israel, where she became involved with the Hebrew Israelites and married Avraham. Oriyahu is therefore Jewish according to both halakha and Israeli law, and so he was granted a blue identity card ahead of the others.

But he also believes himself to be descended from a priestly tribe and has never cut his hair. It is styled in small, tight braids, placed neatly under a white knitted cap, but he’s worried that come next month, he’ll be forced to cut his hair off, along with the other draftees. “I told them I’d rather they didn’t touch my hair,” he shrugs casually. He’s also already decided that he won’t eat the canned food the army distributes to combat soldiers, and says he’ll just pack fresh vegetables in his bag instead.

All these issues, says his father Avraham, are in the midst of negotiations, and though he prays the army will be flexible on certain sticking points, the community realizes that the army, and not the community, will be dictating the terms from this point on. “Like with the Orthodox, we hope that there will be certain standards and respect for our customs,” he says. The community hopes that their children are allowed to form their own special army unit, so that the traditions will be easier to safeguard.

According to Avraham, teaching the teenagers to “be number-one soldiers” is key to the community’s educational system. “We are not about war or killing people,” he says. “We are about peace, but when the war is at home on your doorstep, you need to act. The community has prepared them every way they can. They are going to be outstanding soldiers; they’ve been taught to be obedient. They’ll go to the army to teach and be an or l’goyim [light unto the nations]. They’ll set an example and be a source of strength.” For Avraham, his son’s generation is getting an opportunity he and the earlier wave of Hebrew Israelites in Dimona never had. Avraham, who arrived in Israel at age seven, never served in the IDF, though he says that he was able to contribute by entertaining and performing in army bases. “That was our way of contributing, but now it’s a different story,” he says. “Now it’s real.”

So in the meantime, the community is waiting with baited breath for July 25, when Oriyahu is to leave his Dimona community and make his way to the Be’er Sheva draft office. He’s not looking forward to the moment when, stepping on the bus in his crisp new uniform, he will be the center of attention, as crowds of photographers and journalists see him off. His friends tell him to be excited. “You’ll be famous,” one says, with a hint of jealousy.

“Other Israelis don’t see reporters in their face just because they’re going to the army,” another friend reminds him. “But you’re making history for the kingdom.”

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