Quest for a Homeland Gains a World Stage
ON a warm afternoon in early March Eddie Butler glided through the lobby of the Tel Aviv Hilton like a modern-day king of Israel. Pausing repeatedly for hugs and high-fives, Mr. Butler radiated an aura of ubiquitous familiarity that comes with being a very big pop star in a very small country.
On March 15 Mr. Butler, 34, was chosen to represent Israel in this year’s Eurovision contest: the kitschy, annual, pan-European extravaganza in which viewers will crown the region’s best pop song.
On May 20 Mr. Butler will be in Athens for Eurovision’s finale as the great hope of the entire Jewish nation.
With his cocoa-colored skin and fade of tight curls, Mr. Butler clearly isn’t a typical Israeli. Despite being born and raised in Israel, many would argue he’s not even Jewish. Mr. Butler is a member of the Black Hebrews, or the African Hebrew Israelites as they call themselves, a 2,000-strong community in the Negev desert originally from the blighted South Side of Chicago. Led by Ben Carter, a former factory worker who changed his name to Ben Ammi Ben Israel, the original group of about 350 arrived in Israel in 1969 claiming to be descended from one of ancient Judaism’s lost tribes.
Ethnically African-American as well as polygamists and vegans, the Black Hebrews have never been formally recognized as Jews by Israel’s religious authorities and have lived since arrival in a southern city, Dimona, an impoverished development town and site of Israel’s not-so-secret “secret” nuclear weapons program.
“Israel is my home, my nation, but we’ve always been treated like outsiders,” Mr. Butler said. “Israelis didn’t want to accept us, but we’ve come closer and closer to the day they will.”
As a professional pop artist who has been performing in Israel since he was 18, Mr. Butler has long been bringing the cause of his people to public light. In 1999, as part of a racially diverse group called Eden, he made his first appearance in the Eurovision contest, though in that round he was chosen to compete by judges, not fellow Israelis, as he was last month.
This year, along with his manager, two publicists and four back-up singers, Mr. Butler leaves for Athens as a soloist armed with “Ze Hazman” (“This Is the Time”), a soulful, English-Hebrew anthem he wrote that reflects the influence of his years singing in the Black Hebrews’ gospel-style New Jerusalem Fire Choir when he was a boy. Mr. Butler’s Afro-Judeo harmonies will be pitted in Athens against 37 equally ambitious contestants, all hoping Eurovision will do for them what it did for veterans like Abba and Céline Dion.
Even if Mr. Butler comes home empty-handed, his performance – with its televised audience of more than 120 million – will be the first time the spotlight has shined on a single Black Hebrew. Separated by a remote desert location and unorthodox lifestyle, the group has long been a controversial presence in Israel, seen by some as a cult.
“For years we struggled,” said Mr. Butler in cadences more suggestive of Detroit than Dimona. “For everything from feeding ourselves to being recognized as Jews.”
While that struggle remains far from over, the Black Hebrews are slowly achieving a semblance of Israeli cultural normalcy. Aided by powerful friends abroad like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and a stream of high-profile visitors – including an infamous, theatrics-filled 2003 tour by Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown – the community now has its own school, operates a successful tofu factory and owns a string of vegan restaurants in Israel and the United States.
In 2003 Black Hebrews were granted permanent residency status by the Israeli government. In addition to leading to the possibility of permanent citizenship, that also means that Black Hebrews must serve in the Israeli army.
“The Black Hebrews add to the richness and diversity of all of Israel,” observed Mr. Jackson, who has lobbied on their behalf with American Jewish leaders.
Even though Israel isn’t exactly in Europe, Eurovision has evolved over time into a quaint, feel-good respite from the harsh realities of everyday Israeli life, be they the recent arrival of Avian flu or the long-term threat of Hamas terror.
Israel also has a history of choosing Eurovision candidates who are unlikely springboards for progressive social causes. The most progressive of them all is easily Dana International, a postoperative male-to-female transsexual who represented Israel in Birmingham, England, in 1998. Her song, the aptly named “Diva,” was a cheesy, Kylie Minogue-style techno-ditty that – to the horror of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox right and the delight of its pan-sexual left – took home first prize and helped to shed light on an otherwise hidden population. Would a Butler victory at Eurovision do the same for the Black Hebrews?
At the very least it will raise awareness of their economic and social situation,” said Yuval Niv, culture writer at Yedioth Ahronoth, the daily newspaper. “But a community so small will probably never really be part of the mainstream agenda.”
On the morning before Ehud Olmert’s recent election as Israeli prime minister, Mr. Butler was back in Dimona showing reporters around the Black Hebrews’ compound, where he first began to sing along with his 11 brothers and sister. As he sat between his mother, Kara Liah, and his father’s three other wives – whom he also calls mother, ima in Hebrew – Mr. Butler began to give a human face to the world he left more than a decade ago to pursue his dreams of musical stardom.
The compound, now officially Kibbutz Shomrei HaShalom (Protectors of Peace), is almost otherworldly in its cultural inclusiveness. Clad in free-flowing, brightly-colored robes and headdresses, the adults look like the 60’s-era pan-African activists many once were, while their hundreds of children are dressed in neat blue Israeli school uniforms. All speak a mixture of Hebrew and English with varying accents, depending on their age and place of birth.
Later that day in Tel Aviv, Mr. Butler was backstage at a special election-night taping of the Dudu Topaz show (a sort of low-rent Israeli Jay Leno) and one of the numerous media appearances he’ll make in the coming weeks. Stylishly attired and glowing with the confidence of a man who knows he has already beaten the odds, Mr. Butler effortlessly outshined the rest of the night’s guests – B-list actors, models and the Israeli famous-for-being-famous.
With his Israeli girlfriend and two Israel-born children cheering him on, Mr. Butler brought the crowd to its feet with yet another rendition of “Ze Hazman,” the song he’ll soon sing for a homeland that may never fully embrace him as one of its own. Still, as chants of “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie” filled the studio, it was as if the audience – and perhaps all of Israel – can’t get enough of Eddie Butler. “It’s like winning ‘American Idol,’ he said of the endless adoration. “I feel like Ruben Studdard or Kelly Clarkson.”