TEL AVIV – After a week spent touring Israel with half a dozen other writers at the end of October – a trip mostly devoted to long briefings with government officials and interviews with scholars, journalists and soldiers – our hosts let us know there would be some free time that we could use as we pleased. I arranged a meeting with the Black Hebrews, a group of African-Americans who established a religious community in Israel more than 30 years ago.
Two senior members of the group, Bro. Elyahshuv Ben-Yehudah and Sis. Yafah Baht Gavriel, swept into the hotel lobby wearing the striking, colorful African garb of the sort made by the community’s weavers. Israel follows an extremely informal dress code – very few businessmen or government officials wear jackets or neckties – so their appearance looked like the arrival of royalty.
The Black Hebrews made headlines earlier this year, when singers Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown made a trip to the community’s center in the town of Dimona, located in southern Israel’s Negev desert. The group got a second dose of media attention during the summer when the Israeli government finally agreed, after more than 30 years, to grant permanent residency to members of the group. Residency, which carries the right to vote in municipal elections and volunteer for military service, is the first step to becoming an Israeli citizen.
Aside from such occasional flashes of notoriety, the Black Hebrews have long been a kind of half-myth, often whispered about in the Black community but little understood. And just to clear up one matter: we aren’t talking about the group that goes by a similar name and shouts at passers-by from platforms set up on Fulton Mall in Brooklyn and Times Square in Manhattan. The Times Square group is believed to be an offshoot of the group in Israel.
The group’s official name is The Original African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem, and they maintain a web site at www.kingdomofyah.com that answers many of the basic questions. In 1967, community founder Ben Ammi Ben-Israel – who up until that time was a Chicago bus driver named Ben Carter – led a group of nearly 400 to take up residence in Liberia, West Africa.
The group suffered a number of setbacks that dwindled its numbers; the problems reached a peak when the Liberian government asked the 120 remaining members of the group to leave two years after the group’s arrival. They ended up in Dimona, a desert town set up by the Israeli government for new immigrants to Israel. Their numbers have since grown to more than 2,000.
Although the group claims to hail from the lost tribes of Israel, it has lost a long series of battles with rabbinical authorities, and members are not considered Jews by the bodies that control the Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform branches of Judaism. Without that designation, group members fall outside Israel’s law of return, which guarantees citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world.
In fact, the Black Hebrews aren’t affiliated with any religion, which Ben-Israel calls a barrier to reaching God. Community members keep a strictly vegan diet (no animal products) and men may take more than one wife. Economic and family life are organized collectively. Birth control is prohibited.
“What we’re dealing with is not a religion but a lifestyle,” said Ben-Yehudah, a former journalist who left his home near Washington, D.C. in 1976 to move to Dimona. “The message that we send back is a message of redemption, a message of salvation. There’s life after America.”
Over the years, Israel has occasionally deported members of the community because, lacking citizenship, they often came on tourist visas and stayed past the visa’s expiration. Ben-Israel fought back by organizing demonstrations and enlisting Jesse Jackson and other American politicians to put pressure on Israel to grant residency rights to the community.
The political strategy worked: Congress allocated $1 million for the group to upgrade its living spaces, and the community launched a number of businesses to provide employment to members. In addition to making clothing, community businesses include a tourism venture and three vegetarian restaurants (including one in Tel Aviv, called A Taste of Life, that makes great soy ice cream).
But the most famous business venture of the group has been its series of award-winning choirs and individual singers who have achieved a degree of fame. Two community members represented Israel in an international event called the Eurovision Song Contest.
In January of last year, one of the community’s singers, 32-year-old Aharon Ben-Yisrael Alis, was one of six people killed when terrorists blasted their way into a bat mitvah party where he was singing. The murder was especially tragic because Aharon had been the first child born into the community in Israel.
Aharon’s death, however, is believed to have played a role in persuading Israel’s government to grant residency to the Black Hebrews this year. At his funeral, one of the chief rabbis of Dimona told members of the community, “you have just sealed one of the most difficult pacts with our Israeli society.”
The most interesting fruit of the Black Hebrews’ experiment in the desert are its children. They all speak Hebrew, with English taught as a second language. They also work in the community’s businesses: two 19-year-olds, Reant and Karshenah, were running the Tel Aviv restaurant when I visited. 25 students have gone off to college, and many return to the community after graduation.
Sis. Gavriel says the children’s upbringing in a communal setting makes their upbringing easy. “We don’t lock our doors,” she said. “There’s such peace and such comfort in knowing you can send your children outside. They’re just happy and free.”