Exotic community founded by Chicago foundry worker
San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 15, 2002
Danielle Haas, Chronicle Foreign Service
Dimona, Israel — In Chicago, kindergarten teacher Samaheyah Bat-Yisrael says her life was “desolation.” But in this hardscrabble Negev desert town, she says she has found her “salvation.”
Resplendent in a blue African-style headdress, a flowing outfit to match and gold earrings, the beaming 44-year-old Samaheyah — whose Hebrew name means “She who will make God happy” — is adamant about never returning to the crime- and drug-ridden South Side where she grew up. “We were slaves there. Here I know I’m safe.”
Feeling safe may seem like an odd concept in conflict-riven Israel. It may seem especially odd in Dimona, a town of about 30,000 people created in 1955 to accommodate new immigrants that is now home to Israel’s only nuclear reactor. But for the 2,000-strong vegetarian and polygamous community of Black Hebrews, as they are widely known here, living in Israel is the fulfillment of a scriptural promise to create what they call the “Kingdom of Yah,” or God on earth.
Calling themselves the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, their origins are rooted in their charismatic leader, Ben Ammi Ben Israel. Ben Ammi, who was a foundry worker named Ben Carter in Chicago, had a vision in 1966 that his African ancestors were descended from one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.
Since 30 disciples followed him to Israel in 1969, the community has established many celebrated professional gospel choirs and R&B singing troupes,
sent their Hebrew-speaking offspring to Israeli universities and even represented the country in the European-wide Eurovision Song Contest.
Last Jan. 17, their connection to Israel took a tragic turn when the first Black Hebrew born on Israeli soil was killed by a Palestinian gunman. Singer Aharon Ben-Yisrael Alis, 32, was gunned down as he performed at a bat mitzvah in Hadera.
But after 33 years of living and now dying alongside Israelis, the Black Hebrews are still fighting to achieve a crucial long-standing goal — full Israeli citizenship, giving them such rights as voting and serving in the army.
“Our identity is here in Israel. We are Hebrew Israelites, not Americans, and I think the Israeli government hasn’t known what to do with us,” said 44- year-old Yaffa Bat-Gavriel, who was known as Freda Waller when she arrived here in 1976. “We have been here through wars, during every crisis we have volunteered, and this is our home.”
Israeli authorities disagree.
They reject the claims that the Black Hebrews are authentic Jews, and have insisted in vain that they convert to Judaism so they can be recognized as full citizens. The native-born members are as stateless as their immigrant parents, and the grandchildren of the founders may not even be eligible for U. S. citizenship.
To be sure, the Black Hebrews share many aspects of Judaism, including observing the Sabbath and rites of circumcision, instructing their children in Hebrew, celebrating Jewish holidays and studying the Torah, the book of Jewish laws.
But most Israelis find some of their other practices to be odd, including polygamy, eating raw food for four weeks out of the year and fasting on the Sabbath. And the Black Hebrews have argued that they do not subscribe to any religion because “religions have only divided men.”
In Dimona, Black Hebrews greet fellow residents and visitors with a friendly “Shalom, brother” and “It is my divine pleasure to see you” in American-accented Hebrew that betrays their origins.
Discipline is strict, and the community is run by a hierarchy of “princes” and “ministers” who approve marriages and discourage outside unions. Members wear only natural fabrics such as cotton, wool, linen and silk, and dress “modestly.”
Women must also abide by the laws of purification regarding their menstrual cycle, and all members must adopt Hebrew names. Homosexuality, premarital sex, tobacco and alcohol are forbidden.
At the Achva school for Black Hebrew children, boys wear large, knitted white skullcaps while girls must don Islamic-style headdress. Students receive a curriculum infused with a curious blend of Israeli, Jewish and Black Hebrew culture. Photos of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, and Zionist leader Theodore Herzl stare out from the playground walls, while inside there are photos of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon alongside Ben Ammi.
Bat-Gavriel denies the common accusation that they are a cult subservient to the whims of the 63-year-old Ben Ammi. “Just because you live by certain rules, it does not mean you are a cult,” she said.
On several occasions, Israeli authorities have tried to expel the group, which has fought back by enlisting the help of prominent African American politicians and going on hunger strikes.
In 1990, their efforts paid off when the Interior Ministry granted them working papers and temporary residency, a status that gives them insurance and social security benefits. In exchange, they promised not to invite new members and end polygamy.
Since then, natural growth has expanded the community to about 2,000 people.
Most families have an average of six to eight children, and 600 youngsters attend the Black Hebrew School across the road from the main compound divided by narrow paths and tidy gardens.
Living conditions are overcrowded and rudimentary — a situation exacerbated by a local unemployment rate of 10 percent, and the low wages earned by many of the men who work at nearby construction sites.
In the meantime, there are signs that the Israeli government may finally grant the Black Hebrews full citizenship.
In the past year, the community has won the right to volunteer for alternative national service that Israelis can perform in lieu of mandatory military service. There are also plans to relocate the community from their cramped bungalows to a spacious new farming settlement in the Negev.
Such gains have lead many Black Hebrews to believe their fight for recognition may be drawing to an end.
Black Hebrew beginnings
— The Black Hebrews believe they are descended from Israelites who were expelled from Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70 and then migrated for more than 1,000 years before reaching West Africa and later the United States as slaves.
According to the teachings of their leader, Ben Ammi Ben Israel, the cruel chapters of their history were part of God’s plan to lead them back to their homeland — Israel.
That belief sprang from a vision that Ben Ammi says he had in 1966 when he was a Chicago foundry worker named Ben Carter. In the dream, archangel Gabriel told him that many African Americans were descendants of the lost Israeli tribe of Judah.
Carter’s epiphany led him to gather 30 followers in 1967 and move to Liberia — a country founded by freed American slaves in 1847 — for a two- year “cleansing period” on the way to the Promised Land.
Upon arrival, Israeli authorities directed the newcomers to the remote desert town of Dimona while their claims of Jewish heritage were assessed.