Reuters, July 29, 2003
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, July 29 — Israel has granted permanent resident status to the ”Black Hebrews,” a group claiming descent from the Bible’s lost tribes, after a 34-year struggle for recognition, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman said on Tuesday.
Also known as the African Israelites, the sect was founded by 39 U.S.-born blacks in 1969. Its members previously had only temporary resident status in the Jewish state.
About 2,500 Black Hebrews based in the desolate desert town of Dimona will now be able to serve in Israel’s military and vote in municipal elections. Under Israeli law, permanent residents can usually apply for citizenship after five years.
”We have been in talks with the government for years, so the decision is a nice surprise,” sect spokeswoman Yaffa Bat-Gavriel said.
Under Israel’s ”law of return,” people considered Jews according to rabbinical codes are eligible for immediate citizenship. The law does not cover those born to illegal or temporary residents in Israel.
Practising a strict version of kibbutz-style collectivism and Old Testament ethics — including polygamy and veganism — the Black Hebrews are not recognised as Jews by Israel’s rabbinate.
The Black Hebrews believe they are descended from one of ancient Israel’s 10 lost tribes by way of Africa and the slave routes to America, an account most scholars dismiss as myth.
Several sect members were deported as illegal residents in the 1970s, but authorities avoided a large-scale crackdown, citing concern the Jewish state would be accused internationally of racial discrimination.
A government initiative in the 1990s to settle the Black Hebrews’ residency status lagged under interior ministers from ultra-Orthodox religious parties. But current Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of the secularist Shinui party has vowed to liberalise the country’s naturalisation policies.
The Black Hebrews strongly support Zionism. Their musicians entertained Israeli troops during the 1973 Middle East war and represented the country at the 1998 Eurovision song contest.
The sect’s demand for recognition was bolstered by public sympathy after a Palestinian militant shot dead a member who was singing at a bat mitzva — a Jewish girl’s coming-of-age ceremony — in the Israeli town of Hadera in January 2002.