Counterculture group settles in

After losing West Side ranch, Love Israel Family pitches tents along Columbia

A communal-living group that some people call a cult is moving from the Seattle area to a rural site on the Columbia River 100 miles north of Spokane.

The Love Israel Family has set up tents on 52 acres near China Bend, a scenic river bench about 10 miles south of the U.S.-Canadian border in Stevens County.

Members of the group — estimates range from 25 to 50 — are moving to northeastern Washington after losing control of their 300-acre ranch near Arlington, Wash., amid financial collapse.

In the past month, the Love Israel Family has moved a half-dozen truckloads of household goods and commercial kitchen equipment to the China Bend site.

Four large tents, a converted school bus, a makeshift outhouse and a dismantled greenhouse are now in place. They adjoin decaying ruins of a log cabin, marked with two bleached cow skulls — once the home of early homesteaders in Stevens County.

One of the tents is a “sanctuary” where group leader Love Israel will hold regular meetings.

“It’s our base camp, for now,” said Hiram Israel, who was at the new site Monday as other members of the group returned to Arlington to move more belongings.

The group didn’t give officials in Stevens County advance notice of their plans. A Sheriff’s Office official said Wednesday he only recently learned “through the grapevine” that the Love Israel Family was moving in.

Malcolm Friedman, chairman of the Stevens County Commission, said Tuesday he had just learned of the group’s arrival.

Because Stevens County currently isn’t in compliance with the state’s Growth Management Act, the commissioner said a building moratorium is in place. The moratorium allows only one dwelling per 20 acres, and may affect the group’s plans at China Bend, Friedman said.

“They’ll have to deal with the Health Department on any sewer and water issues,” said Friedman.

The Love Israel Family has roots dating from the 1960s and has been variously described as a counterculture group and a bunch of hippies. The group initially amassed its wealth by having new members turn over their assets, including money and property. The family has attempted several business ventures, including finish carpentry and a timber mill, according to various media accounts. For 13 years, the Love Israel Family has hosted an annual three-day garlic and music festival at the Arlington ranch in Snohomish County.

Founder Love Israel, who controls the group’s assets, borrowed against several land parcels and accrued $5.2million in debts before filing for bankruptcy reorganization last year, court records show.

“We had a lot of debt,” Love Israel said. “I just kept borrowing and making payments with credit.”

Some former members of the group have been in the China Bend area for more than a decade, living on property adjoining the new camp. They produce garlic, grapes and wine.

Among them is Victory Israel, who moved to Stevens County in the late 1980s. Victory Israel and several others economically liberated themselves from the main Israel group, but remain close friends.

“Some people see us as a cult, but I see us more as a culture,” Victory Israel said from near her organic garden where garlic was sprouting. “Some people see a cult as being bad, but I don’t see it that way.”

National cult expert Rick A. Ross, of the Ross Institute of New Jersey, said the Love Israel Family “has been historically referred to as a cult. There’s no arguing with that.” Ross has tracked the group for a number of years and has them listed on his Web site, www.rickross.com.

Among those who referred to the group as a cult was the late entertainer Steve Allen, whose son was a member for a time.

While members were setting up tents at China Bend this week, the 61-year-old Love Israel was back in Arlington. He said the remnants of his extended family will be relocated to Stevens County by the end of this month.

“As soon as we can get out, we’ll be out,” Love Israel said as people loaded a moving van and did cleanup at the Arlington ranch.

Born Paul Erdman, the former TV store owner changed his name and founded the Love Israel Family in the late 1960s around a religious philosophy called Love Is Real.

Members say they embrace the Christian teachings of Jesus and believe it’s important to love one another and live for the moment.

“I realized I didn’t want to miss out on this love stuff,” Love Israel said of the group he started in a house on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill during the anti-war movement of the 1960s.

“He literally said, `You can come and move in with me, and when we get too crowded, we’ll find another house,”‘ said Serious Israel, who is considered an elder in the group. The family staffed a 24-hour hospitality center, and screened interested people during a three-day stay.

“By the early ’80s, we must have had 15 or 20 homes in that neighborhood,” Serious Israel said.

Those who joined the group gave up their names and contributed their assets to Love Israel.

Members choose virtuous names such as Quietness, Fortitude, Noble, Logic, Life, Courage, Confidence, Honesty, Loyalty, Forgiven, Consolation and Charity.

“Joining was quite a commitment,” said Serious Israel. “It was like joining a Catholic monastery, or becoming part of the priesthood.

“They really started over. Most of us didn’t have much. People contributed either as much or as little as they had,” he said. “That became part of our commonwealth. We amassed quite a bit of property without trying.”

The group bought the Arlington property, about 50 miles northeast of Seattle, in the early 1970s. The property included a dairy, a lake, rolling timbered hills and fields.

After an internal dispute involving accusations of drug use, sexual misconduct and financial mismanagement, the group moved from Seattle to the Arlington property in 1984, The Seattle Times reported.

Family members home-schooled their children, sending them to public schools when they got older. Love Israel said he coached a local football team.

At one time the group had as many as 300 members, according to The Seattle Times.

Love Israel said “it feels good” to be leaving the Arlington property for the China Bend site, which the group acquired from a new member who joined the family.

The Love Israel Family was “never accepted” in Snohomish County, which he described as a “right-wing Pentecostal Christian place.”

Love Israel said the family has owned the Stevens County parcel for several years, but title to the land was tied up in the group’s bankruptcy filing.

The Israel family was able to reclaim the deed to the Stevens County property as part of a legal arrangement to close the bankruptcy and sell the Arlington ranch to the Union for Reform Judaism. The national Jewish organization plans to use the property for a summer camp, according to The Seattle Times. The Love Israel Family doesn’t have any ties to the Jewish faith.

Love Israel doesn’t consider the China Bend location “as our permanent home,” but said 40 to 50 families loosely affiliated with the group are now living there. Other group members have acquired homes near Seattle, and will reportedly remain in Western Washington.

“We’d also like to have a cultural center in Seattle,” he said.

Some members of the group, including Serious Israel, intend to visit Mexico soon to tour a proposed “winter camp.”

Group members are vague when asked if they intend to continue the large-scale garlic and music festival tradition at the Stevens County property where smaller-scale festivals have been held.

The event in Snohomish County attracted an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people a year.

Enthusiasts described the festival as a “wonderful community event,” while some neighbors said it was a public nuisance laced with liquor, loud music, code violations and drug overdoses.

One woman who lives near the Arlington ranch said festival-goers would block her driveway with their vehicles, urinate in her yard and litter.

“They were bad neighbors because they took advantage of everybody around them,” said Keith Graves, who owns a 200-acre tree farm adjoining the Israel ranch in Arlington.

“These people won’t live by the rules,” Graves said, “and the county here wouldn’t enforce the rules. They were immune, I guess, because Love Israel would say his group was a church and then use the media to get all this great PR (public relations).”

“Drugs are a big part of their life,” Graves said.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office officials didn’t return telephone calls seeking comment on the group.

A check of more than 20 years of civil court records in Snohomish County turned up Israel family member cases involving creditors, a tax warrant, divorces and a dispute in which a bank ordered the family to stop logging cedar on the property.

The only significant criminal case involved Brotherhood Israel, the 29-year-old son of two former group members. In February, he pleaded guilty to two charges of selling the drug ecstasy to an undercover detective in Arlington. As a first-time offender, he received three months in jail.

Serious Israel said the group doesn’t “have a religion to push down people’s throats. We are trying to live a life of love. If people want to get close to us, they’ll find our friendship comforting.”

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