40 years on, Black Hebrews struggle to find acceptance in Israel

dsc090601The National, March 27, 2010

In 1984 Dov Shilansky, then Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, called the African Hebrew Israelites “worse than the PLO.” Referring to their small village in the desert town of Dimona, Shilansky issued an ominous warning, “[I]n a very short time, the Black Hebrews won’t be here anymore.”

Two years later, Israeli Defense Forces surrounded the unarmed community of peace-loving vegans.

“We’ve never had weapons and that day [the soldiers] were armed to the hilt,” Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda says. “There were sharp shooters all around us.” Frightened for their lives but determined to stay in Israel, the group of African-American immigrants decided to march to Jerusalem, nearly 100 kilometers away.

“That was the turning point,” Ben Yehuda recalls. “All this media descended on Dimona and everyone realized, ‘Why all this use of force?'”

More than 20 years have passed since that day, which the Black Hebrews refer to as The Day of the Show of Strength. And while they no longer face harassment from the army, their relationship with the State of Israel remains tense.

The Black Hebrews consider themselves Jewish, a lost tribe of Israel that migrated to West Africa and ended up in America due to colonial-era slave trade. It is that belief that brought their spiritual leader and community founder, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, along with 39 others, here in 1969. Although the Israeli government threw them to an impoverished area of the desert, hundreds of African-Americans followed in their footsteps. Today the community numbers roughly 3000.

Under the Law of Return, the Israeli government is obligated to grant Jews citizenship. But only Ben-Israel and a handful of other Black Hebrews—five adults and 16 children—have received it. The rest remain in the country as permanent residents.

Despite their current legal status, the Black Hebrews’ state seems perilous. Religious authorities don’t recognize their brand of Judaism. And Sabine Haddad, spokesperson of the government body that grants citizenship under the Law of Return, places the blame on the religious authorities by simply stating, “The Ministry of the Interior is not supposed to recognize Judaism. It’s not our responsibility.”

The new houses going up on the small piece of land the Black Hebrews rent from the municipality reflect their uncertain future. Forbidden from adding permanent structures, they drape recently constructed homes with plastic tarps, to give the illusion of impermanence.

But they’re convinced their here to stay. “After the day of the show of strength, being surrounded by army troops here, there’s not too much that can shake us,” Ben Yehuda says, adding that the group made it through several waves of arrests of deportations. Ben Yehuda found himself barred from reentering Israel after traveling to US in the 1980s. Undeterred, he changed his name, got a new passport, and returned to Israel. Reflecting on that difficult period in the community’s history, he says, “We were literally trying to build with one hand and fend off attackers with the other hand while running from the police.”

While their claims to the land seem far-fetched to many Israelis, there might be something to them. The country is home to some 120,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent. And, thanks to genetic testing, British scientists have recently confirmed a Zimbabwean tribe’s claims that they are descendants of the ancient Israelites. But this was not news to the group in Zimbabwe, known as the Lemba, who have artifacts and cultural traditions that dovetail with those of the Jewish people.

The Black Hebrews trace a line to the region via the music of their enslaved ancestors, who arrived in America with nothing in hand. “The only [cultural] expression they had was song,” Ben Yehuda says, “and the songs were not of West African places, there were of places in Israel—the River Jordan, Jerusalem, [the West Bank city of] Jericho.”

Music remains an important part of the Black Hebrews’ culture. “It’s our lifestyle,” remarks Samakeyah Bat Israel, Minister of Education. Like study and prayer, Bat Israel says, song is a way to fill children with a love of life.

In the past, music seemed as though it might be the Black Hebrews’ key into Israeli society. Dimona born and raised Eddie Butler represented the country in the 2006 Eurovision contest.

Despite their deep ties to the country, the Black Hebrews hold political views that run counter to mainstream currents.

Ben Yehuda, who is the movement’s Minister of Information and National Spokesman, states that the group believes in “one state, one law for all” with equal rights for Jews and Arabs alike. “We are for the peaceful coexistence of all parties,” he says. “Whatever government entity is set up over this land [in the future], it has to be a model for other lands to pattern themselves after,” he remarks, quoting the Biblical command that the country be a “light unto the nations.”

But the government falls far short of fulfilling this duty.

“I think what [Netanyahu] did recently in declaring [the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron] Jewish—that was provocative. They have a habit of doing this every few years,” Ben Yehuda says. He also points to Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, an event widely considered as the spark that ignited the Second Intifada. Such actions are, Ben Yehuda says a bit indignantly, “unnecessary.”

While the Black Hebrews’ values are clearly at odds with military service and war, some 300 youth from the community have served in the IDF. Ben Yehuda is quick to add that a tremendous majority of those who join the army “don’t go into fighting units or combat units.” But several young men from the village did end up in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead—and they were deeply disturbed by what they witnessed.

“Some of our boys came back with reports with what they saw as oppressive behavior on the part of their peers in the army. We let them know in counseling and guiding them that we expect them to be an influence within their ranks to do what’s right,” Ben Yehuda says. “We expect them to speak up, to stand up, when they see abuses take place, whether it’s psychological or physical, and hopefully be a force of change within the ranks.”

In light of Israeli plans to build a wall on the porous southern border—where Darfuri and Sudanese refugees enter the country—and proposed legislation that would effectively criminalize African asylum seekers, the Black Hebrews hope to see the Israeli government reconsider its policies. “There has to be some sensitivity,” Ben Yehuda says. “It’s the human element.”

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