African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem
The African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem (also known as the Black Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, the Black Hebrew Israelites, or simply the Black Hebrews or Black Israelites) is a spiritual group now mainly based in Dimona, Israel, whose members believe they are descended from the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The community now numbers around 5,000. Their immigrant ancestors were African Americans, many from Chicago, Illinois, who migrated to Israel in the late 1960s.
Some of them believe they are Jewish but when they began emigrating to Israel, the religious officials and the state did not consider them Jewish and as a result, they were asked to convert. In 2003, the remainder of the existing community (those who had not received residency permits earlier) were granted official Israeli permanent residency and later were entitled to acquire Israeli citizenship by naturalization, which does not imply any Jewish status. Since 2004, some members of the community (both men and women) have enlisted to the Israel Defense Forces.
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The group was founded in Chicago by a former steel worker named Ben Carter (1939–2014, also known as Ben Ammi Ben-Israel). In his early twenties Carter was given the name Ben Ammi by Rabbi Reuben of the Chicago Congregation of Ethiopian Hebrews. Ben Ammi was working in an airline factory when he first discovered the Black Hebrew movement and its philosophy. According to Ben Ammi, in 1966, at the age of 27, he had a vision in which the Archangel Gabriel called him to take his people, African Americans, back to the Holy Land of Israel.
Ammi and his followers draw on a long tradition in black American culture which holds that black Americans are the descendants of the Ancient Israelites (Ammi cites Charles Harrison Mason of Mississippi, William Saunders Crowdy of Virginia, Bishop William Boome of Tennessee, Charles Price Jones of Mississippi, and Elder Saint Samuel of Tennessee as early exponents of black descent from Israelites).
They are also influenced by the teachings of the Jamaican proponent of Black nationalism, Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), and the black civil rights milieu in 1960s America, including figures such as the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. From these they have incorporated elements of black separatism as well as the doctrine which advocates the repatriation of the African Diaspora to its ancestral lands in a "return to Africa", of which they consider Israel to be a part. To them, Israel is located in Northeast Africa instead of West Asia.
The inspiration to move to Israel was born from several components. One was the hardship black community members faced in America and within American culture, especially in Chicago in the 1960s, at the height of the Civil rights movement. Another component was the community's will to form a confident and positive African identity, as opposed to the damaging identity the group felt they carried in America. The last component was this spout of religious and spiritual connection to a long-standing culture and history and promised land.
Ben Ammi and 350 of his followers first settled in Liberia in 1967. There, they built a community adhering to “laws of righteousness”. Prince Rakhamim, who was a community leader at the time, described what living in Liberia did for the community:
We chose to stay there about two and a half years in order to get rid of the foolishness of America before making way to the land of Israel. To make a person born again. To die from the hell we came out of, to get rid of it—to learn to get rid of the hate... to get rid of our bitterness... Liberia was always conceived as the place where we would learn to be righteous. Those of us who wanted to do right shedded off the hate and came home to Israel.
Status in Israel
It is unclear whether Israel was always the end-goal for the community, or whether Ben Ammi received another vision in 1969, when the community was in Liberia, telling him to take the community to their real promised land: Israel. The African Hebrew Israelite community holds that this ambiguity does not lessen their motivations for a home in Israel. The group aimed to immigrate to Israel under the Israeli Law of Return, which states that all Jews who emigrate to Israel will be granted citizenship. However, in order to be considered Jewish under the law, a person must be born of a Jewish mother, or have been converted to Judaism, and is not an active member of another religion.
As Ben Ammi and his followers did not fit this requirement, they did not qualify for citizenship. This deterrence did not stop them from moving to Israel. In 1969, the group began moving to Israel using temporary visas. Most Black Hebrews have entered Israel as tourists with these temporary visas, and have stayed past the visas’ time allowance.
Initially, the African Hebrew Israelites asserted that they were the only rightful inheritors of the land of Israel. They refused to convert to Judaism and asserted that most Israeli Jews were not descendants of the ancient Israelites. By the late 1980s, the group tempered their beliefs. They came to see Israel as a nation of many cultures, races, and religions.
Members of the group continued to arrive and settle in the desert community of Dimona. For two decades, their population continued to grow through natural increase and illegal immigration. Throughout the 1970s tensions between the group and the government grew as the group faced low employment, inadequate housing, and attempted deportations, while the government considered them illegal aliens. Ben Ammi accused the government of racism and usurping the holy land, while claiming that "The greatest conspiracy ever conceived in the minds of men was the creation of a National Homeland for Jewish People."
In 1973, the International League for the Rights of Man rejected the group's claims, stating that the group made little attempt to comply with the citizenship laws of Israel. In 1981, a six-person Black Americans to Support Israel Committee delegation assessed all aspects of the community's treatment and concluded that racism was not the cause of its problems. Although the leader Bayard Rustin called Ben Ammi "a dictator" without "the same moral standards as democratic leaders", the others disassociated themselves from this.
In May 1990, the group was granted tourist status and visas that permitted them to work. In 1992, the Congressional Black Caucus of the United States Congress intervened, leading to an agreement that the Black Hebrews would be granted temporary residence if they held off on receiving new members. At the end of 2003, the group was granted permanent residency status by the Israeli Interior Ministry. It is believed that in 2009, Elyakim Ben-Israel became the first Black Hebrew to receive Israeli citizenship without converting to Judaism or marrying an Israeli. The Israeli government said that more Black Hebrews may be granted citizenship.
Today, young men and to a lesser degree women from the African Hebrew community of Jerusalem serve in the IDF, and they have entered international sporting events and academic competitions under the Israeli flag, as well as having represented Israel twice in the Eurovision song contest.
Way of life
The group maintains a vegan diet, citing Genesis 1:29, "And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat." They practice abstinence from alcohol, other than the naturally fermented wine which they make themselves, as well as abstinence from both illegal and pharmaceutical drugs, so as to stay within the "cycles of life".
The group practices "polygyny", meaning that a man can marry several wives (up to six). Within the community this is termed "Divine Marriage", being based on Biblical examples such as King David. Polygyny is not required, constituting approximately 37% of marriages in 1992.
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The group believes that the ancient Israelites are the ancestors of black Americans. They reject the term 'Jew' as inappropriate because of their belief that they are descended from all 12 tribes, not just that of Judah. While rejecting the religious forms of both Judaism and Christianity, the Black Hebrews maintain the divine inspiration of the Tanakh, and they also value the New Testament as a record of the words of Yeshuah, one of an ongoing line of 'messiahs' who are sent by God to keep the people of Israel in the ways of righteousness. The core of the group's lifestyle is the Tanakh, Ben Ammi claims that "the Law and the Prophets...are the light; they are the essence of what is required to set man on the path and show him the way back to his Maker." However the group rejects the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism including the Talmud as inauthentic to the Hebrew religion.
Ben Ammi claims that black Africans are the victims of "a cruel plot to control us, an international religious plot that came about as a result of Blacks disobeying the law and commandments of God." The enslavement of black Africans is seen as punishment for straying from the righteous path and he cites an "oral tradition that our people were cursed by God for violating His laws, statutes and commandments." He links this to Deuteronomy 28:68, which speaks of a second captivity in a second Egypt which the Israelites would be carried to in ships. The "Euro-gentile" establishment attempted "a deliberate scheme to conceal the truth that ancient Hebrews were Black" and "perpetuated the white Jesus deception".
In the attempt to overcome the history of slavery and the bondage in the United States, Ammi argues that it is essential to "reexamine and redefine all things...we must question every facet of existence under Euro-gentile dominion." The ability to name and classify the word and social concepts Ammi calls "The Power to Define", which in the wrong hands is "one of the greatest weapons that can be used to control men and nations," but is the key to salvation from past oppression. Thus, Ammi claims that true freedom can never be found within a society that is intrinsically corrupt but can only be attained by establishing a new society based solely on the laws of God: "No government, no party or system can bring salvation unto the Children of God...Their salvation is only of God."
Based on the Hebrew word עבד, Ammi has argued that the distinction between work and worship is false – in fact, the activity we pursue with our lives is both our work and our worship. Therefore, "every job that does not enhance God as creator is the worship of the devil. There is no neutral position."
However, Ammi's concern is not solely for his own people but for the whole of humanity – the role of the Black Hebrew Israelite community to serve as "a light unto the gentiles": "Black Americans...were initially chosen by God to guide the world out of its state of ignorance." Recently the group has also begun to claim that Hebrew status is not solely from genealogy, but can be conferred by spiritual behaviour.
Ammi admits no doctrine of afterlife, preferring to focus on life on earth: "Heaven is the reality of the righteous as they live, not a place for spirits after death."
As well as considering Jews to not be descendants of the ancient Israelites, they claim that the Palestinian Arab population are not descendants of Ishmael: "Our studies and experience have shown that the present-day inhabitants of this region are not the original people of the land. The majority of those today defined by modern historians as Arabs, are veritably the descendents of European Crusaders."
The group believes that the value system of a society is seen through its culture. According to one source, it is therefore "important that our clothing, music, food and language reflect the glory and the higher standards of Yah (God)."
Accusations of anti-Semitism and current relations with the Israeli government
On several occasions Ben Ammi and the Black Hebrew community have been accused of anti-semitism. As well as denying the Israelite heritage of world Jewry and its claim to the land of Israel, the stalemate between the Black Hebrew community and Israel in the late 1970s led to heightened tensions and according to the Jerusalem Post, "Ben Ammi mounted a worldwide public-relations offensive against the government that dripped with anti-semitism. Community newspapers compared the Israelis to Nazis and included images of money-grubbing Jews and other stereotypes". However, relations improved during the 1990s as the Black Hebrew community distanced itself from the ineffective extremist stance which it had taken up in earlier years. The group has since become a valued part of both the Dimona community and the wider Israeli society and it has pursued integration in ways such as volunteering to serve in the IDF.
In 2011, the Georgia General Assembly passed a resolution which "recognize(s) the Hebrew Israelite Community for its service to the nation of Israel and commends their 40 years of history." Citing the fact that the Dimona-based community is "one of the largest urban kibbutzim in Israel" and "has attracted visitors from around the world because of its healthy lifestyle and organic agriculture," the Assembly concluded and declared that "the culture and tradition of the Hebrew Israelite Community is a rich one, and the Community's numerous contributions are worthy of recognition."
In response to concerns about anti-Jewish prejudice and stereotyping that arose during its formative years in Israel, community leader Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda simply states that they have "grown up." "As you look back over 30 years you realize that this has grown from the ground up. We've been here 30 years, that means we've grown up together... Our children have gone to schools (and) played in games together so there is another kind of relationship that has grown up."
In August 2008, the Village of Peace received a visit from Israel's president, Shimon Peres, who told the Hebrew Israelites "Your community is beloved in Israel...You give the country happiness and song and hope for a better world"
And in March, 2012, during the community's annual "New World Passover" celebration in honor of their historic "exodus" from America in 1967, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed appreciation for "the cooperative society that is working towards the inclusion of the Hebrew Israelite community in Israeli society at large," and he also declared that their experience in the land is "an integral part of the Israeli experience."
The Black Hebrews still express concerns as to the direction in which Israel is heading. During an interview with Haaretz, a popular Israeli newspaper, Ben Ammi stated that "We must understand that peace will never come, and true freedom will never come, by way of politicians... There's a major difference between the peace that was promised by the Creator and the peace that is being sought after by politicians." "We do give advice to politicians; because these individuals who are seen as leaders, if they would hear a message based upon truth, then it would influence that which they say they seek after - and that is peace. But without truth, and without spirituality, there can never be any genuine peace achieved in those lands."
Another international institution founded by the Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem is the African Hebrew Development Agency (AHDA). AHDA is a non-governmental organization (NGO) which operates primarily on the African continent. It specializes in "providing technical assistance, training and consultancy in essential areas... such as health, agriculture, rural development, environmental maintenance and related fields." The AHDA has also collaborated with indigenous African organizations to help mobilize the African Boreholes Initiative (ABI). ABI is a social enterprise built around the need to provide clean water to local African villages that would be otherwise incapable of accessing it.
In April 2011, Ben Ammi led a seven-member delegation to South Africa to engage in discussions with Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini and the South African government to explore options of replicating the "Dimona Model" for community development in that country.
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