Sunday, June 6th, 2021
Exodus from Israel
Many “Black Hebrews” are threatened with deportation
From Tal Leder, Dimona
Many members of an African-American community in southern Israel will have to leave the country by the end of June. They belong to the “Black Hebrews” who see themselves as descendants of the biblical Israelites.
At a wedding in Dimona, a small town in the northern part of the Negev desert, African drums mix with Jewish rituals. The guests wear colorful clothes and a reggae band plays songs by Bob Marley. When they play the piece “Exodus”, the bride and groom appear. “We are leaving Babylon, we are going to the land of our fathers,” the wedding party sings in English. All belong to the 3000-strong congregation of the “Black Hebrews”, the Black Hebrew Israelites.
“Exodus” fits very well, only in this case it does not mean the exodus of the Israelites from slavery and the return to the Holy Land, but the opposite: Around one hundred supporters of the vegan and polygamous community are to be expelled from Israel this month, back to the USA.
“It’s a shock,” says Prince Immanuel Ben-Yehuda, spokesman for the Black Hebrews. 46 families would have to leave the country by the end of June. Together with other members and Benny Biton, the mayor of Dimona, they have started a campaign against deportations. The activist accuses the authorities of racism. In the meantime, more than 12,000 Israelis have signed online petitions against the deportations. “There is no other community that has given so much for over half a century and is still threatened with deportation,” he says.
The roots are in Chicago
The group is originally from Chicago. The former steel worker Ben Carter claims to have had a vision there in 1966, in which the Archangel Gabriel asked him to bring his people, the African Israelites, to the Promised Land. For several years Carter has had contact with “black Israelites” who are convinced that Moses and the prophets were black. Under this impression he took the name Ben Ammi Ben-Israel and in 1967 moved with a few hundred followers first to Liberia, then on to Israel, to Dimona, in order to build the “Village of Peace” there.
“Your presence was controversial from the start,” says Liora Gerber, who has represented numerous Black Hebrews against the Home Office as a lawyer. “Only a few members have been naturalized. Most have been turned down, even though they have been fighting for half a century.” A committee examined the community’s status in 1980 and eventually gave them permanent residence. However, the superiors were not allowed to add new members from abroad. “Although some served in the army and have integrated well, their future in the Jewish state is uncertain, as their permanent residence status can be revoked at any time,” says the human rights activist.
The founders of the community are non-Jewish African-Americans who see themselves as descendants of the ancient Israelites but not as Jews. Since they did not qualify for citizenship under Israel’s Return Law, they came as tourists and stayed illegally. After a long process, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel did not receive Israeli citizenship until 2013 – in a special ceremony in the presence of the then Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar. The charismatic leader died a year later after a serious illness. “Politics doesn’t make it easy for them,” says Gerber. “Many were born here. If necessary, we will refer to the Supreme Court.”
The Black Hebrews do not see themselves as a sect or religious group, but rather as a community of truth seekers who live according to God’s laws as recorded in the Torah. This includes the circumcision of boys eight days after birth, baptism and elements of traditional African culture. The authorities try to ignore their practice of polygamy, which is forbidden in Israel. They fast on Shabbat, observe biblically prescribed holidays and celebrate their exodus from the United States annually. As strict vegans, they also make kosher vegan foods in their factory in Dimona.
“Anyone who has no right of residence will be deported”
Again and again the community resisted the threat of deportations. “Like all sovereign states, Israel has the right to legislate who can and cannot be a citizen here,” said Yoel Lipovitzky from the immigration office, justifying the deportation. “Some who are about to be deported have had illegal status since 1990. Even if they have given birth in the country, it does not give them citizenship under Israeli law.”
Recently, however, relations with the Black Hebrews began to improve when the government granted some members work permits. The community was also visited by all sorts of high-ranking Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the late President Shimon Peres, who celebrated his 85th birthday in the Peace Village.
“Aside from their legal status, this group makes a valuable contribution to Dimona’s cultural life,” admits Yoel Lipovitzky. “But some of the Black Hebrews are in Israel illegally.” He explains that the community is constantly introducing new members and every few years asks the Department of Immigration to check their residence permits so that they can remain official. “Anyone who does not have the right to stay under the law will be deported,” says the integration officer.
The Black Hebrews are disappointed with the Home Office. “The fight continues,” says Prince Immanuel Ben-Yehuda. “We are here because we decided to help build this country.” The majority of society now welcomes the group and also sees it as an integral part of Israel, which Ben-Yehuda cheers: “From slavery in Chicago to freedom in Dimona.”