The black vegan cult finally loved by Israel

Once derided as hostile militants, the Black Hebrews are accepted and thriving in the Negev. John Torode reports

By John Torode, July 23, 2009
Black Hebrews celebrate Shavuot at their kibbutz in the southern town of Dimona. The once-controversial  community combines Jewish practices with African traditions

Black Hebrews celebrate Shavuot at their kibbutz in the southern town of Dimona. The once-controversial community combines Jewish practices with African traditions

Dimona, deep in the Negev desert, is the inaccessible little town used by Israel to park its unacknowledged nuclear weapons. It was also used, almost 40 years ago, to park an unacknowledged — and equally embarrassing — group of illegal immigrants. Thirty nine deeply religious “Black Hebrews” sought entry under the Law of Return, while insisting they were not Jews. They were rejected, so they bluffed their way in, determined to re-create the Kingdom of Yah in what they insisted was their lost homeland. Do you wonder they were dumped in an out-of-the-way barracks on the edge of run-down Dimona?

Down the decades, some 3,000 Black Hebrews slipped into Israel. They were accused of financial crimes and drug dealing as well as anti-Zionism, anti-semitism and planning an armed shoot-out with the security forces in 1986. Yet they have morphed into the law-abiding favourites of an Israel anxious to demonstrate its tolerance. In 2006, one of them represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest. Last year, President Shimon Peres visited their camp, now an urban kibbutz, on his 85th birthday. “Your community is beloved in Israel,” he told them, adding, “Our hands are in yours. Your destiny must be our destiny.” The President was photographed hand-in-hand with Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, the community’s founder and spiritual guru. For some years Israel, had allowed members to work and to build businesses. This year, one Elyahkeem Ben Yehuda became the first Black Hebrew to be granted Israeli citizenship.

So, who are these reformed “troublemakers”? They call themselves “African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem” and claim descent from the lost tribe of Judah which, they say, wandered off into Africa long before the concept of Jewishness evolved. They have no desire for recognition of their rituals from a rabbinate they do not recognise. And they have no intention of converting. They observe Biblical holy days but not those — Chanucah and Purim, for example — established by rabbinical decree. Their lives are Torah-based — dictated by an often bizarre interpretation of Biblical lifestyles. But their behaviour is heavily influenced by African traditions plus religious holidays of their own creation.

These include The Day of the Show of Strength which celebrates the time in 1986 when they successfully faced down the armed might of the Israeli state. Then there is the New World Kingdom Passover Exodus from the Land of the Great Captivity, marking their departure from the US.

For these are born-again Black Americans. Their roots lie in the Back-to-Africa movement and the 1960s militant separatist mood which generated groups such as the Black Muslims, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panthers.

President Shimon Peres is welcomed to Dimona by the Black Hebrews

President Shimon Peres is welcomed to Dimona by the Black Hebrews

Back in 1966, Ben Ammi was Ben Carter, a foundry worker from the Chicago ghetto. Downtrodden blacks learned from him that they were the Chosen People, and Israel belonged to them, not the Zionists. Then, in 1966, the Angel Gabriel came unto Carter in a vision, re-named him and commanded him “to begin the exodus”. He was to lead his people to Liberia for several years of “redemption in the wilderness”. Then they were to reclaim the Holy Land.

And, lo, as they say in the Bible, it came to pass. Up to a point, anyway, as I discovered when I spent a day as a guest of Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, the Black Hebrews’ national spokesman. “Welcome to the Village of Peace” reads the banner above the gate. It is now an attractive, open, laid-back place.

The 80, once-bleak military huts have been revamped and painted in garish colours. Most are homes. Some are communal restaurants, workshops and study rooms. Children, smartly dressed in rather English-style school uniforms are scurrying off to the large new community-owned school which follows the Israeli national syllabus. Apart from the lack of beer and cigarettes (strictly forbidden), it could be a compound in any peaceful part of Africa.

Ben Yehuda, one of the key figures in the movement, came to Dimona in 1977. Like many of the “Second Wave” he is far better educated than the founders.

He had a cushy number as a Congressional aide on Capital Hill. “But I always felt I had a bigger role to play. I read my Bible and eventually I pieced together that we were the descendents of the Hebrews. Then I understood that the white man had used the [Christian] Bible to enslave the black man. I visited Dimona and I realised that we had been called home out of an environment [America] on the road to destruction. So he joined and married — three times, for the community is polygamous. Would he go back to America to live? “I have no desire whatsoever to visit America ever again”.

He was one of the first to argue that the brothers and sisters should voluntarily assume the burdens of Israeli citizenship. “We have demonstrated our loyalty to the land. All our young people volunteer for national service. My daughter is about to do her three years with the IDF. My twin sons have just got out of the air force. Children from the community died fighting in Gaza.”

The Black Hebrews are pure-food faddists. That, surprisingly, has proved to be one key to their commercial survival. They eat only home-grown, organic, vegan produce. Their food has become fashionable. They have opened a small restaurant in their village, and another in Tel Aviv with one planned for Jerusalem. Their factory produces a range of frozen foods which is sold widely in supermarkets and delicatessens.

Then there are lucrative contracts to advise African governments, development agencies and small farmers on the agricultural techniques they have developed. In addition, Black Hebrew families are settling and earning their living — and money for the kibbutz — in mainstream jobs across Israel. They all expect to achieve citizenship within the next five years.

The Black Hebrews are finally coming home.

Last updated: 1:38pm, July 29 2009