HEBREW ISRAELITE OF JERUSALEM
The African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem (also known as The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem or Black Hebrews or Black Hebrew Israelites) is a small spiritual group whose members believe they are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. With a population of over 5,000, most members live in their own community in Dimona, Israel, with additional families in Arad, Mitzpe Ramon, and the Tiberias area. Their immigrant ancestors were African Americans from Chicago, Illinois, who migrated to Israel in the late 1960s.
At least some of them consider themselves to be Jewish, but mainstream Judaism does not consider them to be Jewish. The ‘Glass Report’ of the American Jewish Committee, 1980, decided that “The ‘Black Hebrews’ are not Jews by any criterion, however liberal.”
The group was founded in Chicago by a former steel worker named Ben Carter (b.1939). In his early twenties Carter was given the name Ben Ammi by Rabbi Reuben of the Chicago Congregation of Ethiopian Hebrews. Ben Ammi says that in 1966 he had a “vision,” in which the Archangel Gabrielcalled 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 (see Black Hebrew Israelites) 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). Ammi claimed that the Israelites, after having been expelled from Jerusalem under the Romans, migrated to West Africa. They were later captured and transported to America as slaves.
They are influenced by the teachings of the Jamaican proponent of Black nationalism, Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), and by the Black civil rights milieu in 1960s America, including figures such as the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. From these they have incorporated elements of black separatism as well as the doctrine of repatriation of the African Diaspora to its ancestral lands in a “return to Africa”, of which they consider Israel to be a part.Israel is claimed to be located in Northeastern Africa.
Status in Israel
Ben Ammi and 350 of his followers first settled in Liberia in 1967. In 1969 they began moving to Israel, entering the country on temporary visas that were periodically renewed. As their numbers grew, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel ruled that they were not Jews, and therefore not entitled to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. This was compounded by their refusal to convert, as well as their insistence that most Israeli Jews are not genealogically related to the ancient Israelites.
Members of the group continued to arrive and settled in the desert community of Dimona. For two decades, their population continued growing through natural increase and illegal immigration. Throughout the 1970s tensions between the group and the state of Israel grew as the group faced low employment, inadequate housing and attempted deportation, while the state 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 National Homeland for Jewish People.” In 1973 the International League for the Rights of Man rejected the group’s claims, stating that the Hebrews 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 their 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.
They are not considered Jews in Israel.The Israeli government refused to grant the group citizenship, while occasionally pursuing deportation.
In May 1990, the group reached an agreement with the government whereby they were granted tourist status with a (B/1) Visa that entitled them to work; in 1991 they were given temporary resident status (A/5) for a period of five years, which in 1995 was extended for another three years. At the beginning of 2004, the group was granted permanent residency status by the Israeli Interior Ministry. In 2009, Elyakim Ben-Israel became the first Black Hebrew to receive Israeli citizenship. The Israeli government said that more Black Hebrews may be granted citizenship.
In sports they have represented Israel at home and in Europe in track and field and national softball events, including the Maccabiah Games. Their students have and still represent Israel in international academic competitions at the highest levels. Members of the community have represented Israel in two Eurovision song contests.
In 2004, Uriyahu Butler became the first member of the community to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and by 2006 more than 100 of their youth were serving in the IDF in regular units. The IDF agreed to accommodate some of their dietary and other religious requirements.[
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, and both illegal and pharmaceutical drugs, so as to stay within the cycles of life. The group owns and operates a chain of vegetarian restaurants throughout the world. Adult members exercise three times a week, and are advised to have at least one full-body massage each month for its health benefits.
The group grow much of their own food and are authorized organic growers with the Israel Bio-Organic Agricultural Association.
Clothing is based on Biblical guidelines, consisting of natural fibers with fringes and blue cord.
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 percent of marriages in 1992.
The group maintain that the Ancient Israelites are the ancestors of black Americans. They reject the term ‘Jew’ as inappropriate because of their belief they descend from all 12 tribes, not just that of Judah. While rejecting the religious forms of both Judaism and Christianity, the Hebrews maintain the divine inspiration of the Tanakh, as well as valuing the New Testament as a record of the words of Yeshuah, one of an ongoing line of ‘messiahs’ 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 reject the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism including the Talmud as inauthentic to Hebrew religion.
Ben Ammi claims that 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 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 America, 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 Hebrew Israelite community to serve as “a light unto the gentiles”: “Black America…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.” This is part of his attempt to reconstruct a vibrant, living spirituality away from the abstract doctrines of “Euro-gentile” religion.
As well as considering Jews to not be descendents of the Israelites, they claim that the Palestinian Arab population are not descendents 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.”
Accusations of Anti-Semitism and Current Relations with the Israeli Government
On several occasions Ben Ammi and the 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 community and Israel in the late 70s 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 Hebrew Israelite community distanced themselves from the overzealous and ineffective extremist stance taken up in earlier years. The group has since become a valued part of both the Dimona community and wider Israeli society and 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 commend 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 the concerns of anti-Jewish prejudice or stereotyping that arose during their formative years in the land of Israel, community leader Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda states simply 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 towards “the cooperative society that is working towards the inclusion of the Hebrew Israelite community in Israeli society at large,” and declared that their experience in the land is “an integral part of the Israeli experience.”
While their relationship with the State of Israel is maturing, the Hebrew Israelites still express concerns as to the direction that the country 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.” This does not mean that they are totally disconnected from the political scene. “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.”
The Hebrew Israelite community has developed a number of progressive institutions that are operating successfully around the world. One of the more popular institutions is their Soul Vegetarian Restaurant chain. Soul Vegetarian is a commercial restaurant line centered around providing a healthier alternative to the mainstream fast food options and their corresponding effects.
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 February 2005, in conjunction with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the group set up a conflict resolution center in Dimona to teach non-violence and reconciliation to families, communities, faiths and nations.
The Hebrew Israelite community has maintained a very active presence in different social and political sectors around the world. Since their arrival in the land of Israel, they have been promoting their holistic lifestyle and “spiritual” worldview as a potential solution to many of the problems in the world today. Their international staff of specialists and diplomats are sent to different parts of the world to offer advice, provide solutions and develop strategic partnerships with other progressive individuals, communities and organizations. The influence of this relatively small community can be seen in areas as diverse as the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD), the African Centre for the Conflict Resolution of Disputes(ACCORD), the Ghanaian Ministry of Health and even the United Nations.
The Hebrew Israelites have been working with various African communities throughout Israel and in Palestine to bring about a greater level of unity and cooperation amongst these historically divided and disadvantaged people. They formed the “Middle East Africa Diaspora Unity Council” in March, 2012, and formally registered it under the 6th Region of the African Union. One of their long-term goals is to implement socially regenerative programs which would unify and uplift the African presence in the Middle East which has been negatively impacted by racism and other social maladies.
In April of 2011, Ben Ammi led a 7-member delegation to South Africa to engage in discussions with His Majesty King Goodwill Zwelithini and the South African Government to explore options of replicating the “Dimona Model” for community development in the country. He was accompanied by Prince Buza Zulu, a representative from the Zulu Royal family
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)”
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