African Hebrew Israelites

American black community finds spiritual home in the Negev.

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African Hebrew Israelites, often referred to as Black Hebrews, are the largest organized group of African-American expatriates living anywhere in the world. The African Hebrew Israelites are the followers of Ben Ammi Ben Israel, who they believe received a vision in 1966 in which he was directed to return African-American descendants of the ancient Israelites to the Promised Land, and to establish the long-awaited Kingdom of God on earth. 

By 1967, Ben Ammi convinced approximately 400 African-Americans (largely from Chicago) to leave, America (known as the "Lands of the Great Captivity"), and travel to Israel. The first group of "returnees" arrived in Israel in 1969, after a brief sojourn in the wilderness of Liberia.

The movement can be understood in the context of the "great awakening" to historical roots and cultural identity that African-Americans underwent in the 1960s. The Hebrew Israelites maintain their return was not just to their ancestral homeland of Israel (which they consider northeastern Africa), but to a way of life that would testify to the power of God.

While only approximately 3,000 saints (as they call themselves) reside in Israel, thousands live across the US, Caribbean, Europe and Africa and identify with the community, living according to their doctrinal tenets.

Organizing in Israel

On arrival in Israel in 1969, the African Hebrew Israelites were given temporary visas and assigned to Dimona, an economically-depressed development town in Israel's Negev region. The initial welcoming proved short-lived, as a change in Israel's Law of Return less than a year later cast the community into a legal limbo. At first the members did not have work visas, but were not deported by the government. Beginning in the early 1990s, African Hebrew Israelites were given temporary resident status, and the community members received permanent residency in 2003. The Israeli government now allows African Hebrew Israelites to pursue citizenship of Israel. The first African Hebrew Israelite received Israeli citizenship in 2009, and more Hebrews have become citizens since then.

Meanwhile, faced with overcrowded conditions, no access to schools or health care, and the constant threat of deportation, the Hebrew Israelites were challenged to develop institutions that addressed their basic needs. They developed a biblically-based system of communal living and sharing, called All in Common, which drove the economy. They also founded, Bayt Safer Akvah (Brotherhood School), a community-run school under the auspices of Israel's Ministry of Education.

In 1980 an abandoned absorption center for 1970s-era immigrants was given to the community by Jacques Amir, a sympathetic mayor. Renovated by the members, the site provided a brief respite from massive overcrowding. Later proclaimed the Village of Peace, it is now a destination for hundreds of tourists each week.

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John L. Jackson Jr.

John L. Jackson, Jr. is the Richard Perry University Associate Professor of Communication and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He is an anthropologist and filmmaker currently working on a research project about global black/African Hebrewism.

Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda is a spokesperson and historian for the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Born and raised in Washington, DC, he has lived in Dimona since 1978. He is also executive director of the African/Edenic Heritage Museum's "Exploring the African Presence in the Promised Land," an exhibition documenting Hebrewisms and other connections of Africans to Israel.