photo of smiling women
The African Hebrew Israelite community celebrating Shavuot in Dimona, Israel. (Getty)

African Hebrew Israelites

American black community finds spiritual home in the Negev.

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.

Community services include a general store, guest house, health spa, dance studio, communal dining area and sewing center, all staffed and maintained by community members. They produce a line of soy and vegan food products that are marketed throughout Israel and operate a global chain of vegan restaurants in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Washington DC, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, as well as Acre and Cape Coast (Ghana).

Spiritual and Social Life

Some have mistakenly reported that the African Hebrew Israelites claim to be descendents of the 10 lost tribes. The community actually considers itself the descendants of the tribe of Judah, as they spiritually identify with Judah’s role as the “gatherer” of the other tribes. (King David was from the tribe of Judah.) The community’s vision invokes Israel’s prophetic mandate to be a “light unto the nations.” The Hebrews take this charge seriously, incorporating a respect for what they see as the “sacred Truth” into every aspect of their culture.

The Hebrews maintain a firm distinction between religion on the one hand, and spirituality on the other. The former is frowned upon, and seen as the root of many evils in the world today. “The true worship of God is an entire way of life, a continuous action, from the meal you eat in the morning, to the job you work on,” wrote Ben Ammi in God the Black Man and Truth. “It encompasses your every deed and thought pattern.”

The Holy Council–12 men known as princes, chaired by Ben Ammi–constitutes the group’s spiritual leadership. Twelve ministers oversee the daily affairs and operations of the community. A third tier of governance, Crowned Brothers and Sisters, oversees the daily affairs of the adult community. The community’s vibrant cultural dress–all bordered with fringes and “cords of blue”, like a tallit–is unmistakable.

Polygyny, the practice of having more than one wife at a time, was practiced among Hebrew Israelites until 1990. The community defended this practice because it accorded with biblical tradition and also because of the community’s unique demographic conditions. Significantly more women traveled to Israel in the first wave of aliyah, and the community valued marriage and companionship, even if it meant one man having multiple wives.

In addition to keeping the Holy Days prescribed in the Bible, the Hebrews have incorporated a New World Passover into their calendar, which commemorates their exodus from the United States in 1967. Each May, hundreds of international guests join in two full days of feasting, music and family-oriented fun. Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) observances feature the annual “Dance for the Land” featuring an elaborate display of sound and motion celebrating their joy at being back in their ancestral land.

The Prophetic Priesthood, the body of men responsible for administering spiritual needs of the community also read psalms to women during pregnancy and labor, counsel couples considering marriage, officiate weddings, conduct Sabbath services, and perform circumcisions on the male children. Fasting, for all older than 13 years old, is part of the community’s mandatory Sabbath observance, and considered part of their holistic approach to health.

Health and Wellness

It is here, in the arena of preventive health, that the African Hebrew Israelites have scored, perhaps, their most impressive success. They have virtually eradicated high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and obesity from their community. Indeed there have been no deaths in the community attributable to these diseases, which in the US disproportionally impact African-Americans.

Members of the community are vegans. Tobacco, drugs, and alcoholic beverages aside from naturally fermented wines are avoided. Regular exercise (three times weekly) is mandatory for all adults, as is a monthly massage. No-salt days, sugarless weeks, and live food weeks dot their calendar. According to the community’s belief system, the choice of relationships, clothing, and music all matter where health is concerned, and every effort is made to create an environment conducive to healing. This consciousness is woven into the lifestyle, resulting in an admired comprehensive health literacy. In 2006, Ghana’s Ministry of Health summoned a team from Dimona to assist in the development of a health and nutrition program crucial to that West African country.

Working for Peace on Many Fronts

The Hebrews also participate in civic activities of the State of Israel. Since 2004, more than 125 of their youth have served in the Israel Defense Forces. Defending their homeland is viewed as a moral obligation, and other members of the community reach out to the neighboring Arab population. By virtue of their experience in overcoming prejudice, the group considers itself uniquely positioned to mediate disputes where ethnicity and other differences are at the root of social strife. A conflict resolution center, the Dr. Martin Luther King/SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference)-Ben Ammi Center for a New Humanity, opened in 2005.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry considers the community a corps of goodwill ambassadors. They are particularly active throughout Africa. Today, the frictions that once characterized the community’s relationship with the Israeli government and with Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties, who denied the community members were Jewish, are a distant memory.

Times may not have always been rosy for the community, but along the way, public praises have poured forth: the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus recognized them as a “miracle in the desert,” and the Foreign Ministry’s website calls them “a phenomenon in a land of phenomena.”

Their struggle for acceptance behind them, the African Hebrews continue to look at the challenges ahead. “Ever onward and upward,” says Prince Rockameem, 74, one of the founding pioneers. “If you’re coasting, you’re going downhill!”

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