- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

DIMONA, Israel — In the schoolyard, facing the Hebrew Israelite community in their festive African clothes, Ben-Ami Carter excitedly raised his right hand a week ago like an athlete displaying the trophy he has just won: His new, light-blue Israeli identity card. Black emigrants from Chicago in the early 1960s were offered Israeli citizenship last week after a long struggle.

“Hallelujah,” Mr. Carter called out.

“Hallelujah,” his congregation rejoined time and again.

Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, standing beside Mr. Carter last Wednesday, told the group that they, too, would soon get ID cards recognizing them as permanent residents of this land. “It’s been a long struggle,” said U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer who told the Hebrew Israelites he will continue to be their ambassador.

“I guess you can call this the best moment [of my life in Israel],” said Haraymiel Ben-Shaleak, 56.

It was a very hot morning in the desert town of Dimona, but gray-bearded Mr. Ben-Sheleak showed up in a black outfit. He wore a necklace with a gold Menorah.

“This culminates the 2,000 years of exile,” he said.

“The promise of the Creator that we will return to this land [is now] accepted and recognized by the whole of Israel. … The beautiful thing about it [is that] it took less than 40 years,” he added.

Mr. Ben-Shaleak was alluding to the 40 years in the wilderness that the ancient Hebrews, led by Moses, spent in their trek from Egypt to the Promised Land. It took the government of Israel 34 years to accept the Hebrew Israelites, also known as black Hebrews, as permanent residents.

The first Hebrew Israelite group arrived in December 1969. The government then did not know what to make of those American blacks who suddenly showed up and said their ancestors were here.

In the early 1960s, there were several groups in Chicago that blended a form of Judaism with black nationalism, explained Morris Lounds Jr., in his book “Israel’s Black Hebrews.” The Hebrew Israelites originated in Chicago and won followers elsewhere in the United States.

Prince Immanuel Ben-Yehuda, 48, who was born in Oklahoma as Leon Dubbs, recalled in an interview that his grandfather always told them, “We were descendents … of the biblical Israelites; that we were the people of the Bible, Israel is our homeland, the Bible is our history.”

“When I was a kid, I didn’t think a lot about it. I wanted to go outside and play ball. … But as I grew older, roots and heritage became very important to me … and my grandfather’s words would come back,” he said.

Members believe that the ancient Hebrews turned against their Creator and were exiled. They reached North Africa and then migrated to Central and West Africa. “Many of us were taken into slavery there, along with other African tribes [and sent] to America,” said Yaffa Bat-Gavriel, 45, their spokeswoman.

In December 1967, 134 American blacks left the United States for Liberia and faced hardships. They had no experience farming, nor fighting insects and snakes. They turned Liberia into a stopover on their way to Israel.

“We went out [to America] through West Africa and came back through West Africa,” Mr. Ben-Shaleak said, presenting their voyage to Israel as a trek full of symbolism.

Thirty-nine Hebrew Israelites reached Israel in December 1969. They sought entry under the Law of Return that grants automatic citizenship to every Jew who wants to live in Israel.

The government did not know whether the Hebrew Israelites were Jews, and let them in pending an investigation into their claim to Hebrew ancestry. It sent them to Dimona and helped them find houses and jobs.

Eventually, the authorities concluded they were not Jews and sought to block the entry of more members, but people continued coming. It was fairly easy. U.S. tourists do not need visas to Israel and policewomen at the border-control posts at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv did not ask questions.

The new arrivals joined the group in Dimona, some 800 children were born in their compound there, and Mr. Carter estimates they now number between 2,000 and 2,500 people.

Most community members live in Dimona. It is a town in the midst of low desert hills. “It’s not an easy place,” Mr. Poraz acknowledged. Dimona became famous for the nuclear facility a few minutes drive toward the Dead Sea.

Other members live in Arad and near a crater at Mitzpe Ramon. All three towns are in the Negev Desert.

With no legal status, and in their early years with a halting command of the language, the Hebrew Israelites had to put up with simple day-to-day work. There was no job security, nor welfare benefits. Often, they earned less than Jews for the same work, and some employers are said to have cheated them.

People would work for months “and when pay time came, the employer would disappear, or he wouldn’t pay,” Mrs. Bat-Gavriel said.

She was interviewed on a bench in a gazebo in the street outside their compound. “We had no address to turn to because … we had no legal status in the country,” she said. “We could not go to [the authorities] … and say ‘We weren’t paid’ … because [they would say] … ‘You’re not supposed to be here anyway.’”

Instead of going to school, children attended classes held in families’ dining and bedrooms.

The Hebrew Israelites survived because they helped one another. Dance and musical troupes traveled throughout Israel, appearing at weddings, cafes and restaurants. Members then went from door to door trying to sell their records. A children’s dance troupe recently returned from a tour of several U.S. cities.

Their compound in Dimona is crowded. Thirty-six persons share a low-ceilinged, poorly ventilated, single-story dwelling of 12 small rooms. Mr. Carter said their children sometimes have to line up to use the toilet.

Israelis were annoyed when reports emerged that the Hebrew Israelites consider themselves to be the ancient Hebrews’ real descendants. This implied the Jews were imposters and usurpers of the land.

Mr. Carter is trying to make amends. He recalled his first days in Israel, when he was 30 years old, still a rebel, and obsessed with “the blood of my people [that] flowed in the streets of the United States.”

When his black Hebrew Israelites arrived in Israel, they did not trust the Jews they found. “For us, whites were the oppressors,” Mr. Carter told UPI.

Many of Dimona’s Jewish residents emigrated from Morocco. Mr. Carter recalled that the city’s mayor, Gaby Lelouche, told them he was an African, too. Mr. Lelouche emigrated from Morocco, but was too white for the Hebrew Israelites.

“They thought we were a closed community. But we were a community filled with fear, trepidation, dread. We didn’t trust anyone,” Mr. Carter recalled.

“The rabbis came to me and said, ‘You’re not Jewish.’ I said: ‘Neither are you.’ … It was a reaction,” he said.

Over time, he learned Jewish history and changed his mind. “Absolutely. We’re all one family,” he declared.

Community members said they are happy they settled in Israel.

“The children you see here have an opportunity that many youngsters in other parts of the world don’t have,” said Mr. Ben-Shaleak. “The drugs, the gang violence, the promiscuity — all of the things that are prevalent in the rest of the world, that impact on the development of the child — our children don’t have to experience.”

Mrs. Bat-Gavriel said she felt “connected” to Israel the moment she arrived. She was 27 then. “Every time when I leave Israel and I come back, I feel I’m home,” she said.

Getting the Israeli government to accept them was a different story. On several occasions, police arrested members who were in Israel illegally and deported them.

In the mid-1980s, after 40 persons were deported, the Hebrew Israelites planned a demonstration in Jerusalem.

“We woke up that morning to find the whole community surrounded by soldiers and police. … nipers all on the streets surrounded us,” Mr. Ben-Shaleak recalled. The Hebrew Israelites canceled their demonstration.

Mr. Ben-Yehuda was arrested on his way to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, deported, and now comes back for short visits, careful not to overstay his permit. His son is here and he tries to come as often as possible, he said.

The Hebrew Israelites appealed to the High Court of Justice for the right to settle, as Jews, under the Law of Return. But the court ruled they are not Jewish.

The Sabbath is their day of rest, like the Jews. But in contrast with the Jews, they fast every Sabbath, saying they must let their bodies rest as well. They circumcise their sons, but do not observe Jewish holidays.

Anaviel Ben-Eliezer, 54, said Hebrew Israelites consider Jesus “to have been a very learned man, a very inspired man,” but argued that the New Testament Scriptures that portray him are inaccurate. The Messiah should be called Immanuel, he said.

The U.S. Embassy interceded on their behalf.

“Over the years, the embassy has worked very closely with the community and the government to regularize their status,” said Mr. Kurtzer, the U.S. ambassador.

“Our concern was the community didn’t have the legal status that it required,” he added at last week’s ceremony.

Eventually, the government gave the Hebrew Israelites the status of temporary residents. It built a school for them called Ahva, “Fraternity,” in Hebrew.

The school’s principal, Netta Israeli, said she adheres to the Education Ministry’s program for secular schools, but adds music and dance because “it’s built into their soul, and you can’t have a school without it.” Before holidays, they sing appropriate songs in English and Hebrew.

With their new status as permanent residents, the Hebrew Israelites will be eligible for government housing subsidies and allowed to vote in local elections. University tuition will be lower, and they will no longer have to ask the Interior Ministry to extend their visas. But it also means their children will be drafted into the army, said Mr. Poraz.

Mr. Carter accepts this. “We didn’t consider it fair that the sons of this land’s residents defend our children, but our children couldn’t defend them. We have groups of youngsters ready to be drafted,” he declared.

Mr. Carter said the Hebrew Israelites would also abide by local laws that prohibit polygamy. He has four wives, but henceforth “everything will be done in accordance with Israel’s laws,” he added.

In a few years time, they could obtain Israeli citizenship, if they request it, Mr. Poraz told them.

“We want Israel to be a varied, multicultured state,” he explained.

As citizens, they could vote in the elections for the Knesset, the Jewish parliament, and take government jobs. However, they would have to forgo their U.S. citizenship if they choose to be Israeli, he said.

At the end of the ceremony in the schoolyard, the Hebrew Israelites’ choir and band led the singing of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” or “Hope.”

“To be a free nation, in our land, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem,” they sang fervently.

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