The African Hebrew Israelite Community in Israel

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By Miri -

Origins and Way of Life

The African Hebrew Israelite Community (AHIC), usually referred to as Black Hebrews, emerged in Chicago at the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and formed part of the big array of Black pride political and cultural organisations. 
Like the Nation of Islam, the members of the AHIC consciously distanced themselves from Christianity as a way to disassociate themselves from the “white man". At the time their spiritual leader Ben Ammi stated: “Everything brought to us from Europe divides us […] African Americans will never be united and will never taste freedom until we rise from the mental death which has left us rootless.” 

Inspired by Black nationalist thinkers, such as Marcus Garvey, civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., but more importantly by the Old Testament, the AHIC views African Americans as the descendants of the original Israelites. According to their historiography, their ancestors were expelled from Israel after the Roman invasion. After a 1000 year long odyssey, they reached West Africa where they were enslaved a second time and shipped to the US, where they were stripped of their names, culture, language and religion. 
The AHIC's aim is thus to recover their origins, retrace the routes of their ancestors' dispersion, and return to reconnect their lost souls to a homeland. 
Referring to a time prior to the excavation of the Suez Canal when the Arab Peninsula was physically connected to Africa, the AHIC considers Israel and Palestine as forming part of eastern Africa (note that according to many Israelis and Europeans, Israel forms part of Europe). 

Although referring to the Old Testament, most members of the AHIC do not consider themselves Jews. The “true worship of God”, as they refer to it, is not a religion, which has only ever divided people, but rather an encompassing culture or a way of life. Many of their cultural practices however, do bear resemblance to Jewish ones, such as the keeping of the Sabbath and other holidays, the circumcising of male children, as well as maintaining the laws relating to the niddah, which obliges a menstruating woman to avoid contact with men, including her husband. The community has however also their own holidays and many other practices, such as polygyny, which allows men to marry up to six wives (and which is actually illegal in Israel, but apparently ignored by the authorities), the wearing of only natural fabrics, as well as the maintenance of a vegan diet, stem from the community's own interpretations of the bible. 
 

Journey to and Life in Israel

In 1967 Ben Ammi led an exodus of some 300 people out of the US and to Liberia. After a short sojourn in West Africa in order to cleanse themselves of spiritual impurities, over half of the people returned to the US and the rest continued their journey to Israel in 1969. 

Members of the AIHC in Dimona, 1970
The arrival of those first 39 community member at first baffled the Israeli authorities, who eventually decided to send them to the impoverished Negev town in Dimona. Their claim to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which entitles Jews and their close relatives to citizenship, was however objected and Israel's chief rabbinate ruled that the community should not be considered Jewish. This was in line with the above mentioned rejection of the community to being labeled a branch of Judaism, which also constituted their reason for not formally converting, which in turn would have made them eligible to Israeli citizenship. Those following the initial group thus entered the country as tourists and cyclically renewed or simply overstayed their visas. 

The first two decades of the community's life in Israel were characterised by mass arrests and deportations and many of the members tried to renounce their US citizenship in order to avoid the measures taken against them by Israel. From 1992 onwards, the relationship with the state improved however and Israel finally agreed to grant the members of the community temporary residency, which allowed them to receive social benefits and government support on the condition that no more members of the group would immigrate from the US. In 2003 the AHIC members were granted permanent residency and in 2009, the first member of the community received Israeli citizenship. 

Israeli President Shimon Peres and spiritual leader Ben Ammi, Dimona 2008
From being at the margins of Israeli society, the community by now constitutes an institutionalised piece of the ethnic and religious cluster that is Israel and Palestine. Aiding to this process was probably the 2004 decision of the members to enlist in the Israel army, still a key element of integration and recognition. 
By now members of the community frequently represent Israel in sports events and one member was already sent twice to the Eurovision song contest. 
Also in economic terms the community has established itself; it founded an urban kibbutz called Shomrey Hashalom (Guardians of Peace) where it engages with organic agriculture. The community is further running a chain of vegan restaurants, as well as producing and selling their colourful fabrics. Their gospel choir has become well known and is frequently touring the country as well as the US. During a visit for his 85th birthday to the community, Israel's president Shimon Peres was quoted as saying: "Your community is beloved in Israel. You give the country happiness and song and hope for a better world”. 

It should be noted that the community is still sometimes associated with more radical sections of the Hebrew Israelites in the US, such as the Nation of Yahweh, whose beliefs have been criticised as black supremacist and anti-semitic. According to AHIC leader Ben Ammi, however, this comparison is flawed and he explicitly denies any relationship with those groups. In terms of their own rhetoric, Ben Ammi states that the community has matured throughout the years and adopted a more inclusive message regarding white people. 

The community in Israel is rapidly growing and by now counts some 5000 members, most of who live in Dimona, Arad and Mitzpeh Ramon where they continue their task of “building the Kingdom of God”.


 

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1 comment:

  1. My family are Ashkenazi Jews from western Europe and a few generations ago, Poland. They fled Europe during WWII. The National Geographic Society is conducting DNA research. You can have your DNA tested for distant ancestry. Mine is West African. About 20% of African-Americans are of the same group as myself. However, as we are immigrants to the US, it cannot be the familiar American story of mixed parentage from the days of slavery. Other groups that include my DNA group are from places like Latvia. Interesting,no? 50,000 years ago the Sahara desert shrunk opening a way across Africa and up the Nile river valley. It then closed again to what we see today. The Exodus story?

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