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Israel’s Black Hebrews Gain Permanent Resident Status

August 11, 2003
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There are 2,500 new permanent residents of the State of Israel, but not one of them is new to the Jewish state.

Israel’s Black Hebrews, a group that traces its origins through Chicago and, they claim, all the way back to the biblical Jewish kingdoms, have been given a home in the Jewish state.

Though the Black Hebrews began immigrating to Israel from the United States in 1969, it was only last week that the community in southern Israel was granted permanent residency status.

It has been 34 years of bitter struggle, community members say.

“It seems that we are now at the doorstep of citizenship,” says Atarah Yafah Kitanah, spokeswoman for the Black Hebrew community of Dimona.

“We are happy,” she says of the development. “We now move forward.”

As permanent residents, Black Hebrews can serve in the Israeli army and establish government-recognized villages, the Interior Ministry says.

Permanent resident status generally leads to full citizenship after an unspecified period of time, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Tova Ellinson said.

Many Black Hebrews say a Jewish past would help explain otherwise inscrutable aspects of their identity.

“My great-great-grandmother had a Hebrew name, and there were certain practices that were passed down from generation to generation that nobody understood,” Kitanah recalls.

“There were a lot of different things passed on, like my grandmother telling me our people — our ancestors — came from the Holy Land, and we have a history there, and one day we will return,” she said.

Black Hebrews say they are descendants of the Jews expelled by the Romans in 70 C.E. According to Black Hebrew legend, some of those Jews reached West Africa, and many generations later their descendants were among the slaves brought to the United States.

Few in the Jewish establishment accept the Black Hebrews’ claims, however, and Israel’s Rabbinate ruled that they are not halachically Jewish.

In 1966, the community’s spiritual leader, Ben-Ammi Ben-Israel, said he had a vision that it was time for the Black Hebrews to return to their “homeland” of Israel.

In 1967, he left Chicago along with 430 followers and led them deep into the Liberian bush to re-enact the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

“As our fathers needed to sojourn before passing into the Promised Land, to shed their slave mentality, so we had to sojourn in Liberia,” Ben-Israel once explained to the Jerusalem Post.

Community members stayed in the African bush for the next two years, braving heavy rains in leaky tents.

Ravaged by poverty, hunger and illness, they tried to learn to live off the land. Two years later — after nearly three- fourths of the group had returned to the United States — 120 of the Black Hebrews moved to Israel.

They were joined over the years by others who entered Israel as tourists and stayed on after their visas expired.

The Black Hebrews’ path toward Israeli citizenship has been long and arduous.

Originally offered citizenship under the Law of Return in 1969, the community’s status later was challenged and revoked. From 1973 through the early 1990s, the community had no legal status, and many members of the group — who had renounced their U.S. citizenship — were left stateless.

As a result, Black Hebrews could not hold legal jobs, send their children to Israeli schools or utilize national health care services.

The Black Hebrews’ cause was not helped by their insistence that they were the true Jews and that the Israelis were usurpers. As their case made its was through Israeli courts, they mounted a campaign against the state that many saw as vitriolic and anti-Semitic.

The community’s newspapers compared Israelis to Nazis and included images of money-grubbing Jews.

An Israeli government report issued in 1980 recommended that the Black Hebrews be taken through a gradual process of naturalization that would lead to citizenship. The government worried that deportation back to the United States might raise charges of racism.

The report’s recommendations were never implemented, however.

In 1989, then-Interior Minister Aryeh Deri visited Ben-Israel.

“There was an understanding, principles of agreement, between the community and the Ministry of the Interior,” Kitanah says. “The Ministry of the Interior was to grant us legal status.”

A year later, the ministry offered community members work permits, and in 1993 it granted them three-year temporary resident status.

“After temporary residency, we were to receive permanent residency and receive citizenship, but it didn’t go as planned,” Kitanah says.

Interior Ministry officials deny any such commitment.

They periodically extended the community’s temporary resident status, and in 1999 they offered community members Israeli identity cards. However, Many Black Hebrews said they weren’t able to get the cards.

The struggle for citizenship has been mired in controversy focused around the Black Hebrews’ purported lineage.

Early on, the Israeli Rabbinate determined that the Black Hebrews are not halachic Jews. Israel’s Supreme Court offered the community citizenship on the condition that they undergo formal Orthodox conversion.

But Ben-Israel refused, explaining that conversion would imply a rejection of the Black Hebrews’ lineage.

The Black Hebrews also resented being treated differently than the non-Jews among the more than 1 million immigrants who arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s. Though up to a quarter of the immigrants were not halachically Jewish, they were granted Israeli citizenship because of their family ties to Jews.

“Russian and other immigrants come in and introduce prostitution and other vices,” says Andrew Butler, a Black Hebrew performance artist living in Tel Aviv. “They don’t even want to abide by Jewish laws, and still Israel gives citizenship to them.”

Despite their struggles for acceptance, the Black Hebrews established a fast growing community. Members say it is deeply rooted in Biblical teachings, though they reject latter-day interpretations of the Bible, including such injunctions as the rabbinic prohibition against polygamy.

Adherents follow a strictly vegan diet; eschew caffeine, alcohol, drugs and cigarettes; and experiment with no-salt days, sugar-free weeks and raw-food weeks.

According to a study by researchers from Vanderbilt University and Meharry Medical College, the Black Hebrews have an extremely low level of cardiovascular disease, cancer and obesity.

In 1980, the community moved from overcrowded housing in Dimona to an abandoned absorption center nearby, which they cleaned and beautified.

The call their current environs the Village of Peace or the Island of Sanity, and it includes a vegan restaurant that is open to the public.

Community members say they welcome Israeli visitors and are involved in Dimona civic life.

Kitanah says that Black Hebrews “represent the city of Dimona and State of Israel.”

In 1999, for example, two Black Hebrews were part of the boy band that represented Israel at the Eurovision song contest — even though the two weren’t Israeli citizens.

One Black Hebrew youngster, Talila Bat-Israel, a young swimming champion, hopes to represent Israel in upcoming Olympic games.

Though her athletic ability may get her into the games, it remains to be seen whether or not Bat-Israel will be Israeli by then.

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