I visited the African Hebrew Israelites community in the town of Dimona, and toured Israel with them. Here is my account:
Published in New Nation, 19/01/2004
Preaching a return to the spiritual homeland of black people in the Holy Land of Israel, the African Hebrew Israelites have developed a thriving community in what they call Northeast Africa.
And returning to reclaim the land once home to black people before white Christian crusaders invaded Palestine in 70AD, people of the Hebrew Israelite ‘kingdom’ believe now is the time for African-Americans and black British to make their Exodus to Israel.
A highly-publicised visit of troubled soul songstress Whitney Houston and husband ‘Bad Boy’ Bobby Brown, in May last year raised the profile of the community which has also been visited by Stevie Wonder.
The Hebrew Israelites, led by their spiritual leader Ben Ammi Ben Israel, have built their own society and economy centred on their Village of Peace’ situated in Dimona, in the southern Negev desert.
To his followers Ben Ammi is ‘the Messiah’ a saviour who has come to deliver black people from oppression and ill-health and lead them to a new dawn of revival in Eden, their term for Africa.
The movement has welded together a health-conscious lifestyle with Black Nationalism to create a spiritually and physically healthy community without guns, drugs, domestic violence and robbery. Where their leaders dress like African royalty and preach pride in the black race.
Front doors are left unlocked and children bow and say ‘Shalom’ (meaning peace) to every adult, and every adult takes responsibility to look out for and if necessary chastise the children. If it takes a village to raise a child, then this is the village.
Although American-dominated there are around 20 black British families in Dimona, and the relatively-new London branch, based in Brixton in south London meeting in the recreation centre, is attracting ever-greater interest.
Yahkhi Ben Israel, a 43 year old Rastafarian from Streatham in south London, has lived as a Black Israelite for the last six months with his wife. He said: ” I don’t lock my door when I go out. The only thing dividing us from others outside of here is fresh air.
“We as African people are people of God and there is a spiritual essence wherever we are. But the black man is always at the bottom of the pile. We’ve got to turn things around because we’ve tried everything else.”
The Hebrew Israelites have two ‘extensions’ in Britain, one meeting in Brixton in south London, the other in Birmingham. The community is in many ways fulfilling the dream of Marcus Garvey, of black self-organisation, separatism and community harmony.
Dr Martin Luther King, shortly before his assassination, talked of having “been to the mountain top and seen the promised land”. Looking out from a mountain top over the Sea of Galilee, a place Ben Ammi regularly visits and prays from, it felt like this might have been that vision.
When Dr King made that famous speech in 1968, Ben Ammi had already taken a band of 400 followers to Liberia, a country that was previously used to be a settling-point for freed American slaves, to ‘cleanse’ themselves of ingrained Western habits.
A year later with his followers ready for a return to the promised land but with Dr King dead, Ben Ammi arrived in Israel to claim the rightful inhabitants of the land had returned after almost 2,000 years.
Today, even though the Kingdom has only been in Israel for 36 years, and it is hard to imagine how such a sophisticated and apparently perfect community can have developed from scratch in such a short period of time.
It is community where every need has been thought about and many dozen mini-industries toil to produce as much as possible ‘in-house’.
A whole process, from farming to the manufacture of Soya and tofu products provides their vegan ultra-health conscious diet.
Several men previously trapped in American ghettos or British inner city estates have gone on to explore their horizons and potentials, becoming doctors and engineers. Machinery has been built and buildings constructed by people who were unskilled or unemployed in the West.
Work has started on a new ‘City of Hope’ in Dimona, which allows for expansion. The leaders are thinking big. Work has also started on a new Village of Peace in Benin and they have a farm and factory in Ghana.
One leader, Dr Avimelech Ben Israel said: “This is how civilisations were born. We’re at the birth if a new nation because the old Western civilisation is dying. This is only the beginning. People, our own people sometimes, will tell you that black people can’t run anything – but here we are.
It is a message that gripped 70-year-old Atura Gioolatiyah. She arrived in Dimona from Detroit in 1976 to attend her sister’s wedding, parked her car at the airport and flew out. Her husband was expecting her back but she never returned.
Gioolatiyah said: “I was just planning to stay for ten days, but I never went back. I’ve never been back to America. When I got here I was just taken by the way of life. I didn’t know nothing about the philosophy, but I just had to stay. This is my home.”
The Hebrew Israelites have been wrongly labelled a ‘cult’ – including by another black British newspaper – but there was no evidence of this. Nobody was forced to be there, or forced to think in a certain way.
The movement is underpinned by a strong and unique mixture of religious spirituality and black consciousness but people had willingly self-selected into this, especially after seeing the benefits.
The ‘Holy Father’ Ben Ammi, formerly Ben Carter, is an enigmatic man, both calming and unsettling. With a kindly smile and inquisitive hazel eyes, this fit 65 year-old said spirituality needed to be matched with action, otherwise it led to death.
He said: “In another ten years, looking at the predicament of the planet they [the next generation] won’t have a decision to make. We can’t afford to make the wrong decision. If we do not turn things around then your generations’ children will not have a chance. If things are not turned around in this generation, forget it.
“We are fooled into believing that the diet of the cursed is the diet of the blessed. When we grew up we could not wait until we could get a steak. Our people must go back to consuming of the soil in order to experience the blessings, because if not they will remain under the diet of the curse.”
Asked whether he was the Messiah, in good Biblical tradition he told a parable, ending it by adding: “Pray that I am and leave the rest to history.” The belief that Ben Ammi is the Messiah may well cause a problem for Christians. However some of those in Dimona have been raised in the Christians faith, but who see some of its’ ideals in action.
When Chicago metal worker Ben Carter claimed he had a 45 second vision from the Archangel Gabriel in 1966, many would have written him off as crazy. One close ally recalled how he opened up a map of Africa and, pointing at the West coast, said: “By 1967 we’re going to be here. I don’t know exactly where but somewhere around here, and we’ll be in Israel by 1970.”
As predictions go, this proved surprisingly accurate. Now called Ben Ammi Ben Israel, this unassuming man was not the obvious leader, but was nevertheless crowned spiritual leader.37 years after his vision, Ben Ammi now wants to become the spiritual leader of Israel, and is idolised by his 3,000 followers in Dimona.
The actual connection between African-Americans, black British and the land of Israel is quite a complicated one, but it is crucial to their whole philosophy. It hinges on where the original black people of Israel were dispersed to when the land suffered a series of invasions from the Crusaders to the Turkish Ottomans.
Research undertaken by the Hebrew Israelites points to black Jews travelling across Africa to the West, where as relative newcomers they were then sold into slavery by the more established tribes living in what is now Ghana and Nigeria.
It is a journey which Ben Ammi and the Hebrew Israelites have now made in reverse, and believe they have now paved the way for black people in Britain and America to join them.
They are also reaching out to the pockets of historically established black communities in Israel, who are on the margins of Israeli society but whose claim to the Holy Land is as strong as anybodys.
The poor run-down village of Segev Shalom, halfway between Dimona and the ancient city of Be’er Sheva, does not look unusual until you see the people.The Ishmaelites, descending from one of Abraham’s twelve sons, seem as old as the land itself but physically their features are indistinguishable from many in Sub Saharan Africa – living proof to the newly-settled Hebrew Israelites that that black people’s home is in Israel.
Yet the Ishmaelite community are a world apart from the well-organised and well-dressed Hebrew Israelites. The Ishmaelites appear to be the victims of ‘benign neglect’ by the Israeli government and are on the margins of society.
And even though they lived in what is now Israel long before many of the European Jews moved there, the jet-black people who inhabit villages like Segev Shalom are rarely, if ever, recognised internationally as part of the face of Israel.
There is also a historic black community of Ethiopians living in places like Jerusalem. But many are concentrated in an over-populated, poor, grubby, district called ‘Prison Gate’.The name could not be more apt as they live in a converted prison where their ancestors were under lock and key after being thrown in jail by the Ottoman Turks.
Today they live in poverty — just a stone throw from the Wailing Wall, where Orthodox Jews pray every day. There are also other black communities in Israel, with around 10,000 living in dire poverty on the outskirts of Jericho and work as farm labourers. Many Yemenite Jews live in villages outside Tel Aviv.
Television pictures may concentrate on the conflict between the ruling white Jews and the Arab Palestinians, but the history and colour of the land is far more diverse than much of the media would have us believe.
The Hebrew Israelites certainly seem to recognise other faiths, believing that Jesus, or Yeshua, was a prophet for his times in the same way that Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, was. And the Israelites quote and preach regularly from the Old Testament Bible.
The story of the Hebrew Israelites hasn’t always been a success. When they first arrived in Liberia they suffered great hardship, of burying six people and not having enough money to buy food. Ben Ammi had difficulty persuading his supporters to give up smoking marijuana and adhere to a strict vegan diet.
Once in Israel the state made them to feel very unwelcome in the early years, even inflicted germ warfare against them by dropping clouds of dust from helicopters which resulted in serious outbreaks of illness. Some of their leaders, such as Prince Nasik Asiel, were deported only to return using false names and Ben Ammi had a machine gun pointed at his head by a soldier threatening to pull the trigger.
Today, relations between the Hebrew Israelites and the Israeli state are somewhat better, and received permanent status in 2002.
Sista Samakiyah is one of the daughters of the community, born in Dimona, is Samakiyah Baht Israel. A large black woman with a huge elaborate orange headwrap and matching outfit she looks dressed in her Sunday-best to attend an African church.
She teaches in their impressive Akvah school (meaning brotherhood). Watching her in action is an education in itself – the sort of teacher every parents wants – inspirational, uplifting and fearsome.
A positive bundle of fizzling energy, and as she talks of her passion for the children she teaches, her arms wave about as if in the throws of praising God as her class of 6-year-olds listen.
“These are the future rulers not only of our community but also of the world”, she says. “My job is dedicated to these children. We don’t call it education, we call it dedication! Dedication in respect to one another. The things that exalts the nation are consciousness and righteousness. We serve a living God.”
Then Sista Samakiyah asks a young boy to stand up and recite the line ‘know the truth and the truth will set you free.’ “Louder!” she booms, and the child turns up the volume. “Louder!” she repeats, and the boy is straining at the top of his voice.
Sista Samakiyah turns to me and said: “He didn’t say ‘know the computer and the computer will set you free’! But that’s what we’re taught today.”But there is no trace of fear on the boy’s face. He’s either so used to this he feels comfortable or he just believes what he’s saying. But you can’t help feeling that these children have self-respect and self-assurance in abundance.
The experience is partly a throw-back to Victorian values, partly an energetic faith-driven education system. A quite funky music tape is played and the class of six-year-olds sing at the top of their voices a song mainly revolving around the words ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘excuse me’.
Some might consider this a bit cheesy but you can see where they are coming from, and what they are appealing to. Many of the families here come from cities like Chicago, Washington and London, taking the chance to break free from cycle of violence, fear and hopelessness.
Walking around Dimona you see evidence of communal working, of brotherhood and especially sisterhood. Whether it is cleaning the guest-houses or working in the clothes factory producing regal African garments made from natural products, you do not sense an air of typical work, but one of emotional support and fellowship.
They believe in polygamy, but not every man has a wife. Men are allowed up to seven, but generally have two or three. Women born in the west may sometimes find polygamy difficult however it is apparent the new generation born in Dimona are a lot more accepting. And polygamy, traditional in some African tribes, may actually keep the Hebrew Israelite community functioning because of the work done by women.
However another striking feature of their community is the observance of virginity until marriage. And with such a tight-knit community there are many elders to keep an eye on the youth to make sure temptation is resisted.
There was plenty of evidence of women also expressing themselves, including laying down tracks in their recording studio, which produces a wide variety of professional and Yah-inspired music.
Residents of all ages are expected to exercise three times a week, but many to so everyday. Early mornings in Dimona are notable for black Hebrews jogging or walking on the surrounding sandy hills.
The whole community seems fit and healthy, especially the older generation. Although black men and women sometimes appear younger-looking than their white counterparts, the difference amongst the African Hebrews was astonishing.
Men in their 50′s frequently boasted of holding their own against the younger generation in sports such as basketball. They claim not to have had a single case of diabetes, usually more common amongst people of African heritage, cancer or asthma, and just five strokes in 36 years.
Evidence of the community’s health appears not just in physical appearance. An average community of this size would normally have a full doctors surgery. Their medical centre, called Beit Kiem meaning House of Life, was completely empty.
The whole purpose of the Hebrew Israelite way of living was summed up by Elasah Ben Nasic Asiel, who used to be known as Coy Pugh when he was a Democratic legislator in the House of Representatives in Illinois from 1991 to 2000.
He said the movement gave many black people the chance to fulfil their potential in a way that was seemingly not possible in the inner cities due to racism, which ‘subordinates and dehumanises’ black people.
He said: “The formula that the Honourable Ben Ammi has afforded black men in our community is the opportunity to realise who we are, and as a result reach that latent potential which is suppressed by other so-called societies.
“Here we have created our own government that is ruled by men that are ruled by God. We have individuals who have had a very rudimentary education becoming doctors or a man of some kind of stature.”
Black separation movements are nothing new, from the Black Panthers to the Nation of Islam, but what seems to set the African Hebrew Israelites apart is that rather than just talk about the idea, they are actually busy constructing a sophisticated black society from scratch. And it is attracting increasing numbers of black families in Britain and America to Dimona.
Already marking themselves out an being of importance in black history, if the Hebrew Israelites continue to grow at the present rate we may be hearing a lot more of them in the future.
Follow me: @suttongoingon