Of all the peoples who lay claim to a home in the Holy Land, none is more bizarre than the secti; iknown as the Black Hebrews. Patrick Cockburn retraces their extraordinary exodus from Chicago
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FROM A distance, the compound in Dimona looks like any other Israeli kibbutz or settlement, with neat rows of one-storey houses and carefully swept paths. As you get closer, however, strange incongruities appear. The boy in the school playground is black; as a greeting he bows from the waist and says, "Shalom", the last syllable lengthened by an American drawl. The parents picking up their children, also black, are dressed in West African robes, the purple, blue or brown fabric sweeping the ground; the women wear brightly-patterned turbans, the men skullcaps like fish- nets. On the surrounding buildings the signs are in English, and more reminiscent of American religious revivalism than of Israel or, indeed, Africa: "The Conquering Lion of Judah Health Center" reads one, while a poster beside a dry swimming pool invites people to the "Kingdom of God Country Club".

The confluence of cultures is explained by a bizarre story of deprivation, determination and mysticism. Dimona, a shabby town on the edge of the Negev desert, is home to 1,200 Black Hebrews, black Americans who have made their own exodus from the ghettos of Chicago and Detroit. The original settlers arrived 27 years ago, led by Ben Carter, a Chicago steel worker, who claims to have had a vision in which he was told that African-Americans were descended from early Israelites and must return to the promised land. They left when Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans, he asserts, fled to Africa, settling finally in west Africa where they were enslaved and brought to America. When they "returned" to Israel in 1969, they brought their own Afro-American version of Judaism.

The Israeli government, which is legally bound to take in all Jews from the diaspora, was, perhaps not surprisingly, sceptical about the Black Hebrews' claims of Jewish descent. As a temporary measure, it sent them to Dimona, a city whose only other claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of the country's atom bomb. At first, Ben Ammi Carter (he changed his name to underline his new identity) and his 350 followers lived in a few crowded apartments, denied citizenship and the right to work. The Rabbinate refused to recognise them as Jews, and the government only hesitated to deport them all because it feared being accused of racism in the United States.

Yet, though Ben Ammi Carter and his followers' connection with Judaism may appear far-fetched, that of other immigrants to Israel can be just as tenuous. Rabbis insist that a Jew must have a Jewish mother; the government says that a single Jewish grandparent will do. But Judaism was once a proselytising religion, making converts far from Jerusalem. The Ethiopian Jews - the falasha - whom the Israeli government airlifted out of their war-torn country 10 years ago, are as black as the Dimona sect; and it is unlikely that all the 600,000 Russian Jews, who have become Israeli citizens, have ancestors among the ancient Jews.

Quite apart from its beliefs about its origins, the community's brand of Judaism is certainly distinctive. Rituals and beliefs are drawn as much from Afro-American culture of the Sixties as from divine directions taken from the first five books of the Bible. Yafah Bat Israel (daughter of Israel), an articulate and intelligent spokeswoman for the group, says that she joined 19 years ago under the influence of her sister, "because I searched for my identity in America and couldn't find it. I found what I was looking for here."

Like other Black Hebrews, Yafah lives her life within a intricate network of rules governing every aspect of behaviour. "You will have noticed that I have a blue thread and a fringe along the bottom of my skirt," she says. "We all have them because it says we should in the book of Leviticus." Dietary rules, too, are strict. Members of the community are strict vegans, eating only vegetables and fruit; all animal products, including eggs, milk and cheese, are forbidden. The only animal in the settlement is a cheerful looking chicken, who strayed into the compound several years ago and refuses to leave. There is, in fact, something very American about the community's concern with diet and health. All women have a total massage once a month. Cigarettes and alcohol are banned.

Most controversial of the community's mores is polygamy: each man is allowed to take up to seven wives. They call it "divine marriage". Some Israelis feel that the Black Hebrews' customs do not have much to do with Judaism, but, in one way, they are in keeping with Jewish traditions: ever since the Babylonian exile, embattled and isolated Jewish communities have retained their identity in the face of a hostile world by sticking to rituals and rules governing their lives. The Black Hebrews of Dimona wear their west African robes for the same reason that ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem wear the fur hats and the black coats of 18th-century Poland in the height of summer. And polygamy ensures a high birth rate - insurance against an uncertain future.

MARTIN Luther King said that he had seen worse racial discrimination in Chicago than anywhere else in the US, and it was there, in the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects, that Ben Carter grew up in the Fifties and Sixties. One of the elders of the Dimona community, Prince Gabriel (all 11 elders are known as Prince) remembers Carter as having a special quality from early childhood. "In the 42 years I have known him, I've yet to see him in any violent, physical confrontation (which was a phenomenon in our neighbourhood), even though he was state-wide wrestling champion."

In the high days of civil rights, Carter, always religious, searched "the Holy Scriptures for the hidden truths concerning the agonising captivity of Africans in America," says Prince Gabriel. In 1966, he disappeared for two months. When he reappeared he was convinced that the exodus of the Black man from America was necessary if he was ever to obtain true freedom. "Since that time," Prince Gabriel says, "Ben Ammi and followers have struggled to establish the long-awaited Kingdom of God on earth."

The Black Hebrews have their roots in the black awareness that swept the US in the Sixties, but they chose a different path from the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers and the other black power movements. In 1967, 350 black men, women and children left Chicago and Detroit for Liberia, in west Africa, to purge themselves of their "slave mentality" and prepare themselves spiritually "in complete isolation from the corrupting influences of world".

In addition, Ben Ammi wanted to retrace in reverse what he saw as the long exodus of the black children of Israel. But the final objective was always clear. In 1969, the Black Hebrews slipped into Israel as tourists, revealed the true nature of their community and made claims for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, whereby any Jew can become an Israeli. The following year, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled they were not Jews and banned any more members from entering Israel. At first, Ben Ammi responded to attempts to deport members of his group by saying that the Black Hebrews were the real heirs to the Land of Israel. He denounced the government as "racist to the core" and said that white Jews had "stolen the language and culture" of the original Jews, the Black Hebrews. More practically, efforts to throw the Black Hebrews out were complicated by the fact that they renounced their US passports. Life, however, was not made easy for them. "After 1972," says Yafah, "we no longer got social services, and were denied citizenship and residents' rights. In 1986, the police arrested 46 of our people in the middle of the night and deported them for working illegally in an orange packing factory."

Nevertheless, the community Ben Ammi established flourished. Based on a broad concept of righteousness, they call the settlement the Kingdom of God. It keeps some Jewish festivals, but not others, and attaches most importance to their "passover", the exodus from America to Liberia. Music is central to their worship, and the performances of the New World Gospel Choir inject much needed vibrancy into Israel's popular music scene - the seven Black Hebrew "soul" bands are in great demand for weddings outside the community. The Black Hebrews also make a conscious effort to return to what they see as a more natural, pre-industrial age. No artificial fertilisers or pesticides are used on the five-and-a-half acres of land the community rents from Israeli farmers. (Prince Eliyah, at 94 the oldest member of the Dimona community and a man who remembers Ku Klux Klan lynchings in Mississippi, grows organic pomegranates, grapes and apricots on a small patch of ground behind his house.) A sewing centre in the centre of the settlement, which refuses to use artificial fibres, makes the community's clothes, and in Tel Aviv the Black Hebrews run a flourishing vegan restaurant called the Eternity. The community makes a conscious effort to instil different values from those of the black ghettos they came from. This explains the emphasis on common action and discipline, and the insistence on boys bowing and girls curtseying to adults. "This is a drug-free, crime- free, Aids-free community," says Yafah. "We have no social ills." Even some Israelis feel that the communal values of the Black Hebrews are close to those of the original kibbutzniks, inspired by dreams of a life of common endeavour free from ambition and greed. At least one white Israeli woman, Diganit Almagor, joined the community after she came across it while doing her military service at a nearby airbase.

Not all Israelis are so impressed. Adi Shetreet, a taxi driver from Jerusalem dropping off a visitor at the Black Hebrew compound, was visibly irked by being told to put out her cigarette. She said: "There is so much pretence here. It looks so clean and nice. But you cannot tell how they really live." There is some truth in this. Visitors are treated with great politeness, but are not allowed to wander without a guide. Children defer to adults and women to their husbands. Ben Ammi takes all final decisions and is called "Abba Gadol", or Great Father, by the children. Everybody stands in silence when he enters a room. A local Israeli journalist, familiar with the Black Hebrews for 20 years, says, however, that he thinks the community has "no great secrets except that as a Utopian community it has survived, which is an achievement, but it has failed to inspire many blacks or Jews."

It may also be losing its radical edge. I visited the community the day after Israel's Ethiopian Jews rioted in Jerusalem and besieged the prime minister's office, a protest which followed the revelation that Israeli blood banks routinely threw away all blood donated by Ethiopians because of fears that it might contain the HIV virus. "This is racism," the 20,000-strong crowd chanted in Hebrew. One banner read: "Although our skin is black our blood is as red as yours, and we are just as Jewish". Twenty years ago the Black Hebrews of Dimona might have considered the Ethiopians' cause their own. But Prince Immanuel, the Black Hebrew spokesman in Washington, DC, who was visiting Dimona, looked nervous when asked about the Ethiopians and was careful not to repeat their charges of discrimination. Instead, he said: "We have asked to join the army. We are very serious about defending this country."

Perhaps this is not so surprising. In 1990, an agreement was at last reached with the Israeli government under which the Black Hebrews won the rights of temporary residents, though not full citizens. In return they promised not to bring more members of their community into the country. The US Congress gave them $1 million to build a school, where the children are taught in Hebrew. It is an achievement, of sorts. Against the odds Ben Ammi has succeeded in bringing the people he gathered around him to a principled life in Israel, but at a price. He has had to abandon the vision he had in Chicago so many years ago: a mass exodus of Afro-Americans from their degraded lives in the US to the promised land. !