Alternative Israelites

As published in the Jerusalem Post

Passover is the annual Jewish festival that marks the exodus from Egypt in ancient times. While most Jews around the world marked the holiday this year in mid-April, the African Hebrew Israelite community of Israel will celebrate an additional holiday on May 29 and 30.

But the ‘New World Passover’ is not about Moses and the exodus from Egypt. It is about a mid-20th century prophet known as Ben Ammi who shepherded several hundred African Americans from the South Side of Chicago to southern Israel in the late 1960s.

The group, who are not formally recognized as Jews, have lived in Israel ever since. They now number over 3,000 and constitute the largest community of African-American expatriates in the world.

Ben Ammi, who was born Ben Carter and later became identified as the group’s messiah, passed away in 2014, but his spirit still lives on in the community he founded in Dimona known as the Village of Peace. His portrait stands just beyond the entrance, on a banner that commemorates “50 years of the Great Exodus – 1967 to 2017,” surrounded by golden halo-like rays around the prophet. Virtually every home in the urban commune has a picture of Ben Ammi on the wall, and all rituals, from birth to death, involve his words and teachings. 

IN MID-MARCH, I spent two days living in their guesthouse and getting acquainted with their world. The most important thing I learned was that Ben Ammi’s charisma is still a guiding light. He was the supreme leader sometimes known as Abba Gadol (‘Great Father’) during his lifetime, and left behind a structure for the community that was a response to the oppression African Americans were facing in the United States. (He also built a community that was self-sufficient, with separate schools, food, clothing, and other ways of life – but they’ll tell you that since they weren’t allowed to partake in society, they didn’t have any other choice.)

Despite Ben Ammi’s passing, his edicts still carry final authority, with no possibility of replacement. Much of the system today – from the political structure with princes on top, to social roles in the community – has been carved out of the principles Ben Ammi set in consultation with his council of Twelve Princes who help translate his precepts into policy mandates.

The Cohanim (Prophetic Priests) are trained in the community’s institution of higher learning known as “School of the Prophets.” They preside over spiritual affairs in a community that is not Jewish, identifying instead as “Israelites” or “Judaeans”. The community believes they descended from the 12 tribes of Israel, and everyone can pray to and ask Yah for assistance, but all of the community’s cultural mandates – including veganism, polygamy and wearing clothes made from natural fabrics – are expressions of their strictly spiritual, rather than religious, commitments.

Among the Twelve Princes who rule today is Prince Gavriyah Ben Israel, 82, one of Ben Ammi’s oldest friends.

“The Bible is a history book,” said Ben Israel. Ben Ammi taught them that the Torah speaks about the children of Israel going into captivity in ancient Egypt, followed by another 400-year captivity, though this time, the children would be taken into captivity by slave ships carrying Africans. “When we were in America, we looked around and there were no other people who went into captivity. We’d been there 400 years,” Ben Israel explained.

Ben Ammi began attending meetings of black Israelite groups in Chicago, fitting the puzzle pieces together during the unrest surrounding the Civil Rights era and establishing himself as a leader within the Israelite group. 

“There was fighting, shooting and dying everywhere. One day, Ben Ammi told the group, ‘It’s time for us to leave,’” said Ben Israel.  

Ben Ammi led the splinter group of Black Hebrews that decided to move to Israel.

“We’d violated the Yah of Israel’s law, and in order to restore us, we had to return to the laws of the God. And that’s what we did.” Yah had created a smokescreen of unrest in America, he said, to help them escape the ‘Land of Great Captivity.’

AFTER LEADING Yah’s flock to Israel, he continued to lead the community, helping them obey Yah’s divine laws and overseeing their strides toward creating the “Kingdom of Yah” deep inside the desert of Dimona.

During the 1950s, Dimona was developed for new European immigrants, particularly Russians. The original group of Israelites, mostly from Chicago, arrived in Jerusalem by way of Liberia in 1969, three years after Ben Ammi said he’d received instructions from Gabriel to deliver his people to the ancestral homeland of Israel.

According to the community, when they arrived in 1969, they were resettled in the Negev town of Dimona, where Israel keeps one of its nuclear installations. Though they were originally offered citizenship by the Israeli government under Israel’s Law of Return, their status was challenged and revoked so that from 1973 and the early 1990s, the community had no legal standing, and many members of the group – who had renounced their US citizenship – were rendered stateless.

Things came to a head in 1986 when the Village of Peace decided to do a “non-violent march on Jerusalem” after a group of Hebrew Israelites, who’d been working as migrant workers at an orange-packing company in the middle of the country, were arrested and slated to be deported. Their settlement was immediately surrounded by Israeli forces. 

“Prior to that, a few of our brothers and sisters would be deported every year – but 47 deportations was a bit much,” said Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, the information minister of the community. They began to organize, he said, but the troops wouldn’t budge.

Ben Ammi announced that the community would renounce the march and fast instead. On receiving this edict from the messiah, everybody agreed and fasted for five days. In retrospect, Yehuda said, they realized this was a turning point in their relations with the media and the government, which, after a few months, began to regard them better.

“In 1990, then-interior minister Ariel Sharon came to visit, had a meeting with Ben Ammi and said, ‘I’ve grown up with you in this land. You’re not a threat, and we want to normalize our relations,’” said Yehuda.

THAT BEGAN a procedure by which the African Hebrew Israelites redocumented themselves as American citizens and then obtained permanent residency. By this point, at least one wall in every apartment had a picture celebrating Ben Ammi.

Ben Ammi also set very strict health standards for his community. These range from particularities about the required number of no-salt days, no-sugar weeks and raw food days, to nutritional supplements, fasting and regular physical exercise (at least thrice a week).  

I met one of the health ministers and “healers” of the community, Yehoshua Ben Yehuda, 46, who wore a traditional red and gold suit, a long, beaded necklace and braided blue cords – a biblical stipulation that members can wear anywhere on their clothing. Yehoshua is from Gary, Indiana, which he hastens to mention is “where the Jacksons are from,” and told me it was “live day,” which meant that only raw food would be eaten.

 “My father-in-law studied health at the School of the Prophets here,” said Yehoshua, referring to Yehuda. “He, inspired by Ben Ammi, impressed upon me the power of natural healing.” Growing up in a Pentecostal Christian family to parents who were professors, he was never satisfied with what he was searching for.

Ben Ammi also wanted the community to return to basics in the way it approached childbirth. Among the African Hebrew Israelites, babies are born without hospitals, doctors or drugs involved.

A spokeswoman for the community, known as Amalyah, explained it this way: “Humans are the only creatures that go to a hospital to deliver. Delivery is a natural thing. The baby’s going to come out whether you’re in a hospital room or alone by yourself. It’s the law of nature.”

Amalyah, who was wearing a cotton skirt with a knitted woollen sweater under a bright purple beret (worn by many women in the community), recalled the birth of her first child in the community 35 years ago. She had to follow a “High Holy and Sacred Diet” (a sesame-seed-heavy routine for new mothers prescribing what to do daily, at every stage of pregnancy), recalling how her ballet classes paid off because she would plie every time her midwife asked her to squat whenever she was having labor pains. Most of all, she remembers waiting for her baby to be born so that her family could be graced by Ben Ammi.

Her son was named by Ben Ammi himself. She remembers visiting Ben Ammi’s home, where the spiritual leader held the baby in his arms, looked into his eyes and prayed with him. 

“A month or two after spending time with him,” Amalyah said, “[Ben Ammi] was inspired to name him Tseyon – which literally means, ‘the place where Yah dwells.’”

It was a moment as special as she’d imagined, leaving Amalyah and her son with a glow and a smile that lasted for months.

Among other unconventional practices, Yehoshua said, is polygamy, a long-held tradition of the Black Hebrews that is rooted in the idea that biblically, having many wives is the norm.

As part of Ben Ammi’s agreement with the government, the community promised to renounce the practice, forbidden by Israeli law, as well as agreed not to take on any additional members of the community, but residents of the community think it’s time to re-negotiate parts of the agreement given their higher social standing.

Primarily involved in construction work and seasonal labor, many African Hebrew Israelites are also engaged in a variety of entertainment-related skills, and have been representing Israel on the international stage. Ketreyah Fouch, 22, is well-known for being a finalist in Eurovision 2019. In 2003, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown visited the community, among many other high-profile visits over the years. Many African Hebrew Israelites also perform in jazz and soul bands around Israel, and some have represented the country in sports competitions around the world, according to Haaretz. 

BUT CHALLENGES persist. The African Hebrews have bought land a kilometer away from their village and have plans of moving out by 2020. The architectural plan involving 282 units has been approved, but financial and political hurdles are impeding the process – the community gets no funding from the government, and many of them are undocumented, despite young people conscripting into the army.

The community’s only political stance is peace. 

“Israel is supposed to be a light onto the nations,” said Yehuda. “Some people interpret financial prowess, high-technology sectors and military domination as evidence of that light.” Prime Minister Netanyahu, he said, recently made a statement to Iran about Israeli’s missile being bigger than that of Iran. “We’re clearly missing the mark.” 

Hopefully, he said, Ben Ammi will have his way and establish the peaceful Kingdom of Yah.

Redemption in a Quran class on the Upper East Side

Standing under an illustration of a boy brushing his teeth, changing his clothes, folding them neatly and “making wudoo” (ablution), the Quran teacher pointed to a sentence on the blackboard behind her: “‘Waikhfid lahuma janaha alththulli mina alrrahmati waqul rabbi irhamhuma kama rabbayanee sagheeran’. He has decreed that you serve none but him, and do good to parents, and speak to them generously.”

Students, some struggling to stay awake, nodded their heads. It was a little past 9 a.m. on a recent Sunday.

“We studied Surah [verse] al-Isra last class – how we treat our parents, remember?” said the teacher, who asked to be identified as Ayesha. Silent pause. “But for today, there are two important Surahs. I want you to choose one. Put your heads down, we’re going to vote.”

All but one student in class, a girl named Fatima, were happy to listen. With mischievous smiles, 29 students put their heads down, creating sudden, pin-drop silence in what had been the noisiest and youngest classroom in the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. There was a near-unanimous vote for “Surah al-Kahf.”

The cultural center claims to be the first mosque in New York City, built to accommodate a growing Muslim population in the city at the turn of the 20th century. Founded on the West Side in 1991 and now located at 1711 Third Ave., the center is an architectural marvel, characterized by sleek, diaphanous glass material and postmodern granite designs.

Teaching interpretations of the Quran and Arabic to adults and children, people from all five boroughs attend the prayers, activities and school services of the center, according to Imam Chernor Sa’ad Jalloh who is from Sierra Leone. “I teach Hadith – the lifestyle of the prophet, the way he spent his life, treated his family, his neighbours and companions,” said the Imam, adding that his audience includes West Africans, African Americans, Arabs, Asians and Americans. “We have a culture of inclusivity, it’s hard not to really enjoy teaching a session,” he said.

Ayesha, though, unlike the 10 other teachers at the center, seemed to be having trouble with her class, aged between seven and 11 – particularly with Fatima. In other classrooms, older children were learning other parts of the Quran, and later in the evening, the Imam would hold a Hadith class for adults inside the mosque next to the school.

“I’m counting to two. If you don’t stop scribbling in James’ notebook and laughing, I’ll call your mother and tell her you’re not respecting the teacher,” Ayesha said.

“But I am!” the 10-year-old said, her small face teeming with anger.

“It’s not funny anymore, Fatima,” said Ayesha.

Fatima, like the rest of the students in her class, was attending one of seven classes held at the weekend school of the center, which teaches students Arabic and the Quran from pre-kindergarten till sixth grade. The administrative staff says that almost 130 students, who attend regular school through the week, are enrolled in the weekend school. Ayesha, who is 45-years-old, continued teaching her class about Surah al-Kahf, the most popular Quran verse in class. The holy book is divided into 30 chapters and 114 verses.

“Al-Handiu lillaahil-laziii; ‘anzala ‘alaa ‘Abdihil-Kitaaba wa lam yaj-‘al-lahuu ‘iwajaa—” or “Praise be to Allah, who hath sent to his servant the book, and hath allowed therein no crookedness.” Ayesha recited the verse and then explained how to pronounce each part.

“Surah Al-Kahf will help you. It’ll protect you from bad Gods like Al-Masih al-Dajjal, and it has a lot of great stories,” Ayesha said, asking her class if anybody had heard of Al-Masih al-Dajjal, an anti-messianic figure in the Surah.

“I’ve heard about Judgement Day,” said a Senegalese student named Yasin. “That on Judgement Day, Al-Masih’s going to come up and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah I am God and you have to pray to me,’ and he’s like, ‘I’m going to kill you and put you back to life!’” he said.

“That’s right, Yasin! Because God gave him the power to do that! Thank you,” said Ayesha.

“It’s like a test, right?” chimed in a boy sitting on the last bench.

“It’s a big test, absolutely! He summarized it,” said Ayesha. Al-Masih al-Dajjal represents a big test by God, she added, and people will have to choose between following somebody who proclaims he is God and rejecting him. The latter risk getting punished, and reciting the opening verses of Surah al-Kahf is a form of protection.

“Mu’minii-nallaziina ya’-maluunas-saalihaati ‘anna lahum ‘Ajran hasanaa’ – to the believers who work righteous deeds, that they shall have a goodly reward, wherein they shall remain forever,” the class continued reciting in Arabic.

Fatima continued to disrupt the class. The teacher asked her to leave the classroom.

“She’s always like this. She’s the worst teacher, I hate her!” Fatima whispered while storming out. “She’s always mean. Even when I do something nice, she doesn’t appreciate me like the other boys.”

The class continued. “‘Inaa ja’alnaa maa ‘alal-azi ziinatal-lahaa linabluwa-hum’ – that which is on earth we have made, but as a glittering show for it, in order that we may test them, which are best in conduct.”

While Ayesha picked students to recite the verse aloud in class, Fatima was asked to come back inside. The next class would study the next Surah.

“Fatima, recite this verse for me?”

“Okay, ‘Inaa ja’alnaa maa-'”

“That’s beautiful, Fatima. Quiet, everybody else. Come on, alal-azi ziinatal-lahaa. Mashallah, she’s reading the Arabic and not the English translation, I adore that!” Ayesha said. “Give me a five!”

For the first time since the class began, Fatima smiled widely. The class went on.