Black Hebrews hope Eurovision attention will improve their plight

The Jerusalem Post/May 28, 1999
By Michael S. Arnold

Dimona -- Ben-Ammi Ben-Israel, the spiritual leader of the Black Hebrew community in Dimona, said the participation of Black Hebrews Gabriel and Eddi Butler on Israel's Eurovision Song Contest team tomorrow night will help focus attention on the plight of the community.

Ben-Ammi, as he is referred to in the community, spoke to The Jerusalem Post at a festival for New World Passover, which marks the exodus of the community's founders from the US to Liberia 32 years ago and then, two years later, to Dimona. Some 2,000 Black Hebrews live in Israel today.

The group claims descent from the ancient Israelites, some of whom, they contend, wandered through West Africa after the biblical expulsions. Many American blacks are descended from West African slaves.

Despite their claims of Jewish descent, the Black Hebrews - or the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, as they call themselves - have been denied citizenship by the Interior Ministry and restricted to temporary-resident status.

Thus, when the Butlers take the stage tomorrow night, along with sabra partners Doron Oren and Raphael Dahan, half of Israel's representation at the Eurovision technically will not even be Israeli.

"It's a great sense of pride," Ben-Ammi said of the Butlers' participation, "but the next feeling is, after 30 years, they're not even citizens, they're not even recognized... after 30 years, our dedication to the State of Israel should be unquestionable."

The singers' father, Prince Gavriel Butler said: "We're just bursting out with pride, the whole community, because the whole community helped to raise these boys."

Butler, whose five sons all are entertainers, said Gabriel started performing at age nine. Eddi was a naughty child, and when his parents would stand him in the corner as punishment, he would spend the time singing.

"If [Eddi and Gabriel] were now in the United States, it's questionable that they would still be with us," Butler said. "We're a strong family, but the environment would swallow us. They could have become addicts, gangsters."

When they take the stage tomorrow night, the Butlers will not only be trying to repeat the success of last year's Eurovision winner Dana International, they will be making an important statement for their community.

"Individuals will be appalled when they find out" that the Butlers can't become citizens, Ben-Ammi said. "We'll get a few more letters, a few more allies, and it's going to give us a stronger hand. It's going to help us."

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