Black Hebrews to receive permanent home in Negev agricultural villa

Israel Insider/November 26, 2002
By Ellis Shuman

After years of living in Israel but lacking Israeli citizenship, the Black Hebrew community of Dimona will be awarded a permanent home in a Negev agricultural village based on principles of organic farming.

"The time has come for our cry to be heard," said Ben-Ammi Carter in Hebrew marked by distinctly Biblical tones. "What more do we need to do be recognized as people of this land and entitled to the rights granted to all citizens? Thank the Lord that the government heard our outcry and now we are moving in the right direction."

The new village, approved by the Ministry of Housing and supported by the United Kibbutz Movement, will be built in the Halutza Sands region of the western Negev Desert, near Israel's border with Egypt. Yediot Aharonot reported that Black leaders from the United States helped lobby for a practical solution to the stateless status of the Black Hebrews and that the American Congress was donating $1 million to the project.

Carter, 63, who goes by the name Ben-Ammi Ben Israel, is the leader of the 1,500-member Black Hebrew community that first arrived in Israel from Chicago and Liberia in 1969 under the belief they were descendents of one of the lost ten tribes of Israel. Israeli authorities rejected claims that Black Hebrews were authentic Jews and insisted in vain that they convert to Judaism so they could be recognized as full citizens.

"Our identity is here in Israel. We are Hebrew Israelites, not Americans, and I think the Israeli government hasn't known what to do with us," said Yaffa Bat-Gavriel, 44, who came to Dimona in 1976.

In the 1980s a special government committee headed by MK David Glass (National Religious Party) recommended that Israel establish a farming community for the Black Hebrews in the Negev or Arava. But for the most part, Israeli leaders ignored the growing community and their lack of citizenship.

Seven years ago a school was built in Dimona for the Black Hebrews, donated by the American government. Over the years, the community opened up to Israeli society, and its colorful singing troupes and softball teams made their mark on the local cultural scene. In 1999, community members Eddi and Gabriel Butler were part of the singing quartet that represented Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest. In January this year, singer Aharon Ben-Yisrael Alis, 32, was gunned down and killed when a terrorist stormed a Bat Mitzvah celebration in Hadera.

Even so, Israelis have regarded the practices of the Black Hebrew community, which include strict veganism, holistic medicine, and bigamy, as odd and subservient to the whims of Carter's charismatic and cult-like leadership.

"Just because you live by certain rules, it does not mean you are a cult," Bat-Gavriel said, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle.

In addition to the agricultural village, the Ministry of Housing is developing plans for a new neighborhood for the Black Hebrews in Dimona which will resolve their severe housing shortage. The new homes will take into consideration the fact that the Black Hebrews' family unit is based on one adult man, several wives and many children, Yediot Aharonot reported.

In his short term as Interior Minister, MK Haim Ramon (Labor) said he saw no reason why the Black Hebrews shouldn't be awarded Israeli citizenship. But Ramon's replacement, MK Eli Yishai (Shas), blocked previously-prepared plans and has not worked towards resolving the status of Israel's Black Hebrew community, the paper said.

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