My love is your cult

The Voice, London/June 2, 2003
By Danielle Weekes

Troubled pop diva Whitney Houston last week visited a sect called the Black Hebrew Israelites, who encourage followers to indulge in polygamy. They have also been accused of "brainwashing" members by the family of some devotees, a Voice investigation found.

Going undercover in the UK wing of the movement, I discovered that the group has a showy past - some members abroad have been involved in murder, other criminal activity and fraud. Houston, who visited the group's commune in Israel, is almost certainly unaware of the cult's dodgy history, like many members.

I posed as a potential recruit to the group in London. The sect encourages its supporters to settle in Israel's occupied territories, where it runs a 3,000 strong commune. I was told that male recruits are allowed seven wives, and women are encouraged to produce a child every year.

An emaciated-looking Whitney hit the headlines last week when she sought spiritual inspiration at a Black Hebrew settlement in Israel.

At first glance the group - who call their Supreme Being "Yah" - simply seems to provide a relaxing treatment for a worn-out superstar.

But a Voce undercover probe found that in the past members were involved in murder, fraud and polygamy.

The star is believed to be unaware of this and in no way supports crimes and practices committed by group members years ago.

I posed as someone interested in the group's beliefs to gain more information about the mysterious organization, which meets in Brixton, south London.

The group is dedicated to settling its supporters in the controversial Israeli-occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians.

Houston's high-profile visit blessed the Black Israelites with a publicity coup.

But behind the PR there lies a polygamist community where men marry up to seven women and wives are expected to have one child per year. It is an organization whose leaders peddle strange beliefs and an oppressive culture.

They believe their strict vegan "divine diet" will prevent diseases of the western world, such as cancer and diabetes.

Posting as a potential new recruit with my head and body covered, I met the group's British leader, Yehoeshahfaht.

I was astounded when he talked of polygamy.

He told me: "We do believe in polygamy, but it is an individual choice."

Whether Whitney Houston would allow hubby Bobby Brown to take on another six wives is open to question.

I met a man who has relatives in the group and he told me of his fears.


He said: "They feed their followers with bizarre stories about how evil it is to live in Europe and America. They have this whole conspiracy theory, that they have to learn the truth or on Judgement Day they would die."

"My relative is totally different person since she joined almost four years ago, but talking to her hasn't worked. They have completely won her over. She is a yes woman now," he said.

He also alleged that recruits were encouraged to sell possessions to secure a house in one of the settlements in Israel.

When stick-thin singer Whitney traveled to Dimona with husband Bobby Brown and daughter Bobbi Christina, world attention focused on the sect.

Whitney's sister and brother visited the 3,000-strong black Hebrew settlement last year.

Houston was seen crying as she prayed in a church and visited the mainly African-American community.

Although the movement is strong in America, it is beginning in Britain, and meetings at the Brixton Recreation Center draw just 15-20 members.

The room they use is bare and in direct contrast to their colored headwraps and long ethnic garments.

They pray in Hebrew, facing the east with both hands raised. They call their supreme being Yah and "the paternal insight of all creation."

Members speak highly of the settlements in Israel, which have been established in Mitzpe Ramon, Dimona and Arad.

They point out that the children speak several languages and residents never have to lock their doors. In Britain the group's followers are encouraged to recruit family and friends.

Mary, in her 30s, traveled to Israel for the second time last week and has been with the group for three years.

She told me: "I feel so clean there. I just feel at home."

She asked: "Are you searching? It is destiny for you to be here."

Warren, with the group for five years, gushed: "It's amazing people living together like that."


"There are no clocks on the door; there is no crime. It's amazing that black people have come so far. This is where we all want to be."

But many Black Hebrew Israelites live in very cramped conditions, sometimes as many as 15 to a house, and are waiting for a new settlement that has been approved by the Israeli government.

The group believes Israel is part of Africa, but was cut off by the Suez Canal.

They claim black people are God's chosen ones and one of the lost tribes of Israel.

They also believe slavery was God's punishment for black people's disobedience.

It is though the sect's origins go back as far as the American Civil War in the 1860s. But it came to prominence in the late 1960s when its founder Ben Ammi Ben Israel (Ben Carter) had a vision.

He traveled to Liberia with 300 black people to set up the first settlement.

Yehoeshafaht, a short man with an unkempt bear, told me Black Hebrew Israelites adopt a lifestyle rather than a religion.

He claims recruits are not forced to do anything, but he fails to mention the negative experiences of many group members.

He said: "We don't try to convert people or force them to live in Israel. We just give them the facts and let them decide for themselves."

The women in the group are friendly and eager to draw me in. Almost every member I spoke to requested my mobile number so that they could help me in my search for "spiritual enlightenment."

But I soon found out that the Hebrew Israelites had a darker side.

In the early 80s, cult defectors had been murdered under the order of Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the leader of one of the [movement's most] extreme sects.

Yahweh was convicted [for conspiracy] in [1992 for his part] in the murder of 14 disciples in Miami.

In 1981, Ashton Green was beheaded, while Mildred Backs was shot and her neck hacked with a machete.

Luckily, she survived to testify against Yahweh - real name Hulon Mitchell Jr.

The Voice has seen a FBI report that states that in 1986 two members were convicted of trafficking in stolen passports and forging checks and saving bonds.

The group denies this. The crimes occurred several years ago and present leadership were not involved with or do not condone or in any way support such actions.

Eber Harris, 80 - a member of the Hebrew Israelites for 11 years until she left in the mid-80s - said the group was using Houston's visit to raise its credibility. Eber, who lives in Dimona said: "This is a cult where they take people's minds."

Anybody who joins will not be able to live a normal life and will always be under somebody else's jurisdiction. They will tell you how to dress, tell you who to marry and they even expect you to have child every year," she said.

Eber, who joined in 1974, still has regular contact with members trying to escape.

She believes she fell out of favor because she was too experienced to be indoctrinated.

She says discipline was so extreme that in 1975 a boy died while his father was whipping him.

Adults were also whipped for failing to abide by the laws of the settlement.

In the early years she says many children died of malnutrition and adults were covered with blister because of deficiencies in their diet. But cult leaders banned members from going to "heathen" doctors.

Eber, who moved back to Israel in 1992 as a converted Jew, said that during her time at the camp she became aware of incidents involving drugs, rape and teenage pregnancy.

She stormed: "That was no kingdom of God, it was a place where your mind was controlled."


"Men are allowed to have up to seven wives and women are expected to have babies every year. It is better now, but not much better," she said.

She believes that in the late 70s after the Israeli government threatened them with deportation, some members planned to threaten a mass suicide similar to the one in Jonestown, Guyana.

A leading cult expert who knows of the group, but who cannot be named for legal reasons, branded them "frightening and dangerous." He said: "The whole approach of this group is cultic. The use scriptures for their own ends. The lives of those in the group are totally controlled, and members shed responsibilities because the group comes first."

He added: "Members also show a lack of critical judgement, many just accepting what they have been told.

He said most people felt comfortable there because they had been instilled with a sense of having been chosen.

"It is very attractive for vulnerable people. You move to this utopian world in Israel where you will live in harmony and be God's storm troopers," he told The Voice.

A spokeswoman for Whitney's record label BMG said the star's mum and other relatives were believers and had encouraged Whitney to travel there.

She does not know if Whitney and her family were aware of the cult's past.

Yafah Gavriel, a spokeswoman for the group in Israel, told The Voice that claims made by Eber Harris were "baseless and false." She denied that any members had been convicted for trafficking stolen passports.

She also said that polygamy was "part of their culture, which they referred to as the "divine marriage."

"Whitney enjoyed her visit," she said. "She does not intend to adopt our beliefs and we have not influenced her in any way."

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