Black Jews

REPORTER: Matthew Carney

These children are part of an African American community living deep in Israel’s Negev Desert.

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They call themselves African Hebrew Israelites and believe they are descended from the lost tribes of Israel. They’re learning to pay homage to their founder and leader Ben Ammi.

TEACHER (Translation): We’ve been in Israel for 36 years, we came on the wings of Ben Ammi, the spiritual leader and we are still here today, and we sing Shalom, Excuse me”¦Please”¦.Thank you”¦ These are the words . Who teaches us how to live? Ben Ammi does.

In Chicago in 1966 Ben Ammi had a vision to liberate African Americans and return them to the Holy Land. People followed the call and now the community is firmly established – 900 children have been born here.

TEACHER (Translation): We make sure our children apply God’s values. Not only at home, not only in school but also in general, with every person and woman they meet, they must share their way of life to bring peace, to cure the world.

They call the community Kingdom of Yah, or God on earth, and about 2,000 live in this compound.

Community leaders like Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda say it’s a utopia where a pure form of Judaism is practised. A vegan diet and polygamy is part of the vision.

PRINCE IMMANUEL BEN YEHUDA, COMMUNITY LEADER: What kind of relationship did they have back in the Genesis, back when they had a relationship with the creator that wasn’t labelled by a religious name. There were some principles, there were some codes of conduct that men and women adhered to that secured their relationships with each other and also the environment and with the God that created them. That’s what we believe in.

Most Israelis, like former interior minister Abraham Poraz, dismiss their claims to be recognised as Jews.

REPORTER: Are they Jewish?

AVRAHAM PORAZ, FORMER INTERIOR MINISTER: No. They are not because they are not recognised by the Rabbis as Jewish. They – I don’t know what their religion is but it’s not actually Jewish.

Tehillah Ben Israel and Ehnane Ben Sharlith were among the first batch of 39 pilgrims to follow Ben Ammi to Israel. In 1960s America, they said they were still treated like slaves. Like most here, they were searching for a better life and a way out of their drug and crime-ridden ghettos in Chicago.

EHNANE BEN SHARLITH: If I had of stayed in America to be honest, I would be dead because in America I drank and I smoked and that’s not a way to live. If you’re drinking and if you’re smoking, then you’re going to have a short life.

TEHILLAH BEN ISRAEL: When we found the Hebrew Israelites we knew that was the answer because the goals were to make life better for us and we could see a future for us and for our children.

So far the Israeli Government has rejected their claims and denied them citizenship under the law of return which says one grandparent has to be Jewish.

EHNANE BEN SHARLITH: They denied us status. According to them we were not considered Jews as they consider Jews. So they denied us status and everybody would be making jokes about the Queen of Sheba and Solomon and they used to make little funny jokes, people who could trace our way through that line, you know, because no-one had ever heard of people of colour being considered Hebrew or a Jew as they consider Jew. So it was a big problem.

The African Israelite’s claim to the right of return is that as a tribe of Judah, they fled ancient Israel into Africa after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 AD and reached as far as West Africa.

PRINCE IMMANUEL BEN YEHUDA: You find tribes who trace their descendants to this part of the world and to this land in particular and so those of us who are on the West Coast of Africa were taken into the Americas doing the great slave trade.

Scholars say the evidence for this is tenuous at best and Israeli authorities have tried to expel the community several times. The African Israelites feel discriminated against by the state of Israel because many other ethnic groups like the Ethiopians and Russians have been granted citizenship.

CATHRELAH: I mean we keep the laws that are laid down in the Torah. We keep all of the laws. We keep the Shabbat, we keep the Hadim and we follow, you know, the commandments that were laid down. So I mean, who could they find, you know, I mean what else do we have to do?

AVRAHAM PORAZ: Well, it’s a very difficult question, the question who is a Jew, it’s a very complicated issue and there’s no – there’s not just one clear answer. Basically in Israel a Jew is somebody that is recognised by either the Rabbis here in Israel and we have an establishment of Rabbis. We have a chief Rabbinate in Israel so if they are recognised by the chief Rabbinate from one end or if they’re recognised as Jews by the Jewish community out of Israel. Now in both cases they are not recognised.

As a community, the Kingdom of Yah is very insular. It’s run by a council of princes like Prince Immanuel who approve marriages and discourage outside unions. Inside the community men are allowed to have four wives. They address each other as saint and women call their husbands my lord. Homosexuality and premarital sex are strictly forbidden as are any type of drugs like tobacco and alcohol.

PRINCE IMMANUEL BEN YEHUDA: When you’re here you’re not locking your doors and having burglar alarms on your cars and your windows and so it’s a much more freer and stress-free environment. I know that sounds funny here in Israel. When most people hear about Israel they think about the challenges between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Intifada and what not, but it’s just the opposite of that here. The entire environment kind of feeds your freedom and your happiness.

They live a clean lifestyle. Their vegan diet is mixed with plenty of exercise. It seems to work. The adults look much younger than their years. Incidence of cancer and heart attack are few.

MAN: We’re not doing it for vanity, we’re not doing it to show off in a beauty pageant. It’s to live, literally live, never die, never get sick, literally. It’s possible.

REPORTER: You think that’s possible?

MAN: Absolutely. I’m in my 50s now. At this point I’m actually stronger than when I was a teenager.

The Kingdom of Yah is located inside the desert town of Dimona. The locals here remain suspicious of the African Israelite Hebrews. They fear they could compromise Israel’s security as the Government has little control over them.

LOCAL (Translation): They’re accepted in society. But… there’s only one problem. They identify themselves threefold… they have a president, a minister of foreign affairs, and act as a country within a country. And I don’t know if, God forbid, one day they’ll take advantage of the country. Apart from that, we have no problem with them.

But what has won the African Israelites’s greater acceptance from Israeli society is the death of one of their own from a terrorist attack. Tehillah and Ehnana’s son Aharon was killed by a Palestinian gunman while he was singing at a bar mitzvah. Five Israelis were also killed. His sister Cathrelah is angry that it took the death of her brother for the family to finally get residency in Israel.

CATHRELAH: It’s a shame that some doors did open after that, you know, it’s a shame that they couldn’t have opened before then. But it did have, you know, helped to open a few doors for us. Not that we were not trying to open those doors before, but it sort of pushed the issue because like I said before, he was the first child that was born in the land after we had come into the land and he was the first male and the first child born so that was special, very special for us.

But there are signs that the Israeli Government may finally grant the African Israelites full citizenship. In 2003, the then interior minister Avharam Poraz gave them permanent residency, which can be converted to citizenship.

AVRAHAM PORAZ: They have the right of social security, from one hand, and from the other hand they have the obligation that their children will go to military service conscription.

The price of permanent residency is that these children will have to serve in the Israeli army. After being rejected for 36 years, they will risk losing their lives for something that many, like 17-year-old Or’ritt, don’t believe in.

OR’RITT: Yes, I will be going to the army.

REPORTER: How do you feel about it?

OR’RITT: Personally when I heard about it I didn’t want to go. I still don’t want to go but I have to, I guess. So I can serve my country, my community, my people. I mean, I just don’t believe in war period. That’s just what – it’s not I don’t want to go serve my country, that’s not it, I just don’t believe in it. I feel everybody deserves to live.

But others in this group, like 18-year-old Amior, see the army service as a way to fight for their community’s interests.

AMIOR: Everybody believe that this land was given to them. We believe that this is our land too and it was promised to us so we are going to do whatever it take for us to get it.

But the most immediate danger to the community is the threat of eviction orders from Dimona council. The African Hebrews have an average of 10 children per family. Meals have to be served in shifts in the community canteen. There’s no room in the bungalows with 30 people living in some of them.

Dimona’s Deputy Mayor Yosi Asreal says the buildings are in breach of Israel’s fire and housing regulations and has offered them new land to build on.

YOSI ASREAL, DEPUTY MAYOR, (Translation): By the way, there’s an experiment… to allocate land… to allow for construction. The problem is, the banks won’t give them mortgages.

The African Hebrew Israelites will not be crushed and ironically they’ve been saved by the banks. They can’t secure a loan while non-citizens and without a loan, they can’t buy or lease alternative accommodation. For the moment, they’ll be staying put in their patch of the Holy Land.