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Minority Communities in Israel: Black Hebrews

Note: The Black Hebrews are not Ethiopian Jews.

The Black Hebrews, a sect whose full name is "The Original African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem," have two centers of activity: Chicago and Dimona. About 2,500 members, led by Ben Ami Carter, live in Israel — most of them in Dimona, and the rest in Arad and Mitzpe Ramon, with some others residing in other parts of the country.

The Black Hebrews believe that they are descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. They live according to their own special rules of conduct. Polygamy is permitted and birth control is forbidden. Their leaders decree who will marry whom, performing the weddings and approving annulments. Their dietary laws prohibit the eating of meat, dairy products, eggs and sugar; members who are caught consuming these foods are punished. Members must adopt Hebraic names in place of their former "slave names." According to Black Hebrew custom, the woman's responsibilities focus on child­rearing and other family obligations. The Black Hebrews' closed society is isolated from the mainstream and all infractions of their rules are severely punished.

The first Black Hebrews began arriving in Israel in 1969, entering the country on temporary visas that were periodically renewed. In the meantime, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared that the Black Hebrews were not Jews, and therefore the sect's members were not entitled to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Nevertheless, the Black Hebrew population in Dimona continued to grow due to their high birthrate and because many of them, some with criminal backgrounds, illegally entered Israel using various forms of subterfuge. The Government of Israel avoided deporting the Black Hebrew members who lived in the country illegally, but at the same time also refrained from granting the Black Hebrews citizenship or permanent residency. During the tension that developed during the 1970s and especially the 1980s, some members of the sect engaged in anti­Israel activity and propaganda, aligning themselves with anti­Semitic groups. They claimed that the white Jews were "imposters," and that they, the Black Hebrews, were the rightful inheritors of the land of Israel.

The Black Hebrews acquired legal status in an agreement reached with the Israel Ministry of the Interior in May 1990. According to that agreement, the Black Hebrews were initially granted tourist status with a B/1 visa that entitled them to employment; a year later they were given temporary resident status (A/5) for a period of five years. At the end of the five-year period, in 1995, their status was extended for another three years. At the beginning of 2004, the interior minister granted them residency, which does not carry mandatory military service.

Currently they receive two special benefits:

A. They are entitled to stipends paid by Israel's National Insurance Institute (social security)-such as child support, assistance to the disabled, aid for the elderly, supplemental income, etc. Indeed, 830 members of the sect are receiving such benefits from the NII.

B. The Israel Ministry of Education assists and subsidizes the operation of a school for the Black Hebrew children. Today the school serves 700 pupils who study in 14 classes. The U.S. Congress has assisted this school by appropriating $1 million, half of which was designated for constructing the school facility.

The Black Hebrews derive their income from their famous choir, their seamsters' workshop, which provides the sect with its colorful clothing, and from their vegetarian restaurant in Arad's commercial center, with an adjacent factory for vegetarian food products.

The first member of the Black Israelite community to enlist in the IDF, Uriahu Butler, was inducted into the army July 29, 2004. By the end of 2006, more than 100 of their youth, girls and boys, joined the military. Their enlistment process was complicated by the community's strict vegan dietary traditions, which extend to wearing all-cotton clothes and a ban on leather shoes. The community agreed to comply with IDF requirements and the IDF agreed to allow Israelite soldiers to wear cloth shoes instead of army-issue boots; the congregation will forgo the stricture regarding cotton clothing.

Presently, the community operates a vegan eatery in Tel Aviv; their musicians perform across Israel and around the world, touring the US, Europe and Africa either solely with their own members or as a part of other Israeli groups. They have created their own music genre, which they call Songs of Deliverance, and produce CDs.

In sports the Black Hebrews have represented Israel at home and in Europe in track and field and national softball events, including the Maccabiah games. Their students have represented Israel in international academic competitions. Twice they have represented Israel in Eurovision, the international music competition.

In February 2005, in conjunction with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization established by civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Hebrews opened the Dr. Martin Luther King/SCLC – Ben Ammi Institute for a New Humanity, a conflict resolution center in Dimona to teach holistic non-violence and reconciliation to families, communities, faiths and nations. Their story is a testimony of the great growth and maturity of the State of Israel and its people.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry; Haaretz, (July 30, 2004)