Black Hebrews: The Unorthodox Brand of Judaism

On 4th January a tribute commemorating the late leader of the ‘Black Hebrews’, a unique biblical community established in Israel after a forty-five-second ‘vision’ of Archangel Gabriel in Chicago in the 1960s, took place in a town in the Negev desert.

Thousands of members of what is officially known as the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem attended the tribute in Dimona, which is more usually associated with Israel’s nuclear capabilities but which for more than four decades has been the home base of the community.

Their late spiritual leader, Ben Ammi Ben Israel – formerly Ben Carter – worked as a metallurgist in Chicago when, in 1966, he ‘experienced a vision of the Archangel Gabriel while meditating’.

Ben Ammi said the angel told him ‘the time had come for the Black Hebrews to take their place in their ancestral homeland of Israel’.

They trace their ancestry back to the Judah tribe, one of the twelve tribes of Israel which went into exile following the destruction of the second Temple circa 70AD.

In the late 1960s, while struggling against racism in America and bolstered by religious vigour, as well as their fervent desire to reconnect with their ancestral land, around three hundred followers and their families joined Ben Ammi to start a new life.

Andrew Esensten, an American journalist who spent over a year living with the community, said members also saw their presence in Israel ‘in some ways’ as a fulfilment of the famous speech of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, in which he expressed his vision that ‘we as a people will get to the promised land’.

The Black Hebrews initially faced difficulties in gaining the necessary status to remain in Israel on a permanent basis. They were in fact looked down on by the majority of Jews who emigrated from Europe and who consider themselves culturally superior.

It was only in 1992 that they were granted temporary resident status. However, most attained full residency in 2003 and today some of the younger generation serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

The Black Hebrews’ lifestyle is unorthodox, to say the least. They practise polygamy, though only men can keep multiple spouses, enjoy a vegan diet and employ alternative medicine techniques such as ‘iridology’, in which patients are diagnosed according to their irises.

Once a month, members of the community are ‘entitled to a massage to maintain good health’. The group is renowned for its music, which has become popular throughout Israel, as well as for some of its more high-profile supporters – including the late Whitney Houston.

Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, a spokesman for the group, said: ‘While obviously deeply saddened at the loss of our Holy Father’s physical presence, we are nevertheless emboldened in knowing that his spirit truly lives in each and every one of us.’

Around three thousand people belong to the community in Israel. Thousands more are based in the US, the Caribbean, and Africa – with a small community also based in Britain.

Mr Ben Ammi, who died aged seventy-five from an undisclosed cause, is survived by his four wives and over twenty children.

He must have died a very happy man, having lived his life to the full and sired a large family to perpetuate his evangelical crusade.

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