After decades of struggle for a place in Israel, dozens of Black Hebrews face threat of deportation

July 21, 2023  -DIMONA, Israel (AP) — For two years, Toveet Israel and dozens of other residents of the Village of Peace have lived in fear.

Dimona, a city on the edge of the nation of Israel’s Negev Desert, has been her home for 24 years. Her eight children were born here and know no other country. Now, she and 44 other undocumented members of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem face deportation.

Receiving the order to leave two years ago was a “moment of disbelief” for Israel, 53. “I feel like the government has been merciless to me and my children,” she said.

The Black Hebrews, as the spiritual community’s members are commonly known, first made their way to Israel from the United States in the 1960s. While members do not consider themselves Jewish, they claim an ancestral connection to Israel.

Around 3,000 Black Hebrews live in remote, hardscrabble towns in southern Israel. The Village of Peace, a cluster of low-slung buildings surrounded by vegetable patches and immaculate gardens in Dimona, is the community’s epicenter.

Over the decades, the Black Hebrews have made gradual inroads into Israeli society. After years of bureaucratic wrangling, about 500 members hold Israeli citizenship, and most of the rest have permanent residency.

But about 130 have no formal status and now face deportation. Some don’t have foreign passports and say they have spent their entire adult lives in Israel and have nowhere to go.

The community’s long fight to secure its status shines a light on Israel’s strict immigration policy, which grants people it considers Jewish automatic citizenship but limits entry to others who don’t fall under its definition.

The African Hebrew Israelites are one of a constellation of Black religious groups in the U.S. that emerged in the late 19th and 20th centuries and encompass a wide spectrum of Christian and Jewish-inspired beliefs.

Some fringe Black Hebrew groups in the U.S. hold extremist or antisemitic views, according to civil rights groups ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The community in Dimona does not espouse such beliefs.

André Brooks-Key, an African and African American Studies professor at Claflin University in South Carolina, said these various religious communities share a belief that certain African peoples are descendants of the biblical Israelites and that the transatlantic slave trade was prophesied in the Bible.

“Regardless of how they understand Jesus or how they dress or any of these other aspects, that underlying theological point is what binds them together,” Brooks-Key said.

The Black Hebrews believe they are descendants of the biblical tribes of Israel who, after the Roman conquest of Judea in 70 A.D., fled down the Nile and west into the African interior and were ultimately taken as slaves to North America centuries later.

They observe an interpretation of biblical laws formulated by their late founder that includes strict veganism, abstention from tobacco and hard alcohol, fasting on the Sabbath, polygamy, and a ban on wearing synthetic fabrics.

Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, the group’s Chicago-born spiritual leader, had a vision in 1966 from the angel Gabriel that Black descendants of the Israelites should “return to the Promised Land and establish the Kingdom of God,” according to the community’s website.

After a brief stint in Liberia, Ben-Israel and several dozen families of followers arrived in Israel in 1968.

Ben-Israel died in 2014 at age 75 and is revered as a messianic figure, Ahmadiel Ben Yehudah, a community elder and spokesperson.

“We’re Judeans by our tribal affiliation,” he said. “There’s a long tradition and continuity of cultural connections that root us here in this land. We didn’t just fall out of the sky.”

Shortly after their arrival, the Black Hebrew Israelites’ legal problems began. Israel initially granted them citizenship, but subsequently revoked it after changes in its Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews.

They remained illegal aliens, some of them stateless after renouncing their American citizenship, until the early 1990s, when they began receiving temporary Israeli residency.

A turning point came in 2002, after a Palestinian gunman killed six people at a bat mitzvah party, including a 32-year-old Black Hebrew singer who had been performing. In response, Israel started granting the community members permanent residency.

In 2015, about 130 of them without documentation submitted requests for residency rights, claiming that authorities had reneged on earlier promises to legalize their status.

The Interior Ministry rejected the requests in 2021 and issued deportation orders to 49 people. Four left the country, while the remaining 45 appealed. The rest remain in legal limbo.

The ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority said the individuals subject to deportation had never appeared on lists submitted by Black Hebrew leaders and that some had entered Israel recently.

“It’s not clear why their first requests (for residency) were only submitted in 2015,” the authority said, or why the community didn’t submit requests on behalf of those individuals.

The community’s deepened integration into Israeli society over the years has made the idea of deportation especially painful. Dozens of young Black Hebrews serve in the Israeli military, and many work for Teva Deli, a vegan food manufacturer.

The community runs a school where its students learn Hebrew and Black history as part of their education. The majority of Village of Peace residents, particularly members of the younger generation that grew up in Israel, speak Hebrew fluently.

On June 1, the community celebrated New World Passover, a holiday marking the exodus from the United States of the Black Hebrews who came to Israel in the 1960s.

Families dressed in vibrant patterned outfits gathered in a public park adjacent to the Village of Peace for live music and a vegan soul food cookout.

Afterward, the community assembled around a stage for a dance performance and a march celebrating Black Hebrew soldiers serving in the Israeli military to chants of “We are soldiers of our God.”

Months have dragged on without a decision from the Israeli authorities, leaving the undocumented Black Hebrews suspended between their homes in the Holy Land and what they see as exile.

Ben Israel, 55, who grew up in Bermuda and moved to Israel from the U.S. in 1991, is slated to be deported with four of his five children.

“I won’t walk out of here,” he said. “We come to serve the god of Israel, the god of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We are Hebrew Israelites. So why not arm in arm?”

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