How Politicians and Celebrities Helped Black Americans Build a Spiritual Home in Israel
A new book chronicles the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, who left Chicago four decades ago and never looked back
I was on my honeymoon in Portugal when I heard that recording artists Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown had taken some of their family members and friends on a trip to visit the AHIJ’s Kingdom of Yah in Dimona. It became international news, which is how we found out about it, via CNN reports on our hotel’s television set. I remember seeing their photo-op with Ariel Sharon and learning that they were staying with “a group of African Americans originally from the United States.”
Houston had gone for a couple of reasons. First of all, she’d been officially invited to the kfar in 2000 when she met a few saints at the Million Family March in Washington, D.C., a follow-up to the Million Man March called by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in 1995. She had brought along a close family member to Dimona, someone who was very sick, and she wanted to see if the AHIJ’s healthy lifestyle – the community is vegan, and exercise is mandated three times weekly – might provide the recipe for her relative’s full recovery. She had heard good things about the community’s approach to health and figured it was worth a shot. Arriving to much fanfare both in the kfar and throughout the country, Houston received a Hebrew name from Ben Ammi: Zimreeyah, which they translate as “I sing for Yah.” She was immediately considered a kind of honorary saint, a would-be “sister” in the kingdom. Ben Ammi fondly called her “Yah’s Songstress.”
That’s one of the reasons why, when she died so suddenly and tragically, discovered in a hotel bathtub during 2012’s Grammy weekend, saints were devastated by the loss. They had always wanted Houston to return, to continue talking with them and learning from them. She might have visited—that first time—with someone else’s health at stake, but saints believed that they could help her, too. With a history of substance abuse and the very public loss of her vocal virtuosity, Houston was just the kind of tragic figure that Yah’s mercy and love could redeem and revive—as a testament to his power and grace. But she would never get to the kfar again.
The Hebrew Israelites are very good at cultivating such friendships. High-profile celebrities and entertainers—as well as national and international politicians and dignitaries from the United States, the West Indies, and Africa—visit the kfar on a consistent basis. I have yet to spend a single night in the kfar without some major African delegation representing the ministries of tourism or education or agriculture in Ghana, Senegal, Benin, or South Africa sleeping in a guesthouse not too far away. Indeed, the story of the group’s fight to stay in Israel from the 1970s to the 1990s can’t be told without some discussion of the investments the AHIJ have always made in leveraging associations with “friends” outside of Israel, most especially members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Developing these relationships entailed several visits from important American political figures, visits that would have been incomplete, of course, without requisite Sacred Visitations through which saints could teach their high-profile guests how to understand the AHIJ’s take on Israel.
Americans unaffiliated with the kingdom have long played a key role in the community’s story. In the early 1980s, Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader and former confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., led a delegation of African American leaders from the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women, the National Urban League, and other organizations on an 11-day fact-finding mission in Israel. The goal of their brief inquiry was twofold: to investigate saints’ allegations that the Israeli government was waging a racist war against them, and to propose some strategy for how that government might more productively relate to the AHIJ community going forward.
The Israeli government allowed the delegation into the country, allegedly out of concern that these accusations of racism were gaining traction in the United States, creating unnecessary and unwarranted bad press, and they were willing to consider any recommendations that the committee might make about how they should deal with this group of American expats, a community that arrived in Israel in 1969 proclaiming that they were the true Israelites of Revelation, that European Jews were imposters, and that the latter should take their leave of the place at once.
The delegation met with saints in Dimona and Arad, interviewed former saints who were estranged from the community, talked to Israeli officials, and sat down with the U.S. ambassador. The committee found “no official racism in Israel,” but their report warned that the Israeli government “risks being perceived as racist no matter what” if they didn’t re-evaluate their immigration-screening procedures at Israeli airports, which included pulling blacks out of lines and subjecting them to more elaborate forms of interrogation than other visitors, in an attempt to keep more African Americans from illegally settling with the community. Some of these harassed blacks were, in Rustin’s words, “bona fide Christian pilgrims,” and delegates warned that “such behavior encourages anti-Israel propaganda and creates conflict between American Jews and American blacks.”
The much-deplored ‘escape of the brains’ has actually brought closer ties with Silicon Valley, India, and even Taiwan