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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

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Members of the Hebrew Israelite community dance in Dimona during the Passover celebrations to mark the anniversary of their arrival in Israel. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)
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At the same time, the delegation explicitly recommended that Israel ban any more Black Hebrews from relocating to southern Israel, but it wasn’t necessarily clear how the Israeli state was supposed to respond to the report’s somewhat contradictory message: Be more diligent about keeping saints in America from joining the community in Dimona, but don’t subject black visitors to any heightened scrutiny so as not to appear racist. The committee also proposed that saints be encouraged to live all throughout Israel, not just in “an isolated moshav,” a self-contained agrarian settlement, which had been suggested by Israel’s Glass Commission in 1973 as a way to most productively give the community legal status within Israel.

As some saints were publicly renouncing their U.S. citizenship and symbolically destroying their passports in the face of continued threats of deportation throughout the 1980s, other saints working and living abroad were able to cultivate even more American connections for the community’s long-term goals. In the 1990s, work with the Congressional Black Caucus and other elected officials produced more than $1 million in American funding to construct a school building specifically allocated to children in the kfar. It would be part of the larger Israeli school system and staffed by Israeli teachers as well as co-instructors from the community, but it only taught the community’s youth, a far cry from the days when saints would educate their young in the crowded living rooms of their absorption-center apartments and courtyards.

As is the case with most Americans who visit the community, Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, their family, friends, and entourage all went out with saints on a Sacred Visitation, which, for them, included constant battles with the paparazzi, even a bit of pushing and shoving to keep prying cameras at bay. The community tried to document much of Houston’s sacred visitation, which included standard stops in the Old City’s “fifth quarter,” its “African quarter,” and a stint in the Jordan River, which for Houston and her crew entailed wading, singing, and even some baptizing in the water.

News of her death reverberated throughout the kfar. After her Dimona trip, some saints would continue to pray for her and hope that her spirit might be moved, radically shaken, by the truth of their message. They had accepted her as an extended daughter to “Abba” Ben Ammi and certainly as a friend to the community. And that came with responsibilities on their part—or at least some divine well-wishing.

During an interview with The Insider, a television news magazine in the United States, Whitney’s goddaughter Brandi Burnside recounted the last conversation that she had had with her godmother—on the very day of the pop superstar’s death. According to Burnside, earlier that morning Houston had brought up, out of nowhere, the idea of going back to Israel. And immediately. Burnside relayed their conversation, at least partially: “Her exact words were, ‘We need to get into the Holy Water so that nothing can harm us or touch us for our new journey.’ And I didn’t know that she was going to say that. And I knew how special Israel was to her, because she had shared with me a long time ago, when she went with her husband, how great the experience was. And she told me that if we go in the river and there’s a cut on my body that it’ll heal the moment that we get into that river. And the fact that she said that we have to go soon, it bothers me thinking about it, because she’s not here.”

From Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, by John L. Jackson, Jr. Published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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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

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