When a sympathetic mayor of Dimona offered the African Hebrew Israelites the chance to move into an abandoned former immigrant absorption center in the late 1970s, the complex was in such disrepair that some members of the community wondered whether their leader, the Chicago-born Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, was making the right decision. The town itself was Israel’s Hotzenplotz or Timbuktu, a synonym for a distant nowhere.
Since first arriving in Israel in 1969, the African Hebrews had lived in overcrowded apartment blocks elsewhere in Dimona, where refrigerators weren’t widely available until the mid-’70s, cold tap water was a rarity, and calls to America had to be placed from Be’er Sheva, a 20-mile nonair conditioned bus ride away. None of them had Israeli citizenship, or access to the country’s financial, health care, or educational systems. The communitych ran its own clinics and educated its children in bomb shelters, which it used as classrooms. Most of them had arrived on three-month tourist visas and then, as the community’s information minister, Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, put it, “disappeared.”
Ahmadiel arrived in Israel in 1978. When we met at Kfar Hashalom he wore light sunglasses with a colorful striped wool shirt, and like many of the Dimonans he has the build and vitality of someone much younger than him. “We had an illegal immigration,” Ahmadiel said. “We formed this the same way the state of Israel was formed.” A 1986 incident in which police rounded up 47 Israelites working as agricultural laborers in Rehovot—sparking a confrontation between the community and the state that built public support for granting them some form of legal status—had striking parallels in Zionist history. “Chapter 9 of Menachem Begin’s Revolt starts out with an episode that eerily resembles what happened to us in Rehovot,” Ahmadiel told me.
The 1986 standoff, he explained, “put a lot of pressure on the government to resolve the issue in another way. We were not a threat to the state. Yes, we were different, but Israel is as diverse a country as you can probably get on the planet.”
In 1990, Aryeh Deri, the interior minister from the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party, visited Ben Ammi at the Kfar. “He said, ‘I’ve grown up with you in this land, how can we move this forward,’ ” Ahmadiel recalled. The community members were made temporary residents. They became permanent residents in 2003 on the initiative of the right-wing prime minister, Ariel Sharon. Few of them are citizens, and community members from outside the country are not allowed to immigrate. Israel retains a lingering official fear that people will claim Jewish ancestry in order to move to the country, although the Israelite immigrants might have had easier or at least less eventful lives if they’d never left America.
The African Hebrew Israelites do not claim to be Jews—they describe themselves as Judeans, a tribal cousin in the same national family. The Dimona community was created by African-Americans who followed Ben Ammi to Israel beginning in the late 1960s. They were adherents to a long tradition directly linking enslaved Africans in America to Israelite tribes exiled thousands of years earlier, and Ben Ammi believed he had a special spiritual calling, based on an encounter with the angel Gabriel, to return his people to their long-lost holy land. Almost all of them have American citizenship of some kind, but for older community members the United States is a country they had gone to extraordinary lengths to leave. It is not a place that the younger, Israel-born generations seem to think very much about. “Maybe only 10 percent of the youngsters have ever been to America,” said Yoyakeen Ben Khessed, a teacher and the Kfar’s tourism director who was born in Dimona. “It’s just a faraway country.”
The African Hebrews are African-Americans who rejected America. They are almost-Jews who have been careful never to demand acceptance as Jews—from the very beginning, Ben Ammi insisted that conversion to Judaism would be an act of self-betrayal. Their everyday conversation is in English, livened with American-accented Hebrew phrases. Sunday isn’t Sunday, but “rishon”; a greeting is always “ma shlomcha?,” never “what’s up?” These differences from the day-to-day lives of every other Israeli or American—black or white—are so audacious as to have become self-reinforcing over the decades.
Israel is now home to around 5,000 African Hebrews, some 2,000 to 3,000 of whom live in Dimona. Some 500 live in the Kfar, which has a health center, grocery store, organic farm, dance studio, and vegan ice cream shop, and is officially recognized as an urban kibbutz. The newer, non-Israelite neighborhoods surrounding the Kfar look like a posh suburb of Phoenix, with placid streets of airy tan-colored houses fronted with rock gardens and young palm trees. A park with a murmuring cone-shaped fountain overlooks a row of apartment buildings in midconstruction, with the bald slopes of the wilderness rising in the distance.
The Kfar has a front entrance facing one of Dimona’s major roads. Along one side of the compound, a narrow dirt path behind the adjoining community’s newly built synagogue descends into terraced rows of simple rectangular shacks, a green yet Spartan-seeming little world that its inhabitants view as a kind of paradise. “Why was Israel called peculiar—am segoula? What did that mean? Are we supposed to be like everybody? I don’t think so,” exclaimed Elyakeem Ben Yehuda, one of six Ministers of the People in charge of community welfare. “When you come here to the Kfar Hashalom you will see a community whose entire lifestyle is based upon truth.” Ahmadiel describes the place as as “a model community for how others can live.”
In the Kfar’s small grocery store, flyers for the The Youth On The Move (Y.O.M.) Council’s family bike ride and the Brothers of the Movement’s upcoming Divine Miseebah (transliterated Hebrew for “party”) were posted near a freezer stocked with fresh-made tofu and veggie sausage.
The African Hebrews are vegans: “In 50 years since we got here we haven’t killed a single animal,” Elyakeem boasted while taking me on a “sivuv,” or a tour around the Kfar. They are proud health nuts, citing biblical principles about the ideal diet. “Over time the major degenerative diseases African-Americans experience over there, we were able to show a pattern of reversing them—heart disease, kidney problems, renal problems, diabetic scenarios,” claimed Rofeh (or healer) Yehoshua Ben Yehuda, the community’s Minister of Divine Health. Lunch at the Kfar’s small restaurant, a table over from a group of Israeli teens from nearby Yerchaum, consisted of a whole-wheat pita stuffed with savory fist-size chunks of roasted cauliflower, along with a side of homemade cashew cheese spread. The Israelites avoid eating processed oils and have raw-food weeks and sugar-free weeks once every few months. Alcohol and caffeine consumption is supposed to be kept to an absolute minimum.
There are ritual baths in many of the houses at the Kfar. Adherents wear a four braided blue cords somewhere on their clothing—another biblical injunction—and many do not use synthetic fabrics. “There is no shatnez,” Elyakeem emphasized. The Hebrews fast every Shabbat, on the belief that the body itself should perform as little work as possible on the day of rest. Fridays are dedicated to a festive pre-fast family meal in the late afternoon, followed by Seder Shabbat, a spiritual gathering with singing and, in a fairly new development, the English and Hebrew reading of part of that week’s Torah portion.
Today, the Israelites have their own school that operates under Israel’s education ministry, teaching both the national and communal curriculum in Hebrew—it opened in the early 1990s, a few years after the Israelites were granted official status. Every school day begins with an opening ceremony where the Shema is recited; one student I met, a high-school-age girl in a scarlet uniform and loose-fitting white headscarf, said her Hebrew literature class was studying medieval piyuttim.
A display in the school’s courtyard depicts the entire history of the community, from slavery in America to a brief late-’60s exodus to Liberia to the beginning of settlement in Dimona. Some of the final images, from the mid-2000s, show an exultant Ben Ammi holding a new Israeli ID card and African Hebrews in olive-green Israel Defense Forces uniforms. These ultimate symbols of formal acceptance into Israeli society are presented as a culmination of the community’s journey.
Rofeh Yehoshua believes a community like the one the Israelites built could never exist in America. “You just couldn’t do it there. But you can do it in the land that’s yours.”
I visited Kfar Hashalom in January, when the desert air was cold and dry and relations between the African-American and Jewish communities were threatening to bottom out. The reasons were too complex for even a complete list to really capture: Prominent black activists like Marc Lamont Hill openly yearned for Israel’s nonexistence, while the Black Lives Matter movement accused the Jewish state of “genocide” and “apartheid.” Louis Farrakhan fulminated about Jewish “termites,” while his admirer Tamika Mallory led the Women’s March. Activist efforts to portray Israel as a fortress of American white supremacism, or even to blame the country for racism in the United States, have created a wedge between Jews and African-Americans within progressive contexts and beyond. Israel’s approach to Palestinians and African asylum seekers, and an American context that inclines certain Jews to think the worst about the intentions of black critics of Israel, doesn’t help things either.
And yet the discomfort of the present moment goes well beyond a small cohort of provocateurs. In an age of sharp-edged identity politics, questions of where and how and whether one’s identity group fits into America’s ever-shifting and always dysfunctional racial dispensation seems less and less abstract. Are Jews racially privileged white people? Maybe Jews aren’t white, but experience bigotry of a less systematized and inevitably less dangerous variety than other minority groups do? Can Jewish identity be demarcated without any reference to ethnicity or race—and should it be? Lurking in the background of the suddenly lively “are Jews white?” conversation is the discomfort of discussing Jewish racial identity in the first place, as if any such discourse can ever be totally free of the pseudoscientific premises of late-19th-century European anti-Semitism and racism. As it is, Jewish racial taxonomy is an unfamiliar and uneasy topic, something more relevant to the worldview of literal Nazis than it is to most Jews’ sense of their own faith and identity.
The Dimona community straddles identity-based categories without the encumbrance of these all-too-American obsessions, confident enough in themselves and in their way of life to bridge the contradictions that American Jews are now finding so painful. How did they pull this off?
Leaving the United States and opting out of the American racial paradigm seems to have helped. Naturally, God was a significant factor here, too: In 1966, Gabriel appeared to Ben Ammi, who was then living in Chicago. Ben Ammi was a believer in a centuries-old tradition, shared by a small but enduring minority of slaves and their descendants, teaching that the Africans kidnapped to the New World were members of one of the Israelite tribes. Slavery had been divine punishment for their failure to follow the God of Israel’s commandments, a fate foreshadowed throughout the Hebrew Bible.
The angel told Ben Ammi that it was time to begin his people’s Exodus. Ben Ammi was able to convince hundreds to join him. Around 400 followers moved to a jungle in Liberia, where the community lived for two years to prepare themselves to enter the Holy Land. Disease, wild animals, and assorted other hardships convinced nearly three quarters of them to bail out. Ben Ammi left Liberia for Israel in 1969, and began working on kibbutzim and learning Hebrew. The remaining community members slowly trickled in, along with some new followers.
The longer-tenured Dimona settlers left America because they believed that people of African descent could never forge free or meaningful lives there. Rofeh Yehoshua, who moved to Israel in 2000, described a “personal search for identity” beginning in the early 1990s that eventually led him to the African Israelites. “I was disturbed by the condition of the African-American population, and the racism that was prevalent,” he told me. The videotaped beating of Rodney King, and the acquittal of the police officers that attacked him, made Yehoshua “wonder why after 400 years of us being in that land we would still have to go through such things.” Yafah Bat Gavriel, a community leader who has been in Israel for 42 years, said that as a black child growing up during the 1960s she was “very aware of what was going on, and aware that I did not want to live in the United States.”
But the Hebrews didn’t come to Israel only out of a rejection of the country of their birth. They were also participants in a biblically ordained process, which would end at a clear and attainable destination. Ben Ammi, says Elyakeem, “woke us up to the fact that we were in graves in America. If you read Ezekiel 37 it says: I will take you out of your graves and bring you into the land of Israel.”
The Israelite narrative suggests one of the many jarring parallels between the Dimonans and the early Zionists: Both movements attempted to reconnect their followers to a history from which contemporary society had conspired to alienate them. Through Zionism, a Jew in France or Russia discovered a historical and personal destiny that they had never been able to access before. Likewise, Ben Ammi taught his followers who they really were, filling in the gaps in self-conception that had always bothered them. As Ahmadiel put it, “It didn’t make sense for me that we hatched on a plantation, which is where black history often began.”
The African Israelites see their former country as a tragedy-filled stopover on their way home, the same way many olim might. Like the early Zionists, they gave up lives of relative comfort in the name of a greater project—Ahmadiel grew up in an upper-middle class family in Washington, D.C., and used to work on Capitol Hill; Rofeh Yehoshua was on his way to being a lawyer; Yafah Bat Gavriel was pre-med. Elyakeem has a business degree; when he got to Israel, he worked laying cement foundations for new houses in Dimona. For all of them, life in the “land of captivity” posed questions that could only be answered thousands of miles to the east.
The Black Hebrews were always eager to be part of Israeli society. The Soul Messengers, the Hebrews’ infectiously rhythmic and spiritual funk band, toured army bases during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, often at risk of being caught and deported. In 2003, Ariel Sharon ensured that community members would get permanent residency, opening the door to IDF service the next year (as well as to the Israeli citizenship that is granted to IDF soldiers and their family members). The Hebrews are unapologetic participants in the nation’s defense, with Ahmadiel explaining that “we’re peaceful, but not pacifist”—even though service in an alleged apartheid army is a sticking point with certain African-American groups, members of the community told me.
Today, the Kfar is a stop on Israeli political campaigns. Both Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac ‘Bougie’ Herzog dropped by during the 2014 election cycle. African leaders are frequent visitors—Winnie Mandela’s been there, along with a Ghanaian minister of culture, a Ugandan deputy minister of health, and a presidential candidate from Sierra Leone. The community has launched development projects in Ghana, Uganda, and Togo, and was invited to lead a three-year effort to reform the Ghanaian health system around preventive care.
Many (although by no means all) of the major political figures who have championed the community come from Israel’s political right, although Labor members of the Knesset joined Israelites on a 2002 trip to West Africa according to Immanuel Ben Yehuda, one of six members of the Council of Princes, the community’s highest governing body. Prince Immanuel was careful to stress that there is no ideological camp in Israel that has proven to be uniquely supportive. “You’d think that left-wing parties might be more receptive to our being here and what we’re doing,” he said, “but you find it breaks with personalities, not parties.”
Still, the Israelites tend to evoke ideas of communal belonging that don’t easily mesh with contemporary liberalism. “If you look at the words, from emunah [faith], naaman [beautiful], leumut [national], and you keep going to the word for nationalism, it’s all from the same root,” Rofeh Yehoshua pointed out. “It was no coincidence that leumi comes from those root consonants for what faith is.”
Religious communities spend millennia praying for the kinds of events the African Hebrew Israelites have recently lived through. They returned to their holy land and suffered to create an earthly utopia in accordance with their beliefs, a community that’s only become more settled and permanent over time. Their messiah was a man who not only verifiably existed, but who many of the Black Hebrews in Dimona personally knew. In a portrait displayed in the guesthouse living room, Ben Ammi wears a white robe and gazes serenely toward the viewer; a mural on the side of a bomb-shelter entrance shows him staring out over a gushing desert waterfall. “He put his hand to whatever was needed to help build this community,” Yafah Bat Gavriel remembered. “He would deliver the mail, he would go to the market. It wasn’t like he was set on high on a throne somewhere, looking down and telling people what to do. No: He was right there in the midst, with everyone.”
By the time Ben Ammi died in 2014, his vision had been realized. After decades in the shadows, Israelis accepted the Israelites as their fellow citizens, and the community had gradually—if only slightly—shifted the government’s notion of who belongs in the Jewish state. Ahmadiel hopes that in the process, they’ve nudged the rest of the Israelite tribes in a more accepting direction. “Israel’s gotta figure out a way to embrace that darker side of the family, which demographically outweighs and outnumbers European fair-skinned Jews,” he said.
More than 1,200 children have been born in the community since the African Hebrew Israelites arrived in the country, marking four generations who have grown up in Dimona. But the African Hebrews have been in Israel long enough for the larger culture to seep in. When asked to identify the community’s biggest challenges, Prince Immanuel mentioned a “protracted situation in terms of securing new housing for the community.” The second-biggest issue involved young people, and could not be as easily resolved. “A challenge that we endure, which is much like many societies around the world, is keeping a handle on our children in terms of how the principles and statutes by which we live are to be appreciated … we feel like a great deal more is at stake for our society because we realize our responsibility here is to establish the kingdom of Yah, the kingdom of God on Earth.” The number of children in the community school has declined by over a third compared with 20 years ago. “Some of our younger people don’t believe in big families,” Elyakeem said.
Shrinking families—a phenomena across vastly different contexts throughout the developed world—isn’t the only source of pressure, though. Army service gives Hebrews a glimpse into the rest of Israeli life. “When youth are exposed to different realities they have to make a decision if this is something they still want to live by,” explained Yoyakeen Ben Khessed. He’s one of the young people who stuck around, returning to Dimona and starting a family there after serving in field artillery in the IDF. “You build quite a brotherhood in Israeli combat units. The question of race never played a role in our friendships,” Yoyakeen explained, adding that the African Hebrews now have a higher army induction rate than Jews in Tel Aviv. Within the Israelites’ “older, senior element,” though, he added, “the chances of having white friends is slim.”
He took me on a shortcut between the African Hebrews’ guesthouse and the Kfar, scrambling along a sandstone ledge, and sliding down a gravel slope toward the compound’s open back entrance. In addition to serving as the Kfar’s director of tourism, Yoyakeen was getting a teaching degree. He said that 90 percent of the visitors to the Kfar are Israelis, who come to learn about their neighbors, or to try the organic vegan food. American groups, whether identifying with the left or the right, are rare.
Yoyakeen is a U.S. citizen, but he said he used his Israeli passport on a recent visit where he gave talks at Jewish camps and synagogues in the Northeast. There, he detected a certain foreignness to both the country and its particular community of tribal cousins, with whom he would often discuss the subject of love—something soft and safe, but a point of commonality for Jew and Judean alike. “I talked about scriptural references to how you should love God with all your heart, soul, and might,” he explained. “If you really love God to that extent, every dialogue you have with people should be an expression of your love for God.”
Correction, April 1, 2019: An earlier version of this article misidentified the ritual baths in homes as mikvehs, and incorrectly stated the number of blue cords worn by African Hebrew Israelites. Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.