The emergency exit rows on my plane to Israel in May of 2006 provided just enough space for several Orthodox Jewish men to stand in the aisles for morning prayers, bracing their hips and knees against plastic and metal seats in anchored readiness for any hints of turbulence, arms and heads wrapped with leathery black boxes housing Torah verses.
One of the strangers seated closest to me, an African American from Baltimore, wasn’t laying tefillin. He considered himself an Israelite, not a Jew, and this distinction was incredibly important to him. It was his first journey to the Promised Land, though he could chronicle more than a decade’s worth of trips he almost took, plans that fell through because of finances or family emergencies, because of health crises or the temporary persuasiveness of naysayers. We were both headed there for the same reason: To experience New World Passover, an annual holiday commemorating the relocation of several hundred African Americans from the South Side of Chicago in the late 1960s to the southern Israeli city of Dimona, where they now include thousands of members known as the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem.
The assortment of activities that make up New World Passover reveals just about every central theme and concern of this transnational spiritual community, a “kingdom” with its organizational hub lodged squarely in the Israeli desert but also composed of “saints,” as members are called, scattered across five different continents and dozens of countries, a truly global phenomenon with a social influence and historical significance that arguably outstrips its relatively obscured and muted place in most discussions of African American or Jewish life.
Ben Carter was working as a metallurgist at a foundry in Chicago in 1964 when an elder in the community began to teach him about his true Israelite roots. As the story goes, Carter was getting a drink at a water fountain on the job when an elder, Eliyahu Buie, asked him a single question: “Have you ever heard of Black Israelites?” In fact, he had. It was hard to live in urban Chicago at the time and not notice the exploits of various black Israelite groups, even if the sightings were nothing more, for some residents, than fleeting distractions from their peripheral vision. Different black Israelite groups were sprinkled all throughout the city, and Carter had taken note of their presence, but he’d never paid a great deal of serious attention to them.
Carter was in his mid-twenties. He’d already done a short stint in the armed forces and was no longer a newlywed, his marriage, a relationship approaching close to five years, already marked and marred by a young wife’s unfortunate miscarriages. The two of them would eventually separate.
This was 1960s Chicago; full of conflict and corruption, but also rife with seemingly unprecedented possibilities. Like many cities during that turbulent decade, Chicago had a hyper-political public sphere: People taking to the streets; legal institutions slowly bending to the project of formal social inclusion; religious organizations retooled for racial protest. To African Americans on the South Side, or even the North Side, closer to where Carter was born, it meant an urban context informed by an ethos of change, of more or less radical machinations in the ripeness of the political moment—all plotted along a continuum from civil rights to Black Power.
As far as Carter was concerned, the Hebrew Israelites were offering a form of liberation far more expansive than anything else he’d heard out there in the streets, and he’d heard it all. Before long, Carter wasn’t just a student of the truth. He became a teacher and flung himself into this new worldview, into this new sense of self. He had done something of a reversal in his life, from someone prone to hatching “get-rich-quick” schemes to an expert on the Bible who could challenge many of its taken-for-granted and popular interpretations in powerful detail. Ben Carter also began studying Hebrew in classes offered by Chicago’s Black Israelite community, and before long, he would change his name to Ben Ammi, Hebrew for “son of my people,” forming substantive bonds with other members of Chicago’s diverse black Israelite community.
Carter wasn’t an island. The elder who had first taught him, Eliyahu Buie, was just one point of entry into a sprawling African American Jewish/Hebrew/Israelite community in Chicago with roots that dated back quite a while—to people like Rabbi Horace, a man who had been arguing as early as the 1920s that Adam was black, and Elder Warien Roberson, one of the early-20th-century links between Black Jews in New York and Chicago. In Harlem, the Commandment Keepers, founded in the early 20th century by Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, drew from white Jewish traditions as well as black separatist and gnostic ones in their forging of a distinctive black Jewish sensibility.
By the time Ben Ammi was teaching and learning from fellow Black Israelites in Chicago, Roberson, Horace, and others had already begun to pass the baton to some of their younger followers. Prophet Lucius Casey started the Negro Israelite Bible Class in the 1940s. He railed against integrationism, called African Americans “the original Jews,” was known to call white people “Edomites” or “Esau’s seed”—as opposed to true Jews or Israelites—and moved his followers to Pulaski County, Ill., by the 1950s. Elders such as Rabbi Joseph Lazarus, who had been a follower of Roberson, and Rabbi Abihu Reuben, formed another group of Israelite elders in the Chicago community, the Congregation of Ethiopian Hebrews. Invocations of Ethiopia were deployed both as a nod to long-standing Pan-Africanist positions and as a way of linking black Israelites in America to Ethiopian Jews in East Africa. Rabbi Robert Devine, originally affiliated with Matthew’s group, started his own by the late 1950s, the House of Israel Hebrew Culture Center, and all of this was Chicago’s version of the splintering and differentiating that had also created multiple Israelite communities among black Israelites in other parts of the country.
Even if some of these organizational names quickly fade from memory, it is important to realize that each one of these groups represented a somewhat distinctive set of behavioral and ideological answers to the same question: What does it take to be a Hebrew Israelite? Although others might have been confused about how to define them, Ben Ammi was very sure about what made them different from Jews. Jews, including black Jews, he argued, practiced a religion. Black Israelites embraced their true nationality, their actual heritage. “Israelites are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” Ben Ammi would explain, “the seed of the promise, and Jews are people who adopt Judaism. … Sammy Davis Jr. is a black Jew who just adopted Judaism, and that’s his religion. … But I’m talking about Israelites, the descendants of the biblical Israelites.”
This purported difference between Jews and Israelites—conversion and descent—was something of an odd peculiarity for interested parties in the United States during the latter half of the 1960s, but it would have the profoundest consequences for the AHIJ community once they finally left America. When they made their way to Israel, policing the distinction would be their main worry—and a gnawing concern to the Israeli state.
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.”
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.
John L. Jackson, Jr., is the Richard Perry University Professor of Communication, Africana Studies, and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem.