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African Hebrew Israelites fight to stay in Israel

CM 19/05/2021 23

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Israel, as we all know, is one of the world’s great cultural melting pots. It is said that around 30 languages are spoken here on a daily basis, encompassing a broad welter of ethnic and cultural baggage. That reflects a diverse demographic that enriches our artistic and daily lives here but also brings with it some significant challenges.

In addition to the practicalities of providing housing, employment and such since its creation, and even before that, Israel has struggled to embrace “the other.” My parents-in-law, for example, came here from Iraq and quickly found themselves at the wrong end of the socioeconomic and social scale. They were also cautioned by their oldest son’s kindergarten teacher not to speak Arabic with him at home. Jewish musicians lauded across the Arab world soon found themselves seeking alternative means of making a living after making aliyah – quite a shock to their system. A French friend’s Moroccan-born parents were considered a not-entirely-welcome addition to society on an Ashkenazi Galilean kibbutz in the early 1970s, and Ethiopians have been subjected to more than their fair share of denigrating comments and behavior, if not downright discrimination.
That conundrum of an immigrant-based population wrestling with input from other climes, different ways of thinking, customs and appearance, has been ever-present in the lives of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, the majority of whom live in Dimona. Not everyone has taken to their lifestyle. 
“We have been called a vegan polygamous community,” says Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, one of the group’s official spokespeople. In fact, both are true although, naturally, the idea of multiple life partners is anathema to the core of mainstream Jewish-based society.

But there have also been accusations of acts of pedophilia committed in the self-styled Village of Peace – claims that resurfaced in the media recently in the wake of deportation orders issued by the Interior Ministry against 45 families who, according to Ben Yehuda, all told, account for 135 people.
“Many of them were born here. They know no other land. They speak fluent Hebrew, with English a distant second language,” he points out. All told, the community in Dimona comprises around 3,000 people.
The first Black Hebrews arrived in the Jewish state in 1969, requesting citizenship under the Law of Return. In 1973 the Israeli government ruled they did not qualify for automatic citizenship as they could not prove Jewish descent and had not undergone Orthodox conversion. The Black Hebrews were denied work permits and state benefits, and their relationship with the state has been contentious ever since.
THE AFRICAN Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem live in a largely self-supporting compound called Village of Peace. The original 138 members of the community, mostly natives of Chicago, arrived in Israel in 1969 under the leadership of Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, who was born in the Windy City as Ben Carter. He worked as a metallurgist at a local foundry when, in the early 1960s, a colleague introduced him to the notion that African Americans are descendants of the Biblical Israelites. The idea took root and, as the Hebrew Israelites believe, in 1966 Ben Ammi was instructed by the angel Gabriel to “lead the children of Israel among African Americans to the Promised Land and establish the long-awaited Kingdom of God.”
That, in brief, is how the Dimona group came to be, with the first contingent arriving in 1969, after no small amount of trials and tribulations, in Africa – and later here too.
The African Hebrew Israelites settled into their corner of the Negev town and got down to the business of building their homes, tending to their vegetable patches and fruit trees and, basically, leading a physically and spiritually healthy life. To this day, all members of the community are vegans, all engage in physical activity on a regular basis, are required to receive massages every week or so, and fast one day a week. 
“We had maybe one or two people come down with the coronavirus,” remarks Yair Israel. The fortysomething African Hebrew Israelite was born here and today runs the Otentivee vegan food manufacturing and distribution company.
Israel – many members of the community adopted the surname of Israel or Ben Yehuda – says he has experienced the ramifications of deportation from close quarters. 
“My mother was deported from Israel in 1986, when I was only 10 years old. They came for her at 4 a.m. – in the middle of the night! Why should they do something like that?” 
Naturally, the specter of that tough time when he was separated from his mother throughout his teen years, until she was able to return here, has been raised by the latest Ministry of Interior expulsion directive. 
“We are here to fight for the families who have received the letters telling them they have to leave the country within 60 days. They asked for a list of the community members, around three or four months ago, and we thought it was all going to work out.”
Israel says that over the years, the Israelites have met with and received assurances from various leading politicians, who told them they would address the issue and see it was sorted out. That includes the prime minister. “Bibi was here in Dimona six or seven years ago. He said he likes the community and it always seemed like things were going in the right direction. It was a very unpleasant surprise to get this [deportation order].”TODAY, ALL youngsters from the African Hebrew Israelite community serve in the IDF. (Photos: Cathrielah Baht Israel and Taahmenyah Baht Israel)TODAY, ALL youngsters from the African Hebrew Israelite community serve in the IDF. (Photos: Cathrielah Baht Israel and Taahmenyah Baht Israel)
PRINCE IMMANUEL Ben Yehuda, another official spokesperson of the Dimona group, says he can’t understand why the current situation has arisen, and also chronicles developments along the immigration continuum, which he believed were moving things along nicely. 
“I feel there is no reason for us to have arrived at this particular point, after all the effort we have put in to solving these problems over the years.” 
He says that he and the rest of the community were always led to believe that they had nothing to worry about.
“The Interior Ministry’s position has always been to indicate that these problems were solvable, and then you find they are not doing anything. That is the most disappointing thing.”
That began back in the late 1980s, when current Interior Minister Arye Deri was serving his first stint. The positive mindset seemed to be vindicated seven years ago, when Gideon Sa’ar was Interior Minister. Sa’ar appeared to be sympathetic to the Israelites’ cause and, apparently, was willing to settle the issues relating to the status of certain members of the community. 
“Back in 2014, Ben-Israel [who died in December of that year] met with Gideon Sa’ar and gave him details of additional individuals [from the community] to find a way forward to solving the problem,” Ben Yehuda notes.
The community members were, naturally, looking for a one-stop-shop resolution to their legal standing here. That may be something of a simplistic outlook, considering the range of residency definitions involved. Some, particularly those who have served in the IDF, are full Israeli citizens while others are permanent residents, temporary citizens or have no official status at all and are waiting for the authorities to sort that out.
Ben Yehuda says that Sa’ar left office before making any meaningful inroads into the legal conundrum but that he was hopeful that Deri would move things along after the latter returned to the ministry, particularly after repeated expressions of support from Netanyahu. 
TOVEET ISRAEL, née Dawn Hercules, does not know where she will be spending the summer. This is not a matter of considering whether to get through the heat at some temperate lakeside location, rather whether she will be able to continue living in the place she has called home for the past two-plus decades. As things currently stand, she, along with her eight offspring, all of whom were born here, are due to be deported in around a month’s time. 
“I got the letter on April 21. I was very shocked,” says Israel who came here from Atlanta, Georgia in 1998. The directive was for her and her children to leave the country within 60 days. Israel says the letter is dated April 5, although she only received notification of the missive 16 days later. That, she fears, may impinge on her response time even further. She and the other candidates for deportation are appealing against the decision with the help of a lawyer.TOVEET ISRAEL, who is due to be deported, with some of her children TOVEET ISRAEL, who is due to be deported, with some of her children
She says that like other members of the community, she has tried to resolve her legal standing here repeatedly over the years. The latest attempt was made last year. 
“We have been waiting for a response for some years now. We applied some pressure, as a group, in August 2020, and this is the response we were given.”
There have been encouraging noises on the local front, although it is unclear whether that will have any bearing on the final ruling. A couple of weeks ago, a rally held in Dimona to support the community’s cause was attended by local mayor Benny Biton. 
“That was much needed, and very uplifting,” says Israel, who feels there’s more to be had where that came from. “It is encouraging to know we have the support of the Israeli population.” 
While she says she can’t be sure things will work out for her, her children, and the other community members, she remains upbeat. 
“I think it is very possible the mayor’s support will help us. I think, at this point, any support will help us.”
THAT REMAINS to be seen but, as Prince Immanuel notes, the African Hebrew Israelites have been doing their bit for this country for half a century. 
“Our music groups have always been involved in lifting the morale of the [IDF] troops during wartime since 1973, during the Yom Kippur War.” 
That, he says, is irrespective of the community’s legal standing here. 
“We had no status at all back then. We have been an integral part of Israeli society for a long time, and we have grown up within Israeli society.”
The African Hebrew Israelites have also been at the forefront of the vegan life philosophy since the get-go. 
“When we started [with veganism] everybody said we were crazy. Now it is the fastest growing dietary approach on the planet.”DESPITE EXPRESSIONS of support from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, issues around many community members’ legal status remain.DESPITE EXPRESSIONS of support from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, issues around many community members’ legal status remain.
Legal status ruckus aside, having visited the community a few months ago, I noted that many of the dwellings have vegetable patches – organic – and everyone I met looked healthy and exuded a sunny disposition. I also caught an arts-and-crafts bazaar at the village, which attracted a substantial number of visitors from around the country.
Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda says he and his colleagues are more than happy to spread the good word to all and sundry. 
“We have something to give [to all Israelis]. Help us to help you. That is our message to the larger Israeli society.” 
In addition to introducing veganism to Israel – the African Hebrews established the first vegan restaurant here almost four decades ago – Ben Yehuda says, “We are proud of the many contributions we have made to this land and the global reputation of Israel.” He lists those these achievements as including hosting “international personalities and guests from around the country interested in our healthy lifestyle, further building support for our homeland,” sending “medical and agricultural specialists to Africa, in our own efforts at tikun haolam, building international relations for Israel. We have represented Israel in international sports, academic and cultural programs globally, and we sent our spokespersons to defend Israel at Durban 1 and 2 [World Conference against Racism].”
My efforts to obtain a statement from the Interior Ministry spokesperson on the deportation orders elicited no response.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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