Ben-Israel, Ben Ami 1940-
Ben Ami Ben-Israel 1940-
A Controversy over Citizenship Status
A former Chicago bus driver, Ben Ami Ben-Israel is the founder and head of the World African Hebrew Israelite Community, a religious sect that believes blacks in the Western Hemisphere are the descendants of the original Hebrews and, therefore, are the rightful heirs and stewards of the Holy Land, Israel. From his home in the Negev Desert in Israel--and from centers in major U.S. cities--Ben-Israel delivers the message that blacks should “repatriate” Israel and Africa; that meat, alcohol, and drugs are poison; and that truly righteous people should follow the laws of the Torah, the first five books of the Christian Bible’s Old Testament. Since 1969 Ben-Israel and several thousand of his followers have eked out a tenuous living in Israel, often at odds with government authorities over the sect members’ status and citizenship. Nothing has deterred the controversial leader from his crusade, however. Convinced that the United States does not offer a healthy and nurturing environment for black people, Ben-Israel encourages them to return to the homeland of their ancient f orebears-and to religious practices that place emphasis on family, self-determination, and a personal relationship with God.
The African Hebrew Israelite Community is one of several African American Hebraic sects that work and worship according to ancient Jewish laws. While not terribly numerous, these groups exist in most major American cities and in the Caribbean and Africa as well. What sets Ben-Israel’s Hebrew Israelites apart is that some of them have realized their core objective: to live in Israel and raise their children there. It is estimated that almost ten percent of the worldwide membership of the African Hebrew Israelite Community lives in Israel. Of the rest, many would like to relocate in the future. “America for us is a land of chastisement,” Ben-Israel told the Knight Ridder wire service. “After that time of suffering, naturally we would desire to return to our land.”
Message from an Angel
Knight-Ridder correspondent William R. Macklin noted: “To a world accustomed to flavor-of-the-month prophets, Ben-Israel may seem like the latest in a long line of poseurs, charlatans, and con artists. But viewed purely as a religious quest, his story has the ring of a Biblical epic.” Born Ben Carter and raised in a Baptist home in the Chicago projects, Ben-Israel gravitated to the African American Hebraic movement after hearing his grandparents say the family’s true roots were in Israel. While supporting himself and his family as a bus driver and foundry worker, he studied Old Testament scriptures and spent much of his spare time at the Abeta Israel Hebrew Cultural Center in Chicago. His associations there, as well as with the Black Nationalist movement, convinced him that the United States would never be a comfortable homeland for blacks.
Ben-Israel spent many hours each evening in prayer,
At a Glance…
Born Ben Carter, 1940 in Chicago, ÎL; married to four wives; 15 children.
Bus driver and foundry worker in Chicago, II, 1960-66; World African Hebrew Israelite Cornmunity, spiritual leader, 1967-.
Address: Home–Dimona, Israel
mulling over his concerns and his hopes for a brighter future for black Americans. His devotion, he told the Knight Ridder wire service, was answered in February of 1966 with a vision of an angel. The angel prophesied that the humble bus driver would lead blacks “back to the promised land” by 1977. Ben-Israel was stunned by the prophecy. “When the vision came, I thought that the angel did not have the right address,” he admitted. “I felt there were others more qualified. It was very trying for me.” Nevertheless, he spread the message to his friends and family and eventually persuaded about 350 people to sell their possessions, quit their jobs, and journey with him to Liberia. The move to Africa was seen as the first step in the fulfillment of the prophecy.
Through two difficult years Ben-Israel and his small band of followers lived in a village of makeshift huts and tents in the Liberian interior. Nearly two-thirds of the members gave up and returned to the United States. The rest went with Ben-Israel to Israel, where after being detained at the airport they were granted temporary visas and allowed to settle in an abandoned absorption center in the southern Negev desert town of Dimona. Many of these newcomers-from such cities as Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles--renounced their U.S. citizenship and allowed their temporary visas to expire. Then, as they began to find jobs and bear children in the Israeli community, they encouraged other sect members to join them. Their numbers grew, causing consternation within the Israeli government.
A Controversy over Citizenship Status
Many Black Hebrews arrived in Israel on tourist visas and then stayed in the country illegally. Problems arose because the Jewish government did not consider the American blacks Jews. Although the sect practices Jewish rituals and honors Jewish holidays, it also allows polygamy; Black Hebrew males are allowed to marry as many as seven women. Trouble with the Israeli authorities began in 1979, when an official investigation labeled the sect a “cult” and described Ben-Israel as having total control over his followers. Beginning in the 1980s, some members of the sect were detained and deported to the United States. The sect’s case for full Israeli citizenship reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that as non-Jews the American blacks were not entitled to automatic Israeli citizenship under that country’s Law of Return. That meant that sect members were denied such automatic benefits as work permits and social services and were thereby denied all but clandestine laboring jobs.
Efforts to deport the sect intensified when ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz became interior minister of Israel. One compromise solution--the members’ conversion to standard Judaism--was rejected because the members already considered themselves Jews. As more Black Hebrews arrived and remained in Israel illegally, the government began refusing entry to some black American tourists on suspicion that they were members of the sect.
Ben-Israel was hurt by the allegations that his sect was a “cult” and that he was some sort of manipulative zealot and by the deportation of more than 50 of his followers, some of whom had borne children in Israel. Finally he asked the U.S. government for help in stopping the expulsions. In 1990, members of the Illinois Black Caucus, working with the Israeli Midwest Consulate General in Chicago, Jewish legislators, and U.S. federal officials, drew up an agreement with the Israeli government on behalf of the Black Hebrews. New, longer visas were issued to sect members who agreed to restore their U.S. citizenship, with the promise that future Israeli citizenship would be decided on a case-by-case basis.
“Time to Change or Die”
As the 1980s progressed and the Black Hebrews normalized relations with their Israeli neighbors, attitudes toward the sect changed. By 1994 Ben-Israel and his followers were granted permanent-resident status in Israel, allowing them to qualify for full civil and social rights under Israeli law, including eligibility for old-age pensions, work permits, cash allowances for large families, disability payments, educational opportunities, and childbirth subsidies. Ben-Israel told the Knight Ridder wire service that the early problems the sect had with the Israeli government were simply a case of failure to communicate. “You have to picture how it looked having these African Americans coming and saying they want to establish the kingdom of God in Israel,” he said.
An estimated 1,500 Black Hebrews live in several Negev Desert communities some 80 miles from Tel Aviv. Another 25,000 members of the World African Hebrew Israelite Community are scattered throughout the major American cities. The sect members are vegetarians and are not permitted to smoke, use drugs, or consume alcohol. Women are encouraged to stay home and raise children, but at least one sect member told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that because her husband has more than one wife to help with the household chores, she has more time for self-fulfillment than she would ordinarily have.
Traditional Jewish rites are performed, and members fast one day each week. The children are encouraged to speak Hebrew instead of English, although the sect profits from a small cottage industry in American-style pop music. Men and women wear African-styled clothing, sometimes including turbans. Ben-Israel’s followers see their strict religious practices as a way to save them from the evil influences of American culture. Echoing their founder, they often proclaim that the time has come to “change or die.”
From his home in Dimona, Israel, and during occasional visits to the United States, Ben-Israel exhorts his followers to seek the kingdom of God that is their birthright. Husband of four and a father of 15 children who range in age from preschoolers to more than 30, Ben-Israel wants other black Americans to be aware of the alternative the Black Hebrews offer. “We’re not a cult, we’re a nationalistic community,” he explained to the Knight Ridder wire service. “But cults are not the problem.... The mainstream way of life accepted by most Americans is the problem.” In the Chicago Tribune the energetic religious leader concluded: “I’m the messenger of God. My position is similar to that which is written in the Latter Days, to sit on the throne of David.”
Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1986, p. 12; September 11, 1986, p. 23; September 14, 1990, p. 1.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, December 29, 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Knight Ridder wire service, January 6, 1995.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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