Ben Ammi Ben-Israel dances during festivities marking the Shavuot harvest festival.

Photographer: David Silverman/Getty Images

The Black Hebrews and Israel

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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I was a small boy when I first heard the name Ben Ammi Carter, more properly Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, the leader and prophet of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, known as the Black Hebrews. Ben Ammi, who died Dec. 27, never had as many followers as William Miller, Joseph Smith or Elijah Muhammad, who respectively led the Seventh-day Adventists, the Mormons and the Black Muslims. But his American religious genius was akin to theirs.

In the late 1960s, Ben Ammi -- "the son of my people" -- led his followers on an extraordinary journey from the South Side of Chicago to Liberia to the Negev desert in Israel, where the community flourishes. His story, and that of the African Hebrew Israelites, offers a remarkable commentary on race, diaspora and the return to Zion.

When I first learned of the African Hebrew Israelites, they were recent arrivals in Israel. The scholar Morris Lounds, my father’s friend and advisee,  had done his doctoral dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the group. In the course of his research, he had traveled to Dimona, a godforsaken desert town more than 20 miles south of Beersheba, which is known primarily as the site of Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear reactor. There, Lounds conducted dozens of hours of interviews with figures in the movement, including Ben Ammi himself.

The community’s existence in Israel was tenuous. Its members, American citizens, had entered the country on tourist visas and then simply stayed. The government would not recognize them as Jews under the Law of Return. The members of the community didn’t consider themselves Jews, either. They were Israelites, true descendants of the exiled ancient Hebrews, and thought that those who called themselves Jews were European or Middle Eastern imposters.

I found the story of the community absolutely riveting, and have been fascinated ever since. As an adult, I learned much more from John Jackson, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.  Jackson is the author of a truly brilliant book, based on extensive fieldwork with the Hebrew Israelites, about the Dimona community, its history and its development.

As Jackson documents, the Hebrew Israelites didn’t initially see Israel as their true destination. In the 1960s, after Ben Ammi and his followers came to understand themselves as descendants of the biblical Israelites, the group conceived its divinely called purpose as a return to Africa. The impulse put them squarely in a back-to-Africa tradition that can be traced to Marcus Garvey and beyond to the resettlement movement that created the modern state of Liberia. The African diaspora, according to this view, could be fulfilled only by a return to Zion, and the African Zion was Africa.

In 1967, Ben Ammi and some 350 followers moved to Liberia. Like earlier African-American returnees to the country, they experienced the agonies of resettlement in an utterly new environment under harsh conditions. Then, in 1968, the community experienced a collective moment that forms the sublime core of Jackson’s book. Huddled around radios, they heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech in Memphis, Tennessee, in which he famously said that he had been to the mountaintop and glimpsed the Promised Land, though he might not ever make it there. Ben Ammi experienced the speech as prophetic inspiration, the community shared his vision, and they decided to embark for a different Zion, Israel.

Once again, the challenges were significant. The Hebrew Israelites are, among other things, strict vegans, and they subsisted in part by opening vegan restaurants around Israel. Yet acceptance from Israeli authorities has always been difficult.

One might have imagined that the immigration to Israel of tens of thousands of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community in the 1980s and ’90s would have increased the likelihood of acceptance, but it didn’t, at least not right away. Israel’s political authorities deemed the Ethiopian Beta Israel members to qualify as Jews under the Law of Return, unlike the African Hebrew Israelites. This is particularly striking given that cultural and biological anthropologists generally concur that the communities are descended from communities of Ethiopian Christians who came to define themselves as Jews in the Middle Ages. In this sense, their origin has much in common with that of the African Hebrew Israelites.

Eventually, however, the Hebrew Israelite community reached an accommodation with the state of Israel. Many of its young members serve in the Israeli army, and are increasingly integrated into Israeli society -- creating a new set of challenges for the community if it is to avoid the assimilation that also challenges the children of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel.

The story of African-Americans who came to understand their true identity and destiny as Israelites returning to the holy land, who made it there and who have continued to flourish, can only be characterized as astonishing. Making sense of their ancestors being kidnapped from Africa required transposing the story into its spiritual vein. The logical conclusion wasn’t simply an analogy to the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt -- it was total identification with the story of the biblical Israelites. The return to Africa, seen through African eyes, predates modern Jewish Zionism. The Hebrew Israelites’ shift from Africa to Israel marks a kind of triumph of the spiritual over the historical. That the land they encountered was full of Jewish Israelites is, in this sense, no more of a challenge than the presence of Palestinians in the land was to the early Zionists.

Ben Ammi was therefore a truly multidimensional prophet. He must be understood as an American, as an African-American and, ultimately, as a true Israelite.  Ben Ammi didn’t just glimpse the Promised Land. Whatever happens to his community after his passing, he brought them to it. 

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