'Ministry tricked us into identifying those here illegally'

Dimona’s African Hebrews launch campaign to stay put as deportations loom

Population Authority: ‘We’re asking them to go back to their country, one of the most developed in the world, but every few years they come with new people out of the blue’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Members of the Hebrew Israelites Community of Dimona dance during festivities marking the Shavuot festival in the southern Israeli town of Dimona, May 26, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
Members of the Hebrew Israelites Community of Dimona dance during festivities marking the Shavuot festival in the southern Israeli town of Dimona, May 26, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

The Hebrew Israelites Community of Dimona in southern Israel is launching a campaign, including a big event in Tel Aviv on May 20, aimed at derailing Interior Ministry attempts to deport dozens of people who had been seeking legal status to stay.

According to the ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, 17 letters have been sent to 51 individuals, many of whom are single parents. The letters order them to leave the country within 60 days. Recipients have the right to appeal.

The community, which believes it is descended from an ancient Israelite tribe,  began arriving in Israel in 1969, following the late Ben Carter, a Chicago steelworker who renamed himself Ben Ammi Ben Israel and claimed to be God’s representative on earth.

All 51 people who received deportation notices entered Israel from the US as tourists and remained in the country, illegally, once their permitted three-month stay was up.

The late Ben Ammi Ben Israel, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Israelites Community of Dimona. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Some are adults who were born in Israel, according to Ashriel Moore, who is coordinating the campaign to stop the deportations. Of these, some have their own children. Those who are not eligible for US citizenship or have given it up are stateless and have nowhere to go.

Moore said he had no explanation other than a racist attitude toward Black people, noting that non-Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe with one Jewish grandparent have been given citizenship, even though unlike the Hebrew Israelites, they kept none of the laws of the Bible. Rather undermining this thesis, though, is the fact that the Israeli government airlifted in many thousands of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s and ’90s, and continues to do so, albeit far more slowly, to this day.

“There’s no other community that has given so much over half a century and is still being threatened with deportation,” Moore said.

The campaign has received the support of Benny Biton (Likud), Dimona’s mayor since 2013, and one of his predecessors, Meir Cohen, now a lawmaker for Yesh Atid.

Ashriel Moore. (Courtesy)

In addition to considering legal action, the community, better known as the Black Hebrews, is planning solidarity events to broaden that support, the first of which is scheduled for May 20, in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.

According to its website, the community, which permits polygamy, does not subscribe to any religion “because religions have only divided men.” It does, however, observe the Sabbath and Jewish Holy Days mentioned in the Old Testament, circumcises its male children eight days after birth, and requires women to observe the biblical laws of purification.

It is not recognized as Jewish by Israel’s religious authorities.

Soldiers from the Hebrew Israelites Community of Dimona, May 26, 2010. (Jorge Novominsky/ Flash 90)

Many community members were granted permanent residency in 2003. From 2004, its youth has been serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Those who complete military service are eligible to apply for citizenship, and most requests are approved.

In 2014, then-interior minister Gideon Sa’ar announced that permanent residents could acquire citizenship if they relinquished their American nationality. (Those who had performed military service were eligible to apply for citizenship without giving up US passports if they had them.)

Moore, aged 30, the son of one of the community’s founders, and an Israeli citizen thanks to his IDF service, said that community members pay taxes and are fully integrated into state schools and Dimona’s life in general.

In this May 26, 2013 file photo, members of the Hebrew Israelites Community of Dimona dance during the Shavuot Festival in their Village of Peace in the town of Dimona, southern Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

He added that community leaders had been trying to get legal status for those without it for many years, submitting since Sa’ar’s period the same list of 64 names every time there was a new interior minister. Four men have served in that post since Sa’ar, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The current incumbent is Aryeh Deri of the Shas party.

Posted by African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem – South Eden on Wednesday, October 14, 2020

“Every time [with every new minister], we were asked why didn’t you sort this out already?” said Moore. “There were always stories – we can’t do it now, or we need to check. Sometimes they wouldn’t even answer us. It doesn’t matter what we do. There’s always something that’s problematic.”

He went on, “When we spoke to the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority last year, they said they wanted to sort things out once and for all, to turn a new page.

“We had the 64 names from the Gideon Sa’ar list but some of these people had had children since then. There were also others whose parents came in 1969 and got Israeli status, but then lost it when the Law of Return changed in 1970. They told us to research all of the names and we prepared a list of 135 (which included the original 64).

“But then, instead of getting status, these people are getting deportation orders! It was all a lie!”

Members of the Hebrew Israelites Community of Dimona, also known as “the Black Hebrews, seen during celebrations for New World Passover, marking their exodus from the United States, in the southern Israeli city of Dimona, July 18, 2016. (Corinna Kern/FLASH90)

One such deportation order notes that the recipient arrived on a three-month tourist visa 23 years ago and remained in the country illegally when that visa ran out, subsequently giving birth to seven children between 1998 and 2013.

In another case, a woman who has Israeli citizenship and is currently in the US, after giving birth to a child there, has been barred from returning to Israel with the child, according to Moore. “They sent her to the Israeli Consulate, which said the child is automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship and that the Interior Ministry should deal with it,” he claimed. “But in Israel they won’t let her in.”

A third case revolves around a father whose family came to Israel in 1969 and who has Israeli citizenship, Moore went on. “But they won’t give citizenship to the mother or the children and want to deport them.”

Youngsters from the Hebrew Israelites Community of Dimona play in their neighborhood, December 21, 2010.  Keren Freeman/FLASH90)

Asked to explain the timing, Moore said, “They finally got the full list of those without citizenship or permanent residency and we pressured them for an answer. There’s political chaos at the moment [Israel has gone through four elections in two years and could be facing a fifth] and they behaved like thieves in the night.”

Moore said the community had stood against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and attempts through the United Nations to equate Zionism with racism.

“In 2014, during Operation Protective Edge (when Israel went to war with Gaza) I personally was active with StandWithUs,” an American pro-Israel advocacy organization that works closely with the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “I defended the government and explained why the war was justified.”

Over the years, the community has been lauded by all manner of senior Israeli politicians, among them the late president Shimon Peres, who celebrated his 85th birthday in Dimona with a visit to the community’s Village of Peace, and Benjamin Netanyahu, who wrote in 2012, “Your integration in recent years into the Israel Defense Forces reflects your status as an integral part of the Israeli experience and of its institutions.”

Yoel Lipovitzky, who heads the Population Administration at the Population and Immigration Authority, told The Times of Israel that whether someone’s illegal stay dated back to the 1990s or not, they were still illegal. “Some of them gave birth here, but in Israel, birth doesn’t confer citizenship.”

Yoel Lipovitzky, who heads the Population Administration at the Population and Immigration Authority. (Shlomi Amsalem)

He went on, “America is not a poor country like Sudan. We’re asking them to go back to their country, one of the most developed in the world, not to nowhere.

“We told them, ‘You brought us the lists in 2003. That process ended more than 17 years ago and whoever was not on that list is not eligible for permanent residency.’

“But every few years, they come with new lists, with new people out of the blue. They tell us that they’ve ‘discovered’ more people belonging to the community who, ‘for some reason’ have no status and ask us to check the possibility of giving it to them. We interviewed 17 families, totaling 51 people, this year. If there are more, they didn’t come, and we don’t know where they are. We found no reason to let them stay.

“Israeli law is clear about who is legal and who is not. It’s the same with foreign workers who are here illegally. From the point of view of the state, are we supposed to encourage people who are here illegally to give birth and stay illegally in Israel?”

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