The lost sheep of the house of Israel

The African Hebrew Israelites have lived in Dimona for three generations, claiming their history brought them back to this land. Members of the tribe? Israel is not convinced

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

An 89-year-old elder of the community. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)
An 89-year-old elder of the community. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

DIMONA — If you ask Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda where in the world Israel is located, he will give you a mega-watt smile and tell you that without a doubt it sits in Northern Africa, that the Middle East is actually geographically on the African continent and that he and you and everyone else around you are, in fact, African.

It’s just one of the many paradigm shifts that marks Ahmadiel’s community, and has allowed its members, for three generations, to embrace life as descendants of the Jewish people despite their ancestors having hailed from the same African towns and villages as those of America’s black community.

Ahmadiel serves as minister of information for the Village of Peace, an urban kibbutz in the city of Dimona composed almost entirely of African-Americans and their descendants, all of whom who believe themselves to be linked to the Jewish people and the lost tribe of Judah.

It’s a place that feels almost too good to be true – a collective of some 1,800 smiling men, women and children, dressed in rainbow-colored homespun fabrics and fed on Zionism and organic vegan food. Here in the city otherwise known only for its hush-hush nuclear reactor and its fueling stations on the road down to Eilat, this community has built its own schools, trained its own midwives and raised three generations of children who speak both Hebrew and fluent American English, all in the name of a Jewish god, or as they prefer: Yahweh.

“We connect to being Hebrew Israelites. Our history brings us back to this land,” says Ahmadiel, who shares his last name with the majority of other members of the community. “We are the lost sheep of the house of Israel, or at least part of that family.”

Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, left, with Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda, a Holy Council Member and director of international affairs for the community. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)
Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, left, with Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda, a Holy Council Member and director of international affairs for the community. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

The first African Hebrew Israelites, as they call themselves, made their way from Chicago to Israel during the throes of the American civil rights movement. Guided by a spiritual leader named Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, who was born Ben Carter in Chicago and is believed to have received a visit from the angel Gabriel in 1966, they traveled in a group of 350 first to Liberia, a deliberate if odd decision that was designed, Ahmadiel says, to erase a kind of cultural group think that black Americans had absorbed thanks to the slave trade.

“We wanted to unlearn what we had learned as slaves. As slaves you’re dehumanized, and when you don’t love yourself you couldn’t possibly love others,” he says. “We had to unlearn that behavior.”

Ahmadiel, tall and slender and dressed in a bright orange print tunic, was not part of that group; he came to Israel on his own in the 1970s and joined the community then. But he describes the wayward trek of those God-seeking African-Americans, who arrived in Liberia armed only with Sears and Roebuck tents and a deep hunger to connect the Biblical slave songs of their ancestors with a modern, idyllic reality, as if he was there himself.

“If you’ve seen the slave ships you’ll know that we literally arrived in America butt naked. No artifacts, no writings, no scrolls, not even a change of clothes. But we did carry with us an oral tradition, and our songs in the field of America when we were forbidden to write or preach were not songs of Mali or Timbuktu,” Ahmadiel says. “We sang about the river Jordan. We sang about Jericho, Jerusalem and Canaan.”

Devorah Bahti Yisrael came to Dimona from Cleveland 40 years ago. Now she works in the organic farms. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)
Devorah Bahti Yisrael came to Dimona from Cleveland 40 years ago. Now she works in the organic farms. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

Life in Liberia, Ahmadiel says, was a shock to those city-bred pioneers. Monsoon rains soon rotted most of the tents, and those that stayed dry were swarmed with driver ants and black and green mamba snakes. Several members of the group died. Others gave up and returned to the 24-hour supermarkets and paved streets of Chicago.

But in 1969, the first handful of African Hebrews decided their education in Liberia was complete and it was time to go to Israel. Others soon followed, invoking the Law of Return and­ their identification as Jews in order to gain citizenship.

In 1970, however, when the Law of Return was amended to include the requirement of one Jewish grandparent in order for an immigrant to claim status as a Jew, the group saw their rights vanish. Today, the number of African Hebrew Israelites in Israel stands at around 3,000, with 1,800 living together in the Village of Peace. Some have successfully petitioned for and received Israeli citizenship, others live as permanent residents, and some – especially the youngest generation, whose parents were born in Israel and therefore cannot pass on their American citizenship to their children – have no passport at all.

They could have fought for DNA testing, or attempted to trace their genetic lines to offer concrete proof of their stake in the Jewish story. But they refused, Ahmadiel says, because they believe Judaism exists in the brain, not the body.

Three of the community's children. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)
Three of the community’s children. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

“It’s really not important about the genes and the ethnicity, the biology,” he says. “What’s important is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be responsible in answering the call that we received.”

Life in the Village of Peace is a strange mash-up of Israel, America and folklore of past. The lingua franca is English, with buildings bestowed traditional Hebrew names in a strange accent. Adopting the model of an urban kibbutz, all members receive equal income and work toward the greater good; businesses that have evolved, including a thriving vegan-food factory and a successful African-style music group, pay their proceeds into the communal pot. There is a gym with yoga and Zumba classes, a café with organic goodies and a communal sewing room where the women of the Village of Peace – or the sisters, as they are called – can make their own clothes.

The men of the Village have openly practiced polygamy since the group’s inception. Ahmadiel has three wives, with 21 children split among them. But in a bid to boost their citizenship appeal, the group decided to stop polygamous practices in 2006 (existing multi-wife families stayed intact). Ahmadiel says he hopes that in the near future, they will be able to return to the practice.

Invoking the line from Genesis, “I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the/earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food,” all members maintain a strict vegan diet. The eschewing of all meat and dairy, they insist, has provided the community with perfect health – not a single instance of heart disease, cancer, or other degenerative diseases has been documented, they say, in members who were born in the community and maintained the diet their entire lives.

Medical care, then, tends toward the preventative rather than the immediate. “The African-American is said to be predisposed to hypertension, diabetes, etc., but because of our lifestyle in 30 years we were able to change our genetics in that we’re not predisposed to those things anymore,” says Rofeh Yehoshua Ben Yehudah, who carries the title of the community’s doctor. Dressed in electric green from head to toe, including a knit cap and slippers, he could almost be wearing a funky set of hospital scrubs. He is a doctor, he says, despite the fact that he trained in the Village of Peace’s independent and uncertified college, rather than at an accredited medical school.

The community boasts an organic grocery stocking only vegan products. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)
The community boasts an organic grocery stocking only vegan products. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

“We’re not extremists by any means,” he says. “In situations that we deemed necessary, that we needed outside intervention, we’ve used it. But for the most part we’ve been able to address the [health] concerns that we’ve had with natural herbs, with diet and nutrition.”

Expecting mothers at the Village of Peace all give birth naturally in a facility dubbed “The House of Life,” with a team of midwives also trained on the campus to assist them. During their labor, a priest stands outside the door and reads psalms so that the first thing each child hears is the word of God.

“We can vouch for their training,” Ahmadiel says of his midwives and of Rofeh Yehoshua. “We’ll put them up against the MITs and the Harvards and the Yales any day. He’s our doctor.”

In May, the Village holds a festival called New World Passover, celebrating their exodus out of America and back to the Promised Land. Families all dress in coordinating fabrics, making for a riot of color and music as they gather for two days to feast on vegan food and rejoice in their place in Israel, legal status be damned. Whether or not the government of Israel accepts the African Hebrews as rightful heirs within the Chosen People, they are determined to embrace their self-defined culture and continue thriving.

“This is the irony of this mosaic called Israel,” says Ahmadiel over a vegan lunch of spinach noodles, green bean salad and soy “shnitzel.” “It’s the beauty of being part of a large family. We all have a cousin who is special.”

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