Two years after deportation orders, 130 African Hebrew Israelites linger in limbo

Dozens of community members have no formal status in Israel and were ordered to leave, but Israeli authorities have yet to rule on their appeals

Ilan Ben Zion is an AFP reporter and a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Members of three families from the Hebrew Israelite community facing deportation, pose for a portrait in the Village of Peace in Dimona, Israel, Monday, July 17, 2023. For two years, Toveet Israel, bottom left, and dozens of other residents of the Village of Peace have lived in fear. Her eight children, including two of her daughters Yahlital, standing left, and Ahmeeteeyah standing right, were born here and know no other country. With them are Ben Israel, center, his granddaughters, and Estella Rivers, right. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Members of three families from the Hebrew Israelite community facing deportation, pose for a portrait in the Village of Peace in Dimona, Israel, Monday, July 17, 2023. For two years, Toveet Israel, bottom left, and dozens of other residents of the Village of Peace have lived in fear. Her eight children, including two of her daughters Yahlital, standing left, and Ahmeeteeyah standing right, were born here and know no other country. With them are Ben Israel, center, his granddaughters, and Estella Rivers, right. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

DIMONA, Israel (AP) — For two years, Toveet Israel and dozens of other residents of the Village of Peace have lived in fear.

Dimona, a city on the edge of the nation of the Negev Desert, has been her home for 24 years. Her eight children were born here and know no other country. Now, she and 130 other undocumented members of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem face deportation.

Receiving the order to leave two years ago was a “moment of disbelief” for Israel, 53. “I feel like the government has been merciless to me and my children,” she said.

The Hebrew Israelites, as the spiritual community’s members are commonly known, first made their way to Israel from the United States in the 1960s. While members do not consider themselves Jewish, they claim an ancestral connection to Israel.

Around 3,000 Hebrew Israelites live in remote, hardscrabble towns in southern Israel. The Village of Peace, a cluster of low-slung buildings surrounded by vegetable patches and immaculate gardens in Dimona, is the community’s epicenter.

Over decades, the Hebrew Israelites have made gradual inroads into Israeli society. After years of bureaucratic wrangling, about 500 members hold Israeli citizenship, and most of the rest have permanent residency.

But about 130 have no formal status and now face deportation. Some don’t have foreign passports and say they have spent their entire adult lives in Israel and have nowhere to go.

Estella Rivers, a member of the Hebrew Israelite community, pauses during a rally outside of the District Court in Beersheba, Israel, ahead of a hearing on the deportation orders for her and dozens of others from her community, Wednesday, July 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The community’s long fight to secure its status shines a light on Israel’s strict immigration policy, which grants people it considers Jewish automatic citizenship but limits entry to others who don’t fall under its definition.

The African Hebrew Israelites are one of a constellation of Black religious groups in the US that emerged in the late 19th and 20th centuries and encompass a wide spectrum of Christian and Jewish-inspired beliefs.

Some fringe Black Hebrew groups in the US hold extremist or antisemitic views, according to the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The community in Dimona does not espouse such beliefs.

André Brooks-Key, an African and African American studies professor at Claflin University in South Carolina, said these various religious communities share a belief that certain African peoples are descendants of the biblical Israelites and that the transatlantic slave trade was prophesied in the Bible.

“Regardless of how they understand Jesus or how they dress or any of these other aspects, that underlying theological point is what binds them together,” Brooks-Key said.

The Hebrew Israelites believe they are descendants of the biblical tribes of Israel who, after the Roman conquest in 70 A.D., fled down the Nile and west into the African interior and were ultimately taken as slaves to North America centuries later.

Members of the Hebrew Israelite community community dance during a procession past their elders and community leaders during New World Passover celebrations marking the group’s exodus from the United States, in Dimona, Israel, Friday, June 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

They observe an interpretation of biblical laws formulated by their late founder that includes strict veganism, abstention from tobacco and hard alcohol, fasting on the Sabbath, polygamy, and a ban on wearing synthetic fabrics.

Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, the group’s Chicago-born spiritual leader, said he had a vision in 1966 from the angel Gabriel that Black descendants of the Israelites should “return to the Promised Land and establish the Kingdom of God,” according to the community’s website.

After a brief stint in Liberia, Ben-Israel and several dozen families of followers arrived in Israel in 1968.

Ben-Israel died in 2014 at age 75 and is revered as a messianic figure, Ahmadiel Ben Yehudah, a community elder and spokesperson.

“We’re Judeans by our tribal affiliation,” he said. “There’s a long tradition and continuity of cultural connections that root us here in this land. We didn’t just fall out of the sky.”

Shortly after their arrival, the Hebrew Israelites’ legal problems began. Israel initially granted them citizenship, but subsequently revoked it after changes in its Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews.

They remained illegal aliens, some of them stateless after renouncing their American citizenship, until the early 1990s, when they began receiving temporary Israeli residency.

Members of the Hebrew Israelite community serving in the Israel Defence Forces dance during a procession honoring their service past their elders and community leaders during New World Passover celebrations marking the group’s exodus from the United States, in Dimona, Israel, Thursday, June 1, 2023. Community leaders say they send 100 percent of their eligible sons and daughters to Israeli national military service. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

A turning point came in 2002, after a Palestinian gunman killed six people at a bat mitzvah party, including a 32-year-old Hebrew Israelite singer who had been performing. In response, Israel started granting the community members permanent residency.

In 2015, about 130 of them without documentation submitted requests for residency rights, claiming that authorities had reneged on earlier promises to legalize their status.

The Interior Ministry rejected the requests in 2021 and issued deportation orders to 49 people. Four left the country, while the remaining 45 appealed. The rest remain in legal limbo.

The ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority said the individuals subject to deportation had never appeared on lists submitted by Hebrew Israelite leaders and that some had entered Israel recently.

“It’s not clear why their first requests (for residency) were only submitted in 2015,” the authority said, or why the community didn’t submit requests on behalf of those individuals.

The community’s deepened integration into Israeli society over the years has made the idea of deportation especially painful. Dozens of young Hebrew Israelites serve in the Israeli military, and many work for Teva Deli, a vegan food manufacturer.

The community runs a school where its students learn Hebrew and Black history as part of their educations. The majority of Village of Peace residents, particularly members of the younger generation that grew up in Israel, speak Hebrew fluently.

A sandstorm rolls into Dimona, Israel, as the Hebrew Israelite community marks New World Passover, an annual celebration of their 1967 exodus from the United States, Thursday, June 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

On June 1, the community celebrated New World Passover, a holiday marking the exodus from the United States of the Hebrew Israelites who came to Israel in the 1960s.

Families dressed in vibrant patterned outfits gathered in a public park adjacent to the Village of Peace for live music and a vegan soul food cookout.

Afterward, the community assembled around a stage for a dance performance and a march celebrating Hebrew Israelite soldiers serving in the Israeli military to chants of “We are soldiers of our God.”

Months have dragged on without a decision from the Israeli authorities, leaving the undocumented Hebrew Israelites suspended between their homes in the Holy Land and what they see as exile.

Ben Israel, 55, who grew up in Bermuda and moved to Israel from the US in 1991, is slated to be deported with four of his five children.

“I won’t walk out of here,” he said. “We come to serve the god of Israel, the god of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We are Hebrew Israelites. So why not arm-in-arm?”

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