The Black Hebrews of Israel

The Black Hebrews of Israel

© David Burton 2022

Black Hebrews of Israel

     The Black Hebrews, a sect whose full name is "The Original African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem," have two centers of activity: Chicago, USA and Dimona, Israel. About 2,500 members, led by Ben Ami Carter, live in Israel — most of them in Dimona, and the rest in Arad and Mitzpe Ramon, with some others residing in other parts of the country. I personally ran across members of the sect in Tel Aviv who were operating a vegan restaurant.
     The Black Hebrews believe that they are descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. They live according to their own special rules of conduct. Polygamy is permitted and birth control is forbidden. Their leaders decree who will marry whom, performing the weddings and approving annulments. Their dietary laws prohibit the eating of meat, dairy products, eggs and sugar; members who are caught consuming these foods are punished. Members must adopt Hebraic names in place of their former "slave names." According to Black Hebrew custom, the woman's responsibilities focus on child­rearing and other family obligations. The Black Hebrews' closed society is isolated from the mainstream and all infractions of their rules are severely punished.
     The first Black Hebrews began arriving in Israel in 1969, entering the country on temporary visas that were periodically renewed. In the meantime, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared that the Black Hebrews were not Jews, and therefore the sect's members were not entitled to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Nevertheless, the Black Hebrew population in Dimona continued to grow due to their high birthrate and because many of them, some with criminal backgrounds, illegally entered Israel using various forms of subterfuge. The Government of Israel avoided deporting the Black Hebrew members who lived in the country illegally, but at the same time also refrained from granting the Black Hebrews citizenship or permanent residency. During the tension that developed during the 1970s and especially the 1980s, some members of the sect engaged in anti­Israel activity and propaganda, aligning themselves with anti­Semitic groups. They claimed that the white Jews were "imposters," and that they, the Black Hebrews, were the rightful inheritors of the land of Israel.
     The Black Hebrews acquired legal status in an agreement reached with the Israel Ministry of the Interior in May 1990. According to that agreement, the Black Hebrews were initially granted tourist status with a visa that entitled them to employment; a year later they were given temporary resident status for a period of five years. At the end of the five-year period, in 1995, their status was extended for another three years. At the beginning of 2004, the interior minister granted them residency, which does not carry mandatory military service.
     Currently they receive two special benefits:
     A: They are entitled to stipends paid by Israel's National Insurance Institute (NII) - such as child support, assistance to the disabled, aid for the elderly, supplemental income, etc. Indeed, 830 members of the sect are receiving such benefits from the NII.
     B: The Israel Ministry of Education assists and subsidizes the operation of a school for the Black Hebrew children. Today the school serves 700 pupils who study in 14 classes. The U.S. Congress has assisted this school by appropriating $1 million, half of which was designated for constructing the school facility.
     The Black Hebrews derive their income from their famous choir, their seamsters' workshop, which provides the sect with its colorful clothing, and from their vegetarian restaurant in Arad's commercial center, with an adjacent factory for vegetarian food products.
     The first member of the Black Israelite community to enlist in the IDF, Uriahu Butler, was inducted into the army July 29, 2004. By the end of 2006, more than 100 of their youth, girls and boys, joined the military. Their enlistment process was complicated by the community's strict vegan dietary traditions, which extend to wearing all-cotton clothes and a ban on leather shoes. The community agreed to comply with IDF requirements and the IDF agreed to allow Israelite soldiers to wear cloth shoes instead of army-issue boots; the congregation will forgo the stricture regarding cotton clothing.
     Presently, the community operates a vegan eatery in Tel Aviv (in which I’ve eaten, as noted above); their musicians perform across Israel and around the world, touring the US, Europe and Africa either solely with their own members or as a part of other Israeli groups. They have created their own music genre, which they call Songs of Deliverance, and produce CDs.
     In sports the Black Hebrews have represented Israel at home and in Europe in track and field and national softball events, including the Maccabiah games. Their students have represented Israel in international academic competitions. Twice they have represented Israel in Eurovision, the international music competition.
     In February 2005, in conjunction with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization established by civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Hebrews opened the Dr. Martin Luther King/SCLC – Ben Ammi Institute for a New Humanity, a conflict resolution center in Dimona, to teach holistic non-violence and reconciliation to families, communities, faiths and nations. The story of the Black Hebrew Israelites is a testimony of the great growth and maturity of the State of Israel and its people. It further gives the lie to the charge that Israel is an apartheid nation! [1]

     The Black Hebrew Israelite movement originated at the end of the 19th century, when Frank Cherry and William Saunders Crowdy both claimed to have received visions that African Americans are descendants of the Hebrews in the Bible. Cherry established the Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations, in 1886, and Crowdy founded the Church of God and Saints of Christ in 1896. They came from a group of African Americans, many from Chicago, Illinois, who later migrated to Israel in the late 1960s.[2]

     The modern Black Hebrew Israeli story harks back to 1969 when Ben Ammi Ben-Israel established the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem in Chicago, Illinois. This was a time when black nationalism was on the rise as a response to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1969, after a sojourn in Liberia, Ben Ammi and about 30 followers moved to Israel. Over the next 20 years, nearly 600 more members left the United States for Israel. As of 2006, about 2,500 Hebrew Israelites lived in the Israeli city of Dimona – in the eastern Negev desert region, just west of the Dead Sea - and two other towns in the Negev region of Israel, where they are widely referred to as Black Hebrews.
     The Black Hebrews believe they are descended from members of the Tribe of Judah who were exiled from the Land of Israel after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE. The group incorporates elements of African-American culture into their interpretation of the Bible. They do not recognize rabbinical Jewish interpretations such as the Talmud. The Black Hebrews observe Shabbat and biblically ordained Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur and Passover.
     Men wear tzitzit (fringes) on their African print shirts, women follow the niddah (biblical laws concerning menstruation), and newborn boys are circumcised. In accordance with their interpretation of the Bible, the Black Hebrews follow a strictly vegan diet and only wear natural fabrics. Most men have more than one wife, and birth control is not permitted.
     When the first Black Hebrews arrived in Israel in 1969, they claimed citizenship under the Law of Return, which gives eligible Jews immediate citizenship. The Israeli government ruled in 1973 that the group did not qualify for automatic citizenship because they could not prove Jewish descent and had not undergone Orthodox conversion. At the time, the Black Hebrews were denied work permits and state benefits. The group accused the Israeli government of racist discrimination. In 1981, a group of American civil rights activists led by Bayard Rustin investigated and concluded that racism was not the cause of the Black Hebrews' situation. No official action was taken to return the Black Hebrews to the United States, but some individual members were deported for working illegally.
     Some Black Hebrews renounced their American citizenship in order to try to prevent more deportations. In 1990, Illinois legislators helped negotiate an agreement that resolved the Black Hebrews' legal status in Israel. Members of the group are permitted to work, and they also have access to housing and social services. The Black Hebrews reclaimed their American citizenship and have received aid from the U.S. government, which helped them build a school and additional housing. In 2003 the agreement was revised, and, as previously noted, the Black Hebrews were granted permanent residency in Israel.
     In 2009, Elyakim Ben-Israel became the first Black Hebrew to gain Israeli citizenship.
     In 2003 the Black Hebrews garnered public attention when singer Whitney Houston visited them in Dimona. In 2006, Eddie Butler, a Black Hebrew, was chosen by the Israeli public to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest.[3]

     When the Black Hebrews came to Dimona, they moved into 23 dilapidated duplexes on the outskirts of the city bordering the Negev desert. In 1981, the New York Times reported that the community had enthusiastically “painted, decorated and repaired the small houses” and neatly landscaped the dirt lawns “into herringbone patterns, with melon-sized rocks, placed in the outline of Africa.”
     This neighborhood, first dubbed Shomrei Hashalom (Guardians of Peace) and now known as Kfar Hashalom (Village of Peace), has since grown into one of the largest and most successful urban kibbutzim in Israel and a world leader in veganism.[4]

     During my last visit to Israel in 2017, I visited Dimona and the Village of Peace neighborhood of the city. The Black Hebrews' neighborhood was a bit long in the tooth, but the State of Israel was the in the process of providing new housing for the Black Hebrew residents and generally upgrading the area.



  1. Minority Communities in Israel: Black Hebrews, Shir Aharon Bram, Jewish Virtual Library,
    Accessed 26 February 2022.
  2. African-Hebrew-Israelites,, Accessed 26 February 2022.
  3. Black Hebrew Israelites, Wikipedia, 26 February 2022.
  4. From slavery to Eurovision… African Hebrew Israelites mark 50 years in Israel, Rachel Neiman,, 10 March, 2020.


  14 April 2022 {Article 523; Israel_65}    
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