It was just starting to cool off in Dimona, a small city surrounded by the Negev Desert, in southern Israel. In a grassy park, dozens of families dressed in orange lounged inside of tarp-covered booths while reggae music played loudly from a sound system sitting on an empty stage. Everyone spoke English, and there was a noticeable lack of meat-scented smoke. In fact, there was no smoke at all—not a single shisha pipe or cigarette was lit throughout the park.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a scene like this anywhere else in Israel. But here in Dimona, the African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem—a spiritual group founded in Chicago in the 60s which advocates a lifestyle rooted in teachings from the Old Testament—was celebrating their annual New World Passover. The event commemorates the group's exodus from the United States, their journey to Israel by way of Liberia, and how the community here in Dimona has flourished since its rough beginnings.
The 3000 or so members of the African Hebrew Israelite Nation, also known as Black Hebrews, consider themselves a social movement rather than a religion. They don't go to temple and they don't pray. Their spirituality is practiced by maintaining a strict vegan diet, wearing clothes made only from natural fibers, and exercising regularly. Other rules include prohibitions against drugs, smoking, drinking, and condoms. The group used to encourage polygyny—where a man can have more than one wife, but not vice versa—but according to Ben-Israel as part of a deal with the Israeli Government that granted the Black Hebrews residency status in the early 2000's, the practice was ended.
Minister Elyakim Ben-Israel joined the community in Dimona after emigrating from the United States in 1971. At New World Passover, he sat playing chess with his family at the edge of the park. He explained to me that the story of their community began in Chicago with Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, a former metallurgist who was a Black Israelite—part of a group of African-Americans who believe that they are the descendants of the tribe of Judah.
According to the Black Hebrews, in 1966 Ben Ammi was visited by the angel Gabriel. "He was asleep and was awoken with a vision," Ben-Israel told VICE, "The angel Gabriel told him that it was time gather his people and return back to the land of Israel."
The Minister went on to explain that after leaving the US in 1967, the group settled in Liberia before arriving in Israel. Along with 350 others, Ben Ami tried to set up a community in the jungle in an effort to—Ben-Israel described—"rid ourselves of a lot of bad habits that we had developed in America." The minister compared the episode to the Jews wandering in the desert after their escape from Egypt. They stayed in Liberia for over two years. Some members of the community succumbed to disease; most wentback to America. "We were really neophytes about how to survive and we had to rely on one another and we had to begin to learn again about the synergy and relationship that man has with the earth."
The black Hebrews arrived in Israel en masse in 1970, at first staying and then overstaying on temporary visas. According to Ben-Israel, once it became clear to the government that the Black Hebrews had no intention of converting to Judaism they were denied work permits, health care, and threatened with deportation. Tensions escalated to a breaking point in the mid-80's when the army surrounded Dimona to stop a protest march and threatened to expel the community. The situation ended without confrontation and over the years the Black Hebrews have become more accepted by the Israeli government and integrated into Israeli society.
Each year, the Black Hebrews wear the same color to mark the first day of their Passover festival. In the park, the orange contrasted with the grass as Hebrew Israelites from communities across Israel, Africa, and the United States mixed with local, white Israelis who had come to see the festivities.
A small parade formed, and groups of children and young adults danced their way down the street into a square inside of the Village of Peace—a small enclave where the majority of the Black Hebrew community in Dimona resides, among tightly spaced, single story houses. There were performances, speeches, awards ceremonies. After dark, people made their way back to the park to watch bands and dancers perform onstage.
The music and dancing went on late into the night. I was staying the night in a small house in the Village of Peace—around the corner from a vegan restaurant and health clinic that offered body massage and colonic hydrotherapy—and was asleep before the noise stopped.
The festival started early the next morning with loud drumming that blasted from the sound-system in the park along with calls to "Wake up! Wake up!" There were more performances, drumming, dancing, and a round of limbo. A letter addressed to the community from Prime Minister Netanyahu was read aloud. In it Netanyahu—who was addressed as "his excellency" by the reader—praised the community for the strides they have made since first coming to the country and their continued integration into Israeli society. The letter made special mention of the fact that members of the black Hebrew Community had begun sending their sons and daughters to join the military, an act that the Prime minister said, "makes you an intricate part of Israel and strengthened your relationship with the wider society in a way that's unimaginable."
When I asked Minister Ben-Israel if he considered himself to be a Zionist, he explained that the group ascribes to Messianic Zionism. Ben-Israel—the first Black Hebrew to gain Israeli citizenship—sees himself as holy individual living in the Promised Land, following the commandments of God. The nationalist aspects of Zionism mostly don't apply. How does his group handle criticism that the Black Hebrews have less of a right to be living on this land than the Palestinians? "We're not trying to prove our right to be here," He answered, "We define who we are, we define our purpose in Israel, and we just let it be at that."
Speaking to Ahmahlyah Elyahshuv, another Black Hebrew living in Dimona, it was clear that issues concerning the perils of Zionism were left mostly unaddressed around here. Even though she was initially hesitant about joining the community because of the perception that Zionism was racist, she eventually felt the political arguments were "clouding the picture."
Members of the Black Hebrew community believe that, if adopted by everyone, their behavior would end all religious and political squabbles. "This is what we do, we think, we breath, we eat, we love," Elyahshuv explained. "This is our essence, and we feel good about it."
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