Paziyah Baht Israel (far left), a member of the African Hebrew Israelites' renowned New Jerusalem Fire Choir, is one of dozens of members of the community to receive surprise deportation notices from the Israeli government. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Paziyah Baht Israel (far left), a member of the African Hebrew Israelites' renowned New Jerusalem Fire Choir, is one of dozens of members of the community to receive surprise deportation notices from the Israeli government. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Israel’s new call to deport African Hebrew Israelites reopens old wounds

In the late 1970s, Israel formed a Knesset committee to investigate the “Black Hebrews cult,” a community of non-Jewish African Americans who had been entering the country on tourist visas and settling illegally in the Negev Desert for almost a decade.

The committee, led by Knesset member David Glass, produced a 100-page report in 1980 detailing the problems that the undocumented immigrants faced — substandard housing conditions, lack of food and hostile relations with their neighbors, among others.

Slamming the government for its “ostrich-like inaction,” the committee proposed the following solution: Give the Black Hebrews legal status and move them to their own settlement. In return, community leaders would have to promise not to add new members from abroad.

“This question — with all its political, social, legal and moral implications — must certainly be one of the most difficult ever faced by the people of Israel,” the committee wrote, acknowledging it would have been justified to deport the Black Hebrews early on but that “we have missed the boat.”

The committee urged the swift implementation of its plan, which it described as “a moral, humane and Jewish decision” and to which the Black Hebrews agreed.

Yet the report was filed away and the plan never enacted  — and more African Hebrew Israelites, as they are formally known, joined from the United States.

It would be another decade before they would receive work visas, allowing them to legally support themselves after years of deprivation. And it would be another 13 years after that before a sympathetic minister from the liberal Shinui party would, in 2003, grant most community members permanent residency status.

Today, some of the approximately 3,000 Hebrew Israelites living in Israel enjoy full Israeli citizenship, and nearly all of the high school graduates serve alongside their Jewish peers in the Israel Defense Forces. Their reputation has improved dramatically, and they are no longer dismissed as a strange cult.

But their status problems were never fully resolved, as was publicly revealed last week when more than 40 families received deportation notices from Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority.

The group includes adults who have lived in Israel for years or even decades, and children who were born there. They were given 60 days to leave or be deported to the U.S., a place many of them have never lived.

I cannot leave this land. It would kill me. My spirit is here. My soul is here.

This latest twist in the Hebrew Israelites’ saga caught many people off guard, including me. I’ve been researching the community since 2007 for a book I’m writing. I did field work in their Village of Peace in Dimona for over a year, and I’ve spent many hours digging through newspaper archives and reading about their long struggle for acceptance.

The Hebrew Israelites believe they are genealogical descendants of the Biblical Israelites and consider Israel to be their homeland, but they are not eligible for automatic citizenship like Jews are.

The headline of a recent Haaretz article — “Israel Orders 45 Black Hebrew Israelites to Leave Country in 60 Days” — felt like it had to be from the 1970s or ’80s, when deportations were common, not from earlier this week.

After the news  broke, I began reaching out to my friends in Dimona to try to figure out why, after years of detente, the government and the community are sparring once again.

Rifael Ben Israel, a Hebrew Israelite activist, helped restart discussions with officials from the Immigration Authority last August. “They said, ‘We understand that you all have a problem, but there’s no problem that can’t be solved’,” he recounted.

The officials requested a complete list of Hebrew Israelites who lacked status, which Rifael helped to compile, and said they would consider each case individually.

In the end, every request for status was denied.

Dawn Hercules is one of the 135 names on that list. Known in the community as Toveet Baht Israel — members adopt Hebrew names, dress in African garb and eat vegan food — she moved from Atlanta in 1998 and gave birth to eight children in Israel. All of them are up for deportation.

“As a Hebrew Israelite, I came here to worship the Holy One of Israel, to have a family here in the Holy Land, and to live outside the confines of America, where our people have suffered,” she told me. “Because of my [lack of] status, I’ve had to figure out how to maintain my life here. I’ve done that. I haven’t been a burden on the government.”

She pointed to the accomplishments of her children — one daughter is studying to be an occupational therapist, and another is a dancer — as proof that they “are able and willing to be productive citizens of this society.”

Around 20 Black adults of varying age, some in Israeli military uniforms, pose for a group picture with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, an older white man.
A delegation from the African Hebrew Israelite community met with leaders, including now-Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, at the Knesset in 2014. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Estella Rivers, or Paziyah Baht Israel, is also on the list. She arrived in 2003 from Chicago. A talented singer who has performed all over Israel, Paziyah said she converted to Judaism in 1978, but lost track of her conversion certificate and therefore did not attempt to immigrate legally.

“I know that there is something that can be done because that’s how Israel works,” she said, adding, “I cannot leave this land. It would kill me. My spirit is here. My soul is here. How am I going to live without my spirit and my soul?”

In a statement, the Interior Ministry said the status-less Hebrew Israelites broke the law by overstaying their visas.

Some will argue that allowing them to stay permanently will encourage more illegal immigration. Supporters are concerned about the young people who are caught up in the situation, through no fault of their own, and could be forced out of the country (along with their parents) during a global pandemic.

The deportation threat has brought an already tightly knit community even closer together.

On Facebook, younger Hebrew Israelites have been posting photos of themselves and their peers dressed in their IDF uniforms, holding signs such as, “I, too, am from the Hebrew community.” Also, as of April 28, more than 12,000 Israelis had signed online petitions against the deportations. The mayor of Dimona, Benny Biton, has publicly called for rescinding the government’s “harsh decree.”

“The feeling in the community is positive because of the outpouring of appreciation and support that we’re getting from around the country,” Rifael, the activist, told me. He said the Hebrew Israelites at the center of this storm will appeal the Interior Ministry’s decisions. If necessary, he said, they will go to court.

The last government effort to deport Hebrew Israelites en masse occurred 35 years ago. The community planned a roughly 70-mile march from Dimona to Jerusalem to protest the arrest and planned deportation of 46 members, but they were thwarted by heavily armed Border Police officers who surrounded the Village of Peace with tanks and helicopters. It was an ugly scene.

Another confrontation like that could devolve into violence.

Back in the 1970s, the Glass committee considered the repercussions of kicking the Hebrew Israelites out, writing: “There will be many Jews both in Israel and abroad, among them victims of persecutions and expulsions, who will be horrified at the thought of mass expulsion of men, women and children — however negative the general attitude towards the cult might be.”

Israeli authorities would do well to revisit that still-relevant report and take heed of its conclusions.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.