Ahbir Ben Israel, a priest in the African Hebrew Israelite community, has lived in Israel without status for more than 30 years. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Ahbir Ben Israel, a priest in the African Hebrew Israelite community, has lived in Israel without status for more than 30 years. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

‘I’m not just visiting’: More African Hebrew Israelites win fight against deportation, but larger struggle continues

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For the past 30 years, Ahbir Ben Israel has led a precarious existence in Israel. He is at once a highly visible member of the African Hebrew Israelite community — a priest (“cohane”) who leads Shabbat and holy day services and performs weddings, as well as a fitness and martial arts instructor and massage therapist.

But outside the Village of Peace, the Hebrews’ urban kibbutz in the southern city of Dimona, he is practically invisible.

Cohane Ahbir, as he is known, was born Ottiwell Simmons Jr. on the island of Bermuda. He was involved with the anti-colonial Black Beret Cadre and, as a result of his revolutionary activities, fled to the United States and then to Israel in 1992.

Now 70, he has lived in the Holy Land for most of his adult life but never went through a formal immigration process. He doesn’t have a teudat zehut (the identity card necessary to navigate Israeli society), health insurance, the right to work legally or the freedom to travel outside the country (because he wouldn’t be let back in).

“I’ve lived on the margins my whole life,” he told me during a video call this week.

I first met Cohane Ahbir while conducting ethnographic research on his community in 2007, at a time when the Israeli government was likely unaware of his presence. In 2015, community representatives gave the Ministry of Interior a list of names of more than 100 undocumented Hebrews living in Israel — including Cohane Ahbir’s — with the understanding that their status issues would be resolved. (The African Hebrew Israelites follow the Torah and view Israel as their ancestral homeland, but they aren’t recognized as Jews, so the Law of Return doesn’t apply to them.)

Instead, in April 2021, the government ordered many of them to leave the country within 60 days. At the time, I wrote in J. about the epic half-century struggle between the Israeli government and the African Hebrew Israelites, a sect of mostly African Americans who began settling in Israel in 1969 and are not affiliated with the Hebrew Israelite groups in the United States known for their radical and sometimes antisemitic views.

I pointed out that in 1980, a Knesset committee proposed giving the Hebrews residency status in order to avoid a drawn-out humanitarian crisis. The plan was never enacted, though, and the crisis only deepened as time went on and more Hebrews settled surreptitiously in Israel.

Finally, in 2003, a sympathetic government minister agreed to give all members living in the country — 2,000 or so people — permanent residency. But for reasons that remain unclear, dozens of them slipped through the cracks. Their plight only became public two years ago, when they received those deportation notices. Young community activists immediately sprang into action, retaining lawyers to fight the deportations in court while lobbying Knesset members and organizing protests in Beersheva and Tel Aviv.

I need somebody else to give permission for my child to have a blood test because their mother doesn’t exist in this country. Do you know how crazy that makes me feel?

Those efforts are starting to bear some fruit. Last week, the Ministry of Interior notified 14 of the 45 Hebrews facing imminent deportation that they would receive A5 visas for temporary residency, providing them with a path to permanent residency and, perhaps one day, citizenship. Around 3,000 Hebrews live in Israel today. Most are permanent residents, and a small number have full citizenship.

Cohane Ahbir was among those who received an A5 visa, as were his son and several of his grandchildren.

“This is a step toward the destination,” he told me from his home in the Village of Peace. “I’m not jumping up and down like some of the others, but I want everybody to know I live here in Israel. I’m not just visiting.”

Another Hebrew who has been promised temporary residency told me she will celebrate when her identity card is in hand. (She requested anonymity because she fears that criticizing the Ministry of Interior could jeopardize her future.)

The 32-year-old mother of three was born in Israel to statusless parents. What has living off the grid been like?

“I am not even a real person,” she said. When she takes her child to the doctor, for example, she can’t authorize any treatments. “I need somebody else to give permission for my child to have a blood test because their mother doesn’t exist in this country. Do you know how crazy that makes me feel?”

Many things Israeli citizens take for granted have been out of reach for her: a driver’s license, the army, college. She has worked a variety of odd jobs — from sewing to babysitting to cleaning houses — and relied on the generosity of others, including Israeli doctors who treated her pro bono during her high-risk pregnancies.

She dreams of being an accountant or a kindergarten teacher one day. “I have things I want to do with my life,” she said. “I don’t want to die and my only imprint on the world is my children, because everybody has the capacity to impact a lot of people.”

Asked if she blames her non-Israeli parents for her predicament, she replied, “My parents made the best decisions with the information they had at the time. I blame the Ministry of Interior.”

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 still in limbo, her residency status unresolved. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

While this nightmare may soon be over for that mother, it continues for the two women I wrote about in 2021: Paziyah Baht Israel and Toveet Baht Israel are still in legal limbo, as are the latter’s eight Israeli-born children.

“The remaining people who didn’t receive [temporary residency] have to go through the humanitarian process, which could take forever,” Paziyah told me, her voice tight with anger. “This is one of the most unfair things that I have ever seen.”

On July 19, lawyers representing the statusless Hebrews will press for a comprehensive solution in district court in Beersheva. Some observers believe the best chance of securing status for everyone is through the courts, rather than through the Ministry of Interior, which evaluates requests on a case-by-case basis.

“The fight ain’t over,” Yair Ben Israel, a 46-year-old community activist, said in an interview. “It’s our generation that’s got to change it. We took this [challenge] and we started fighting, and we’re going to win.”

The Israeli government is embroiled in numerous political battles at the moment, including the judicial overhaul proposal that has repeatedly sent hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets in protest. Resolving the plight of the African Hebrew Israelites is a low priority. They are a small community with little political power, yet their story is important because it reveals some of the challenges faced by non-Jewish minority groups in the Jewish state.

Those fighting for status wonder: What do they need to do to prove they are worthy of basic rights? What must the African Hebrew Israelites as a whole do to prove they truly belong in Israel? It is only their adopted homeland, some will argue, but it’s one they have contributed to significantly in the arts, the health and wellness industry and the army.

A judge may soon provide some clarity.

Cohane Ahbir’s father, Ottiwell Simmons Sr., a well-known Bermudian politician and union leader, died in mid-June. The cohane told me that as soon as he receives his identity card, he intends to fly to Bermuda to pay his respects.

“If you dedicate yourself to the Creator,” he said, “Yah will bless you with success.”

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. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.