The Black Hebrews are a group of African-Americans who have settled in Israel, where their controversial presence has fed charges of Israeli racism. Who are these Black Hebrews, and why have they attracted so much attention? Ben-Ami Carter, leader of the Kingdom of God Nation, as the community formally designates itself, was born in Chicago in 1940 as Gerson Parker. In the 1960s he became a storefront preacher at the Abeita Culture Center, an evangelical church on Chicago’s South Side, and developed his Black Hebrew theology. The basis for the Black Hebrews’ faith is the claim that the original Israelites of the Old Testament, exiled from Israel 4,000 years ago, were blacks. Descendants of those blacks, they believe, should now go back and claim that land.
The faith also includes a belief in immortality. Their leader has been quoted as speaking about “phasing out death.” With a view toward such longevity, presumably, the group does not consume meat, dairy products, tobacco, sugar or alcohol. Members fast every Saturday, and do not watch movies or television. They change their “slave names” to Hebrew names and practice polygamy. Before 1977, Ben-Ami Carter prophesied that this year would be the time of the “final battle of Armageddon,” after which his sect would dominate the world.
The Black Hebrews are an American movement, similar in some ways to the the Nation of Islam (the so-called black Muslims), and one of numerous groups in the US which have adopted a black-Jewish identity. They would not have attained such high visibility had not their leader actually taken them out of “the land of oppression,” and into the Promised Land. The first families arrived in Israel by late 1969, after experiencing a less-than-warm welcome in Liberia. There were 500 Black Hebrews living in Israel as of 1971; by 1980 their numbers had grown to about 1,500. They interact with the Israeli population mostly as purveyors of health foods in a restaurant they operate in Tel Aviv, and as popular performers of soul music all over the country.
The Israeli government and public have not taken kindly to the arrival of the Black Hebrews, with their open proclamation that they are the rightful heirs to the Old Testament Promised Land. The Israeli media have devoted much attention to defectors from the sect, who usually accuse its leadership of totalitarian rule and imposing severe hardships.
The Israeli government has tried to stop other Black Hebrews from entering the country and joining the group already here. There have been several embarrassing incidents at borders, because any African-American trying to enter Israel is suspected of being a Black Hebrew.
Yet the group has benefited from exceptional treatment, given the Israeli legal system. Israel encourages immigration by Jews, but for a non-Jew to become an Israeli citizen is almost impossible. Palestinians have no right to return to the country that was theirs before 1948, and hundreds of white non-Jews have been routinely deported. What saves the Black Hebrews, paradoxically, is precisely the color of their skin. The Israeli government is sensitive to charges of racism, especially since its treatment of the Black Hebrews has already attracted attention in the US, and African-American leaders have interceded with the Israeli government on their behalf.
The Israeli government appointed a special commission of inquiry, which recommended giving the group a place to settle in the Negev and granting members the status of legal residents. These recommendations have gone unheeded. Since the group is in Israel illegally, babies born to them are not registered and parents receive no birth certificates. They simply do not exist as far as the state is concerned.
The Black Hebrews’ claims and behavior deserve to be examined just like Zionist claims because, unintentionally, Ben-Ami Carter has created a superb parody of political Zionism. Like Zionists, Black Hebrews claim that Palestine of the twentieth century belongs to the legitimate heirs of ancient Jews. Unlike Zionism, it claims that the real heirs are not contemporary Jews, but contemporary Blacks.
While the “inheritance principle” is the foundation of political Zionism in practice, there is another device, the “conversion principle,” for gaining admittance to the Promised Land. Any individual who converts to Orthodox Judaism becomes immediately both a homeless Jew and a candidate, if he or she so wishes, for instant Israeli citizenship. Zionist liberals want to have Reform and Conservative conversions recognized as conferring the same political rights. In other words, they accept the principle, and simply want its benefits for themselves and their friends and relatives. Relying on the “conversion principle,” some Israelis have invited the Black Hebrews to undergo Orthodox conversions, and thus gain full rights in their new homeland. (Similar invitations have been extended to the Palestinians, but neither will likely take up this spurious offer.)
Most Israelis sincerely subscribe to this assumption that political rights and sovereignty in the (vaguely defined) territory of the Land of Israel are reserved only for the presumed heirs of ancient Jews. The idea of claiming descent from ancestors who lived more than 2,000 years ago is quite bizarre; even if you can prove your genealogy, arguing for contemporary political rights on such a basis is absurd. The Black Hebrew movement shows that Zionism does not have a monopoly on such notions.