“And they came to the threshing-floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, and there they wailed with a very great and sore wailing; and he made a mourning for his father seven days.” (Genesis 50:10)
Ben Ammi Ben Israel, spiritual leader of Israel’s Black Hebrew community in Dimona, passed away Saturday, the group announced. He was 75.
Born Ben Carter in Chicago, Illinois, Ben Israel joined the Black Hebrew community in the 1960s when an adherent and colleague suggested African Americans could be descended from the Biblical Children of Israel. He founded the A-Beta Hebrew Israel Cultural Center in the city to unify the different Black Hebrew groups there. He was given his Hebrew name, which means “Son-of-my-Nation Son-of-Israel”, by Rabbi Reuben of the Congregation of Ethiopian Hebrews.
In 1966, Ben Israel claimed to have been visited by the archangel Gabriel in a vision, directing him to “Lead the children of Israel among African Americans to the promised land, and establish the long-awaited Kingdom of God” by way of their original route through Africa.
He gathered about 350 followers and moved to Liberia, a country founded by freed slaves, for a “cleansing period” of about two and a half years, after which members of the group began moving to Israel. They settled in Dimona, a small town in southern Israel, establishing an urban kibbutz called the Village of Peace.
Numbering roughly 900 in Dimona today and about 3,500 across Israel, Black Hebrews considered Ben Israel to be the messiah. As a group, they rejected both Judaism and Christianity; considering the Jewish Bible to be the most authentic text while still accepting the New Testament, their practice is based on literal interpretations of the text, including permitting polygamy and mandating organic veganism. They dress distinctively, in African styles which they make themselves.
From Dimona, Ben Israel directed the community to improve conditions across Africa. Some of the community’s accomplishments under his leadership include drilling wells for schools and remote communities across the continent, developing organic agriculture and resources in the region, and establishing several holistic health facilities.
Ben Israel and his community were not initially accepted by Israel. The Rabbinate wanted them to formally convert to Judaism to be eligible for the Right of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews. The Black Hebrews, however, refused, believing themselves to be the true descendents of the Ancient Israelites. Finally, in 1992, they were granted temporary residency, and in 2003, they were recognized as permanent residents. Ben Israel himself obtained full citizenship in Israel just last year.
Ben Israel was a strong believer in peace, but not necessarily in the political arena. In an interview with Haaretz newspaper, he once stated, “We must understand that peace will never come, and true freedom will never come, by way of politicians…There’s a major difference between the peace that was promised by the Creator and the peace that is being sought after by politicians.”
However, he said, “We do give advice to politicians; because these individuals who are seen as leaders, if they would hear a message based upon truth, then it would influence that which they say they seek after – and that is peace. But without truth, and without spirituality, there can never be any genuine peace achieved in those lands.”
Ben Israel earned awards and recognition in a number of arenas. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Ghana in 2010, and BBC’s “Focus on Africa” named him “One of the Most Influential Africans of the Last Millennium” in 2000. And after all the tension between his community and the Israeli government, then-President Shimon Peres said of them in a 2008 visit, “Your community is beloved in Israel…You give the country happiness and song and hope for a better world.”
Ben Israel’s death came as a surprise to the community. “It was a shock because he was so well loved and done so much for the interests of the community, and done so much for each of us to live a healthy and holy life,” Yafah Baht Gavriel, a spokeswoman for the community, told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
“The love that everyone has for him, it’s like it’s radiating throughout the village,” she said.
“While obviously deeply saddened at the loss of our Holy Father’s physical presence, we are nevertheless emboldened in knowing that his spirit truly lives in each and every one of us,” said Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, a spokesman. “His example and focused commitment to Yah [God] and His people will be an eternal flame in our hearts and a guiding light on our path.”
A funeral date has not been set, but a memorial will be held on January 4.