African Hebrews fight for recognition | World | Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 05.04.2014

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African Hebrews fight for recognition

The so-called African Hebrews in Jerusalem have struggled to gain acceptance in Israeli society despite the fact that many of them were born in the country. Some of their customs and practices are frowned upon.

Sitting in a shared community space in Dimona, a central Israeli city in the middle of the Negev, a cooked lunch is served of green beans, a chicken schnitzel and some noodles - it looks like any other lunch.

In fact the meal looks like something straight out of the United States, but secretly it's completely vegan - the chicken made from gluten and other dairy and meat-free products, but it looks like the real deal.

Veganism, organic farming, locally made clothes, spiritual music, exercising three times a week and home birth are all major parts of the daily lives of a group of 2,500 men, women and children known as the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, or more commonly as the African Hebrews who live in family houses in an urban commune.

The group have long fought for recognition in Israel, both as Jews and citizens - only 70 of the African Hebrews are now full citizens, the rest are permanent residents.

Up to 100 children in the community who make up the third generation are stateless because they weren't born in the US, nor were their parents. They aren't recognized by the US, and Israel won't make them citizens, despite being born in the country.

A difficult passage

During the height of the civil rights movement in 1967, 300 African Americans who identified themselves as Jews left Chicago and migrated to Liberia in West Africa. They were led by a man called Ben Carter, now known as Ben Ammi, who worked in the steel industry. He told the group the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him in a dream and urged him to lead an exodus of black people from America. The initial members were convinced they would never lead truly free lives in the US.

"We wanted to unlearn what we had learned as slaves, as slaves you're dehumanized, you can't possibly love yourself and therefore you couldn't possibly love others - so we had to unlearn that behaviour and learn the value of being on land," says community elder Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda.

After two years of heavy rain, sickness and money shortage in Liberia the first families made the move to Israel. They were given temporary visas and housing in the Negev while Israel's religious authorities investigated their Jewish ancestry. The chief rabbinate ruled they were not Jews according to the halakha, but Christians embracing a Hebraic identity. The group were then effectively written out of the law of return and the government stopped renewing their visas and barred more members from joining them from the US.

man talking

Ahmadiel has been pushing for more rights

Community spokesman Sar Ahmadiel, 57 and elder Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda, 59, both say they got their "calling" to the community later. Sar Ahmadiel worked as political assistant on Capitol Hill in Washington, and Prince Immanuel was a journalist before leaving the US.

"When we arrived it was a very difficult political situation in many respects - because we didn't have access to public services - we had to create the necessary institutions to take care of ourselves. We had to figure out how to eat and exercise and look after ourselves because we couldn't afford to get sick," saysPrince Immanuel.

Sar Ahmadiel said the community are Jewish in that they trace their roots and ancestry back to the tribe of Judah.

Today the community's progressive views on living a humble and healthy life are easier for Israelis to stomach than their practice of men being allowed more than one wife.

The Israeli government insisted the community stop this practice when they were granted permanent residency in 2003. "But we weren't going to break up existing families and at the time they understood that," says Sar Ahmadiel.

More than one wife

children outside copyright: Kate Shuttleworth

Adapting and adopting to a different lifestyle

The community leadership - all men - are now pushing for Israel to recognize their belief in polygyny - men being allowed more than one wife.

According to a former community member, polygyny is still practiced in the community, but the marriages are not legally recognized by the state of Israel.

She said men would marry other wives within the community in a marriage ceremony.

DW understands the third generation of African Hebrews are beginning to reject polygyny, despite the elders saying they want to raise the issue again with Israeli officials.

The divorce rate in the community is up to 50 percent according to sources. Most of the first generation is divorced but the rate is higher because some men have five wives. The third generation are more stable in their marriages.

Despite changing views within the community, the senior male leadership have been pushing for Israel to legitimize their way of life.

Way of life?

"We feel trends in the world now are allowing the issue to be put back on the table simply because the west doesn't really practice monogamy - there is serial monogamy, there's monogamy with mistresses, there's monogamy with prostitution. What's the problem with saying as men we have a disparity in the number of women in our community - which we do have in our community; we have more men than women - what do the women do, do they just live a life without the possibility of being part of a family? We say this solved that," says Sar Ahmadiel.

While the practice of polygyny is seen as regressive, the community continues to make waves in Israeli society and internationally.

Man copyright: Kate Shuttleworth

Drawing attention to themselves

The community's vegan factory located in Dimona produces packaged vegan food sold in supermarkets across Israel. They have just signed a contract with Domino's Pizza in Israel to provide vegan cheese for 52 of its outlets. The UK and the US are also interested in the cheese product.

"It's made of soy and it melts just like the regular cheese and has a similar taste and without anyone dying in the process," says Koliyah Ben Israel, manager of Shaare' Hateva Natural Foods factory.