PIK professor examines African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem

Thin Description

In 1966, God spoke to Ben Carter. He came in the form of an angelic voice (some stories name the Angel Gabriel). At first, Carter did not want to believe the celestial calling. Terrified, and afraid he was going insane, he tried to ignore the voice, but it was persistent and absolute in its command: “Lead Yah’s flock out of modern-day Babylon, the United States of America.”

From the South Side of Chicago, Carter, then in his early 20s, was a relatively new convert to the Hebrew Israelites, a religious sect of African Americans who believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites of the Hebrew Bible.

Years later, Carter—who would change his named to Ben Ammi, Hebrew for “son of my people”—would say that the voice “was revealed in the spirit,” and he believed that it was the word of God, or Yah, ordering him to lead an exodus of African Americans from the United States to their true home, Israel.

John L. Jackson, Jr., a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in the Departments of Anthropology and Africana Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences and the Annenberg School for Communication, says that at the time of Ammi’s vision, there had been a long history, dating back to the late 19th century, of African Americans in places like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia who considered themselves genealogical descendants of the Hebrew Israelites. Jackson’s latest book, “Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem,” gives an ethnographic examination of Ammi’s African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (AHIJ).

Defying the elders of Chicago’s Hebrew Israelite community, Ammi convinced around 400 African Americans to sell all of their possessions and leave the United States. The group arrived in southern Israel in 1969, and established a community in Dimona, a city in the Negev desert.

There are many different groups of African Americans who call themselves Hebrew Israelites, and several come out of the same institutional history, but they each have different basic organizing principles.

One of the main differences between the AHIJ and other Hebrew Israelite groups is in their beliefs regarding Africa. The AHIJ believe they have a historical connection to the continent and consider Israel “northeast Africa.” To reassert their connection to the continent, they renamed themselves the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem.

Other Hebrew Israelite groups, such as those sermonizing on 125th Street in Harlem, do not believe that African Americans have any connection to Africa. To them, Africans are different peoples—such as Cushites or Ishmaelites—and any relationship African Americans had with Africa was superficial.

Jackson says the AHIJ also do not have the same “visceral hostility to whiteness” that has brought infamy to other Hebrew Israelite groups.

The AHIJ use reinterpretations of the Hebrew Bible as their guiding text, along with different readings of some New Testament teachings and their own distinctive beliefs. They accept Jewish holidays mentioned in the Bible, such as Yom Kippur, and have their own unique celebrations, such as New World Passover, which marks their departure from the United States.

AHIJ members do not identify as Jewish, but attempted to emigrate to Israel under the country’s Right of Return, proclaiming that Israel was the land of their forefathers and foremothers.

Jackson, who first visited the AHIJ community in Dimona in 2005, says community members have said that the Israeli people have always been supportive, kind, curious, and generous, but the Israeli state has not.

The Israeli government and the AHIJ initially clashed over the group’s controversial rhetoric, the Right of Return, and whether AHIJ members, or “saints,” as they refer to themselves, had to convert to Judaism. The AHIJ were not given permanent residency or citizenship, and many members were arrested and deported back to the United States.

An antagonistic relationship remained between group and government throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but nearly half a century in the Holy Land has led to the AHIJ being largely accepted as a part of Israeli society.

As time passed, AHIJ members were able to convince the Israeli government that they are not a threat, and that their primary goal is to allow their community members to succeed, thrive, and be healthy. Jackson says that today, AHIJ saints are all over Israel, “as far north as Tiberias, as far south of Eilat, and every place in between.”

The AHIJ community received permament resident status is 2003, and members are allowed to pursue Israeli citizenship. The first AHIJ member received Israeli citizenship in 2009. 

The total number of AHIJ members in Israel is usually quoted as somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000. They also have jurisdictions in Ghana, Togo, Benin, South Africa, and throughout the Caribbean and United States. Ammi is still alive, and serves as their anointed spiritual leader.

AHIJ are easily spotted by their distinct dress—consisting only of all natural fibers—and adhere to strict veganism, with recurring no-salt days, no-sugar weeks, raw food days, and “solar food” days (food cooked directly by the sun). Members are also required to do physical exercise at least three times a week.

Although exempted from military service in a country where it is compulsory for citizens, AHIJ members have volunteered to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.

“This community has become just one small part of what is really an eclectic, multicultural, multiracial Israeli society,” Jackson says.

Originally published on November 14, 2013