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African Hebrew Israelites *

A sign in Dimona.

The Black Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem is a spiritual group now mainly based in Israel, who believe they are descended from the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Black Hebrew Israelites incorporate certain aspects of the religious beliefs and practices of both Christianity and Judaism.

The Black Hebrew Israelite movement originated at the end of the 19th century, when Frank Cherry and William Saunders Crowdy both claimed to have received visions that African Americans are descendants of the Hebrews in the Bible. Cherry established the Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations, in 1886, and Crowdy founded the Church of God and Saints of Christ in 1896. They came from a group of African Americans, many from Chicago, Illinois, who migrated to Israel in the late 1960s.

The former headquarters of the Church of God and Saints of Christ in Washington, D.C. The building is now known as First Tabernacle Beth El and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo: AgnosticPreachersKid 

They believe they are Jewish but when they began emigrating to Israel, the religious officials and the state did not consider them Jewish and they did not want to convert. By 2003, the remainder of the existing community were granted official Israel permanent residency and later were entitled to acquire Israeli citizenship by naturalization, which does not imply any Jewish status. Since 2004, some members of the community (both men and women) have enlisted to the Israel Defense Forces. The Black Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem is a spiritual group now mainly based in Israel, who believe they are descended from the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Black Hebrew Israelites incorporate certain aspects of the religious beliefs and practices of both Christianity and Judaism. The community now numbers around 5,000. 

Wentworth Arthur Matthew founded the Commandment Keepers Congregation in Harlem in 1919. Matthew was influenced by the non-black Jews. Garvey used the Biblical Jews in exile as a metaphor for black people in North America. One of the accomplishments of Garvey’s movement was to strengthen the connection between black Americans and Africa, Ethiopia in particular. When Matthew later learned about the Beta Israel—Ethiopian Jews—he identified with them.

The founder of the Commandment Keepers, Wentworth Arthur Matthew holding a Sefer Torah.
Photo: unknown

Ben Ammi Ben-Israel (Ben Carter) established the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem in Chicago, Illinois, in 1966, a time when black nationalism was on the rise as a response to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1969, after a sojourn in Liberia, Ben Ammi and about 30 Hebrew Israelites moved to Israel.

Members of the group continued to arrive and settle in the desert town of Dimona. For two decades, their population continued to grow through natural increase and illegal immigration. In May 1990, the group was granted tourist status and visas that permitted them to work. At the end of 2003, the group was granted permanent residency status by the Israeli Interior Ministry.

African Hebrew Israelites speak to visitors in Dimona, Israel. Photo: Dror Eiger -Flickr.com
A group of African Hebrew Israelites in Dimona, Israel. Photo: sethfrantzman 

The group maintains a vegan diet. They practice abstinence from alcohol, other than the naturally fermented wine which they make themselves, as well as abstinence from both illegal and pharmaceutical drugs, so as to stay within the “cycles of life”.

The group grows much of its own food and its members are authorized organic growers.

The group practices “polygyny”, meaning that a man can marry several wives (up to six). Within the community this is termed “Divine Marriage”. Polygyny is not required, constituting approximately 37% of marriages in 1992.[26]

A child of the community, in Dimona, September 2005 Photo: Dror Eiger
Dimona

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