Their story of determination to find their own place in modern Israel has a happy ending
by Julian Kossoff
Passover is with us once again and the Biblical epic of the exile and the journey home of the people of Israel, fills-up the Jewish conciousness.
Forty years in the wilderness finally ends with the redemption of return. And so it is for the Black Hebrews. After decades of denial they have finally found acceptance in the land of Israel.
Recently 62-year-old Ben Yehuda - father of 10 children and husband of three women - became the first member of the his community to gain full Israeli citizenship.
"I can only describe this journey in relationship to my forefathers," he said. "They were able to endure. As long as we put fulfilling the will of the God of Israel first, there's no challenge that we can't overcome."
Initially viewed as a shadowy sect, the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem - or Black Hebrews, as they are more commonly - have sparred with the Israeli government for decades over their right to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.
But presaging Ben Yehuda's achievement last month, Israel granted the community permanent residency status in 2003, offering its 3,000 members a five-year path to apply for citizenship on an individual basis.
Theirs story of determination to find their own place in modern Israel which saw many trial and tribulations has a happy ending, strengthening Israel's claim to be a flourishing multi-cultural democracy, and a powerful anecdote against the extremist "Zionism equals racism" lie.
The founders of the Hebrew community are blacks, primarily from Chicago, who identify themselves as descendants of the Tribe of Judah and view Israel as their ancestral homeland.
Their lifestyle incorporates Baptist worship practices and elements of traditional African culture. They fast on the Sabbath and are strict vegans. They also manufacture kosher vegan foods at their factory in the desert town of Dimona.
Like Karaite Jews, the Black Hebrews observe biblically mandated holy days but not those instituted by rabbinical decree, such as Hanukkah and Purim. They also celebrate their own holidays, including an annual spring festival called New World Kingdom Passover, a two-day commemoration of the anniversary of the 1967 "exodus" from America.
The 1970s and '80s were characterized by mass arrests and deportations on one side, and by accusations of racism and denials of the legitimacy of the Israeli government on the other.
But since, the tension has subsided and the unique community now commands the respect of their fellow Israelis.
In August 2008, Israel's president, Shimon Peres, celebrated his 85th birthday in Dimona, where he visited their settlement, the Village of Peace, and told the black Hebrews. "Your community is beloved in Israel. You give the country happiness and song and hope for a better world."
Also See: Black Hebrews