John L. Jackson, Jr.
In 1966, amid race riots and related urban unrest in America’s poorest neighborhoods, one of Chicago’s native sons, a 26-something African-American named Ben Ammi, led a group of African-Americans out of the “wilderness” of 1960s America.
Every Sunday morning, Ammi (born Ben Carter) delivered his emigrationist message atop a literal soapbox on Maxwell Street in one of the city’s crowded shopping districts. After convincing some 400 people to sell their homes, stockpile canned goods, ignore jeering relatives, and purchase tents for the journey, Ammi began to lead this exodus in the heat of July the following year.
Their first stop, Liberia, proved to be a temporary sojourn. Ammi (who is still alive and well) believes that African-Americans are actually descendents of ancient Hebrews, which means that West Africa was never necessarily their final destination. So, in 1969, these African-Americans moved their emigrationist experiment from West Africa to “Northeastern Africa,” the modern state of Israel. Not quite knowing how to respond to their genealogical claims, the Israeli government allowed them to enter the country in 1969 on “temporary” visas. And these African-Americans have been there ever since.
By the summer of 2004, when I first visited them in the quaint and quiet desert town of Dimona in Israel’s Negev region, about 40 miles southeast of Gaza, I was surprised to learn that the initial 400 emigres had ballooned to several thousand, and that these African-American immigrants who invoke the “right of return” to justify their presence in the area have established themselves as a recognizable (if small) segment of contemporary Israel’s multicultural landscape.
I’ve been conducting ethnographic research with this group (on and off) for the last five years. Most of that research has taken place among community members here in the United States, but I’ve also spent several shorter stints with the group in southern Israel. During one of those visits, Israel’s government was forcibly removing Israeli settlers from Gaza. I remember watching those conflicts and skirmishes on a television set in Dimona. Although not too far away from Gaza (objectively speaking), it still seemed light years away. The “African Hebrews of Jerusalem” traveled without fear. And they made sure I took note of how safe Dimona’s night’s felt, full of children playing in the streets and household doors opened and unlocked well into the wee hours of the morning.
When I found out about the bomb that fell in Beersheba last week, a city about midway between Gaza and Dimona, and someplace community members took me several times during my trip, I e-mailed to make sure that they were all OK. They relocated some community members who were residing there, but they explained that they were otherwise safe. In fact, they claimed to be more worried about how I was doing over here.
As we each follow this escalating conflict, it probably makes sense to think about the many ways, big and small, that we are all differently invested (and even implicated) in the conflagration.