Ben Ammi Ben Israel.
(photo credit: AFRICAN HEBREW ISRAELITES WEBSITE)
Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, the founder and leader of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, died on Saturday at 74.
The cause of his death has yet to be determined.
The group, which has also been known as the Black Hebrews, moved to Israel from the US in the late 1960s and 1970s. Today there are some 2,500 African Hebrew Israelites living in Israel, most in the southern towns of Dimona, Arad and Mitzpe Ramon, as well as in Tiberias.
Ahmadiel Ben-Yehuda, a spokesman for the African Hebrew Israelites, said the members of the community are “deeply saddened at the loss of our holy father’s physical presence,” but said they are “emboldened in knowing that his spirit truly lives in each and every one of us.”
“We are as focused and determined as ever to continue to fulfill, maintain and further his vision for all humanity and the creation,” Ben-Yehuda said. “His example and focused commitment to [God] and his people will be an eternal flame in our hearts and a guiding light on our path.”
The movement of African Hebrew Israelites began in the late 19th century in the US, when some groups of African Americans began to identify with the ancient Israelites.
They claim descent from the 12 tribes of the ancient Israelites, saying that when the Jews of ancient Judea were exiled from their homeland by the Romans in 70 CE, some of them ended up in West Africa.
According to the group, many of them were captured into slavery by European slave traders and transported to the Americas.
Ben-Israel was born Ben Carter in 1939 in Chicago. In 1966, he said he received a vision in which the angel Gabriel told him that the time had come for the descendants of these ancient Jews to return to the Land of Israel.
In 1967, Ben-Israel led 350 people to the West African country of Liberia.
From there, in 1969, members of the community began to arrive in Israel, where they became the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem.
The community believed Ben-Israel to be the Messiah, referring to him as the “messianic leader of the kingdom of God.”
When they began arriving in Israel, the African Hebrews were not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate and were not granted citizenship under the law of return.
They first gained legal status in 1990 when they were granted work visas, and then gained temporary- resident status a year later.
In 2003, the Interior Ministry granted the community permanent- residence status, and a handful have successfully applied for Israeli citizenship. After a court battle, Ben-Israel finally received citizenship in August 2013, in a special ceremony with then-interior minister Gideon Sa’ar.
Young men from the African Hebrew community serve in the IDF, and have entered international sporting events and academic competitions under the Israeli flag, as well as having represented Israel twice in the Eurovision song contest.
Ben-Israel is survived by his four wives and 20 children.