Ephie Cohen and his wife Leah climbed the steps to the National Insurance Institute (NII) offices in Beersheba, on their way to what they thought was just another standard meeting with welfare officials.
As Cohen entered the second-floor offices of the NII's southern investigation unit on a hot summer day in 2004, though, it was not Israelis who greeted him, but officials from the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Already for a year, Cohen had been serving as the NII's "deep cover" source within the Hebrew Israelite Community (HIC), also known as the Black Hebrews of Dimona. The NII suspected members of the Black Hebrews of filing fraudulent claims for benefits, but needed someone from inside the secretive, estimated 2,500-strong community - someone like Cohen - to verify or refute those suspicions. Now, Cohen would learn, the Americans had suspicions of their own.
Kevin Whitson, head of Diplomatic Security Services in Israel, was leading an ongoing investigation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into the Black Hebrews. Cohen was a man he was enthusiastic to meet. Could Cohen assist his investigation into allegations of Social Security fraud and passport forgeries originating from inside the mysterious community? He could.
And what did he find?
The investigations are ongoing, and it is unclear how much of the claims can be proven. But at the very least they have uncovered a side of the Black Hebrews community that until now has remained hidden beneath the members' brightly colored, African-style robes - a side filled with allegations of violence and fraud.
The FBI and the Diplomatic Security Service (the US State Department's security branch), The Jerusalem Post has learned, are currently in the midst of an investigation into charismatic HIC leader Ben-Ami Ben-Israel and his 11 "princes," or deputies. The value of the fraud cases, authorities say, reaches into the millions of dollars.
The US probe into allegations of social security fraud and passport fraud is similar to an Israel Police probe into allegations of fraud, child abuse and the forgery of identity cards and passports.
The Israeli allegations are a product of the 2003 decision by then-interior minister Avraham Poraz to reverse the government's long-standing rejection of the Black Hebrews by granting them permanent resident status, which entitled them to receive NII benefits. A highly publicized visit to Dimona earlier in the year by famous African-American pop singer Whitney Houston certainly contributed to Poraz's decision - as did the murder by Palestinian terrorists of HIC member and wedding singer Aharon Ben-Israel, shortly before that.
UNTIL THAT point, the Black Hebrews had struggled in Israel. The story of HIC's perseverance and its colorful character is told around the world. In 1966, Ben Carter - a former bus driver in the South Side of Chicago - claimed to have seen in a vision that it was time to return to the Promised Land. Some 350 African Americans followed Carter (who would change his name to Ben-Ami Ben-Israel) to Liberia in 1967. The group, which claimed to be descendants of the ancient Israelites, eventually moved to Dimona in 1970, and has since attracted hundreds of additional African-Americans who have left the US and settled across the Negev. Today the community accounts for close to 2,500 members, most of whom live in Dimona, around a converted absorption center; there are smaller branches in Arad and Mitzpe Ramon.
Though the Black Hebrews consider themselves Israelites, they are not Jewish according to halacha. A high level of discipline is expected, demonstrated by adults' modest dress and the school uniforms that all children wear. In addition, members of the community are required to follow a strict vegan diet, and smoking or drinking are forbidden. Polygamy is also a common practice.
The HIC currently boasts a world-renowned music group, as well as popular vegan food production and African-style clothing factories. They are closely connected to politicians across the world, especially in the United States, with supporters ranging from the Congressional Black Caucus to firebrand Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. An example of this close bond was demonstrated at the Million Man March in Washington, DC, in 1995. During his speech, Farrakhan looked into the crowd, spotted Ben-Israel and called him onto the stage.
"Now, Ben-Ami Ben-Israel, please come up here, Rabbi Ben-Ami," Farrakhan said. "He is the spiritual leader of the NOI, Nation of Israel, headquartered in Dimona, Israel. A great spiritual teacher and my brother, Rabbi Ben-Ami. Let's give him a hand."
In Dimona, the community does not freely open its doors to strangers. While the Post was respectfully hosted throughout its visit to the Village of Peace, one cannot normally walk around unaccompanied. Behind this secretive facade - according to Cohen - severe punishments are meted out by Ben-Israel to members of the community. There are cellars, he said, where followers who "stray from the path" are beaten with sticks until they once again "see the light" and return to the path of the righteous.
SUCH ALLEGATIONS - in addition to suspicions about the cult-like behavior of the Black Hebrews - have concerned the Israeli authorities for years. In 2003, just before Poraz decided to grant the HIC permanent resident status, then-internal security minister Tzahi Hanegbi convened senior police officers from the Investigations and Intelligence Departments to discuss the allegations against the HIC.
US Embassy officials were allowed to sit in on part of the meeting to give their opinion on the upcoming Interior Ministry decision on permanent residence. The Americans had passed on a report to the Justice Ministry and the Internal Security Ministry spelling out their suspicions that the group had succeeded in defrauding Social Security by millions of dollars.
(In the run-up to millennium celebrations in late 1999, the FBI published a report entitled "Project Megiddo" in which HIC was listed as a group that had the potential to turn violent and radical. Following political pressure from the US Congress, the FBI conceded what it called a "mistake" and wrote a letter in 2004 apologizing for including the group in the report and for claiming that Ben-Israel had been convicted of criminal racketeering.)
At the 2003 meeting in Israel, one participant recalled, police laid out a series of allegations against the community as well as potential threats it posed. Hanegbi decided to hold off on taking sanctions against the HIC due to Ben-Israel's widespread international connections, and the potential "political fallout."
Nonetheless, the police continued to investigate. In 2004, the police Intelligence Department, in conjunction with the Southern District Police, compiled a report about the community and its alleged criminal activities, as well as potential dangers to Israeli society posed by its messianic motivations. The report claimed it was almost impossible to enforce the law within the community due to its shuttered, cult-like character.
Israeli authorities were also upset that they couldn't gauge the community's exact population, as estimates range from 2,000 to 4,000. Even now, while the adults who have received permanent resident status have identity numbers, the community's size is impossible to determine. The children are born within the community, without the use of hospitals or conventional medicine - and, of more concern to the NII, with no official listing. Authorities have no accurate way of registering newborn babies, or of deaths.
These mysteries lead to a more significant problem: determining the true parents of newborn babies in order to be able to award a monthly child stipend. The possibility of widespread fraud, an NII source told the Post, cannot be ignored.
"Ben-Israel can tell a woman to register a child under her name and the next day tell a different woman to register the same child under hers," said the source. "We have almost no way of knowing what the truth is."
Until recently, the community used the Dimona landfill as its cemetery. This was only discovered after body parts were spotted protruding from under the layers of refuse. Since then, the community has received its own personal cemetery right outside the municipal one, so it could bury its dead in an orderly manner.
"People who 'die' don't really die but continue to walk throughout the community and collect a range of state-awarded benefits," said a senior NII official. Conversely, "people are buried and we are not informed that they have died. This way, they can keep on receiving state-granted benefits even from the grave."
There are also unproven allegations of forgeries and computer hacking.
"The community members are expert computer hackers," the official said, "and [we believe] they have the ability to forge almost any document you could wish for."
US AUTHORITIES do not hide their suspicions against the HIC. In a letter written to the Israeli Justice Ministry in May by Whitson and obtained by the Post, the former head of the Israeli Regional Security Office acknowledges the existence of an ongoing investigation against the HIC and particularly against Ben-Ami and his 11 princes.
"The Regional Security Office (RSO) at the time was conducting an ongoing criminal investigation on the HIC leadership to include the HIC leader Ben-Ami Ben-Israel (AKA Ben Carter)," the letter states. "Ephie Cohen provided the RSO with knowledge of the HIC leadership and of its ongoing criminal activities in violation of both the Government of Israel law and of the laws of the United States."
The US authorities ran their investigation in tight cooperation with the Israel Police and the NII. As one Israeli official explains: "They didn't have anything. They didn't know how to get to the community or how many people lived there. We helped them every step of the way."
While the HIC members began receiving NII benefits in 2003, as Americans they were also entitled to receive social security and other benefits awarded to US citizens. The FBI believed Ben-Israel and his followers were conning the American government out of millions of dollars. For the Americans, the biggest problem they faced regarding the community was succeeding in identifying individual members of the community. All Black Hebrews change their names upon joining the community to Hebrew, Biblical names. The surnames are also mostly the same - men are usually Ben-Israel and women are usually Bat-Israel. As a result, US authorities had practically no way of knowing who was eligible for Social Security benefits and who was not.
"[The Americans] came to my office with a long list of people with their original American names and wanted our help in cross referencing it with our lists of the Hebrew names," a police officer recalled.
That is where Ephie Cohen came in. The police had been using Cohen as an informant and decided to set up a meeting with the embassy officials to see if he could be of any use to them as well.
"Whitson told me he was going to arrest Ben-Israel and the 11 princes," Cohen recalled from his jail cell. "They were waiting to get me to go over to the States to appear before a grand jury."
Whitson acknowledged that Cohen assisted the Americans for a period of time. Cohen claims that Whitson promised him that theft charges pressed against him nine years ago in the US would be expunged. The charges however were not dropped and Cohen was arrested half a year ago and is currently waiting to be extradited to the US to stand trial (see sidebar).
BEN-ISRAEL is a powerful character, praised by his followers as their holy leader. He carries a traditional African leadership cane when walking through the community, accompanied by two bodyguards. Ben-Israel's followers bow as he passes by, and begin every speech with praise to the Lord for having blessed them with a leader such as him.
A charismatic man in his sixties who radiates intelligence, Ben-Israel is articulate, calculating every word before it leaves his mouth. When he speaks, Ben-Israel dominates a crowd. His bearded face shines as he speaks fondly of the Jewish people, the land of Israel and the Bible.
In a rare interview, Ben-Israel told the Post that neither he nor any of his followers was engaged in criminal activity. He claimed a plot was being hatched against him, one that involved politicians and public figures who were afraid of the HIC's successes within the Israeli and American communities.
"The reason [for the allegations] is that people want to divert the attention at home [Israel] and abroad from the collective achievements of the community in Israel," he said. "There are those who prefer not to see what we have achieved collectively with those people," he said.
"The community has no one that has been indicted or convicted in the last five years or 10 years," he added. "We have not one member of the community incarcerated worldwide. Nowhere in the US, nowhere in Africa and nowhere in Israel. No one is standing under an indictment for any kind of criminal allegations for the last 15 years."
The figure of 15 years is not incidental. In 1990, Yahweh Ben Yahweh (AKA Hulon Mitchell) - a leader of an HIC offshoot sect in Miami - was sentenced to 18 years in prison for racketeering. He was also indicted for directing his followers to commit 14 murders. One of Ben-Israel's senior disciples, Prince Asiel (AKA Warren Brown), was found guilty in 1986 by a federal jury in Washington, DC, of operating an international crime ring that trafficked in millions of dollars' worth of stolen airline tickets. Those convictions were later overturned, but Brown confessed to a lesser charge.
The Israeli and US investigations into Ben-Israel and the Dimona community, spokeswoman Yaffa Bat-Israel, said, "are baseless. None of what they are saying is true."
So why do the allegations persist?
"In the US, it is definitely racism," Ben-Israel explained. "There are those who do not want to see the achievements that have been achieved here with the Jewish people" - Ben-Israel referred to the conflict resolution center he established in Dimona - "and they do not want it to go beyond these borders."
PORAZ, WHO approved permanent resident status for the Black Hebrews, claimed that he did not see the US or Internal Security Ministry reports before he made his decision. But even if he had seen the reports, he told the Post, he would have stuck to his decision.
"I only received the reports after I made my decision," Poraz said. "Anyhow, it doesn't make a difference, since not all of the people there are criminals. It could be that the suspicions are full of hot air, and they shouldn't be the basis for punishing people."
Neither the Israeli nor the American authorities have been able to crack the case.
Ch.-Supt. Ofer Messing, the head of the Southern District's Fraud Squad, appointed Insp. Yoel Ashur to head a task force to investigate the community at the beginning of 2005, but the team was quickly dissolved after it failed to infiltrate the community.
"We launched an investigation after hearing about suspicions of criminal activity in the community," said Ashur, who is now the deputy head of investigations for the Ashdod Police. "There were general allegations that came up, but we were not presented with any evidence. Due to the severity of the allegations, however, we decided it was necessary to look into the story."
Hard evidence, Ashur said, was hard to come by.
"There was talk of lots of stuff, including abusing kids... but there was only talk," Ashur said. "We tried to gain access, but it is a closed community. We did not succeed in breaking inside."
Ashur said complaints were received mostly from former members of the community who, he said, seemed to have "a tree they needed to bark up."
As to the outcome of the FBI investigation, one US official told the Post it was still ongoing. "The Diplomatic Security Services is running the investigation here," the official said. "We are doing what we can to collect evidence."