Trouble in the Village of Peace

In the parking lot, little kids scurry around. Like average Israeli youth, they are playing sports during a school recess.

village kids 88 (photo credit: )
village kids 88
(photo credit: )
In the parking lot, little kids scurry around. Like average Israeli youth, they are playing sports during a school recess. But the kids aren't your average Israeli kids, and the sports they are playing give it away. Instead of kicking around a soccer ball, they are swinging bats and catching pop-ups with their leather baseball gloves. Welcome to the Village of Peace - home of the Hebrew Israelite Community, also known as the Black Hebrews of Dimona. The group originally arrived in Dimona in 1970 with a group of just over 100 African Americans, and has blossomed into a thriving, colorful community of more than 2,500. The HIC boasts a wide range of cultural activities led by its world-renowned choir and music troupe. The community functions as an urban kibbutz, providing money, healthcare and schooling for all of its members. It is, however, anything but conventional. The community believes in eternal life, explains Rofeh (Doctor) Yehoshua, the young, articulate head of the Life Everlasting Clinic in Dimona. "Our objective is to prove that it is attainable to hold a healthy life and eternal everlasting," he says. "Life means keeping the body, soul and mind clean." The clinic, which Yehoshua says is visited by statesmen from around the world, offers a service called a "colonic colema," which purifies the internal intestines to help a person maintain a healthy and clean lifestyle. Members of the community are vegans and do not eat milk products or meat. Smoking and alcohol are also forbidden, and as one member explains: "If someone is caught smoking or drinking they will be suspended from taking part in community activities for a period of time." HIC members also believe in polygamy - men take several wives. The community's journey, as told by HIC leader Ben-Ami Ben-Israel, began in 1966, when he had a vision in which the angel Gabriel revealed the time had come for the descendants of the Biblical Israelites to return to the Promised Land and establish the Kingdom of God. A year later, Ben-Israel led a dedicated group of African American followers from inner-city Chicago to Liberia and, two years later, to Israel. While the community was initially welcomed by the State of Israel, political problems were quick to come after the Chief Rabbinate demanded they convert to Judaism. Ben-Israel refused. "My parents had conveyed to me for years that we were descendants of the biblical Israelites," he says. "The vision told me it was time to return to the Promised Land and we knew for years that we were Israelites and Jews." Nonetheless, Israel did not back down on their demand. "Politically the authorities did not want to give off the impression that they were willing to receive potentially large numbers of Blacks emigrating from the US claiming they were Jews. To stifle that, they required the conversions," he explains. The laws of the community, Ben-Israel says, are based on the laws laid down in the Bible. But, he says, the community is not a religious community, but rather a spiritual one. "We relied on the scriptures and the Bible, and the community is structured on the laws and precepts given from our fathers and the prophets," he says. "As we go back historically, we see the Bible in a different light. We keep the Sabbath and the laws, but do not see ourselves as being religious. We see ourselves as a spiritual community." Their battle for legal status in Israel has been long and difficult. While the initial group which arrived in Israel with Ben-Israel in 1970 received citizenship under the Law of Return, members who came afterward were given three-month tourist visas and some were expelled back to the US if they stayed longer. In the mid-1980s, after some 40 members were deported, the community planned a huge demonstration in Jerusalem. It was cancelled after police surrounded their Dimona compound on the scheduled day of the rally. But the government slowly began to give in and HIC members finally received temporary residence status in the 1990s, during Aryeh Deri's term as interior minister. Plans to receive permanent residence status were later stifled by Deri's successors - Haim Ramon and Eli Yishai - until the appointment of Shinui MK Avraham Poraz as interior minister. "Poraz is an extraordinary individual who understood the sensitivities and felt we had paid the price and that we were not going to disappear," Ben-Israel explains. "We are an integral part of the State of Israel; our destinies are tied with the State of Israel and the Jewish people. After [Poraz] weighed all these things, he concluded we should have permanent status."- Y.K.