<< back to portfolio

Miami Herald, The (FL)
December 6, 1991


PAMELA FERDINAND Herald Staff Writer

Alta Stevenson hustles from kitchen to counter to table and back again as she tends to patrons in a one-room vegetarian restaurant.

“Sometimes there’s a line at the door,” she says in English, smiling and slightly exasperated. “See how busy we are?” It is the exasperation of waitresses worldwide. Only Stevenson, 43, who came to Israel 15 years ago from Detroit, is not an average waitress. She is black. She says she is Jewish. And now her name is Cocavatiyah.

Cocavatiyah is one of some 2,000 members of the Original Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem — they’re called Black Hebrews — living in Israel. They say they are descended from one of the 12 lost tribes of Israel. They insist they have a right to live in the Jewish homeland under the law of return, which promises Israeli citizenship to any Jew who applies for it.

Israelis, however, have refused to recognize Black Hebrews as Jews. Controversies involving more than a dozen unrelated Black Hebrew groups in the United States have fueled Israeli distrust; the indictment of Yahweh Ben Yahweh, leader of the Nation of Yahweh in Miami, on murder conspiracy charges is among the sore points.

Now, after years of dispute, the Israeli government has agreed to give Black Hebrews a chance to legally live and work in Israel.

“I came here because when I was growing up, there was something missing — you know what I mean?” Cocavatiyah explains quietly. “Even when I went to church, there was something missing. . . . Then I learned about the Black Hebrews. . . . When I came here, I felt at peace.”

The Black Hebrew sect now living in Israel was founded in the 1960s by Ben Carter, a former Chicago bus driver and foundry worker. One account says Carter, now known as Ben Ami, heard a voice from heaven telling him he had been chosen to take his people to the Promised Land. His followers say they were disillusioned with the “second-class citizen” status of blacks in 1960s America.

In 1967, Ben Ami took a group of black Americans to Liberia, where they lived for nearly two years. They came from Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington. Their numbers grew, and in 1969 the Liberian government pressured them to leave. Some returned to the United States, but 39 followed Ben Ami to Israel.

In Israel, they were first detained at the airport and later granted permission to settle temporarily in an abandoned absorption center in the southern Negev desert town of Dimona. Many of the newcomers renounced their U.S. citizenship, then allowed their tourist visas to expire.

“As more and more people came, it caused some consternation,” recalls Zvenah Baht Israel, a community spokeswoman. “Israel has forever been in the state of asking ‘Who is a Jew?’ So, of course, if some black people show up, that just further complicates it.”

Relations were complicated, too, by Black Hebrew practices. Many are the same as other Jews: Sabbath, for instance, is observed from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. Worship services include traditional blessings of the Torah, a scroll containing the first five books of the Old Testament. Black Hebrews circumcise their sons; many speak Hebrew.

But other practices are decidedly unfamiliar — such as the community’s practice of polygamy. Black Hebrew males are allowed to marry up to seven women. Ben Ami has three wives.

The conflict between the immigrants and Israel escalated through the ’70s and ’80s. Israel’s rabbis refused to recognize the Black Hebrews as true Jews because they did not have Jewish mothers. The Black Hebrews refused a proposed Israeli compromise — conversion to Judaism — because they said they were Jews already.

(On the other hand, Ethiopian Jews, often referred to as “falashas” or “outsiders,” are recognized as true Jews by Israel’s Orthodox community. It is believed they were converted to Judaism thousands of years ago.)

As more Black Hebrews arrived and remained in Israel illegally, the government began refusing entry to some black American tourists on suspicion that they were members of the sect. About 40 individuals were deported in 1986.

“The question was that individuals had overstayed their visas or were working in Israel without a permit,” said Immanuel Ben Yehudah, the Black Hebrews’ Washington-based spokesman. “That was the official charge, but some of those individuals had lived and worked there for more than a dozen years.”

Last year, a compromise was reached. The Israelis now permit registered Black Hebrews to live and work in Israel for renewable periods of one year. The visas also entitle community members to education, social services and medical benefits. In turn, the Black Hebrews agreed to reinstate their U.S. citizenship.

“The situation is not simple and quite delicate,” said a spokesman with the Israeli consulate in Miami. “They are not Jewish according to the Jewish religion. That’s why they cannot immediately become Israeli citizens. We have nothing against them and are trying to help them now. I think there has been progress already.”

Over the past few years, the U.S. government has given more than $3 million to Black Hebrews in Israel, according to U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the Europe and Middle East subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The funding has been used, in part, for housing and a school.

Hamilton calls the agreement an “uneasy but apparently durable compromise.” Nearly all of Dimona’s residents have been documented as U.S. citizens and have received visas, said Ben Yehudah. The travel embargo on visitors to the community also has been lifted.

Cocavatiyah, a former postal worker, says she is glad her community’s status is “normalizing.”

She has been working at the Eternity restaurant in Tel Aviv for five years. The cafe is simply decorated in yellow and white, with pictures of sandwiches from its creative menu on the wall.

The Black Hebrews are vegetarians, a practice that evolved as a form of preventive medicine, says Baht Israel.

“We didn’t always have access to medical facilities,” she says. “We had to look at alternatives. Four days a week, we don’t eat salt and four times a year for one week all adults eat raw vegetables. We fast on Shabbat completely.”

Cocavatiyah rotates responsibilities at the restaurant in Tel Aviv with five other women. When she is not scheduled to work, she returns to Dimona about 80 miles away to be with friends and family.

Dimona, a town in the Negev and in full view of an Israeli nuclear reactor, is now home to the majority of Black Hebrews. Other communities also inhabit the desert settlements of Arad and Mitzpe Ramon.

The landscape is arid and flat, an agoraphobic’s nightmare several hours’ bus ride from the bedouin markets of Beersheba and a short drive from the salty blue Dead Sea and the cliffs of Jordan.

Here, in a dark, cool sitting room, Baht Israel, 42, talks with a visitor about her life. She came to Israel in 1981 from Atlanta and her speech is peppered with expressions such as “you be praying,” and “shalom, sister.”

While the Black Hebrew dress code stresses modesty, much like that of Orthodox Jews, it resembles African tribal wear with flamboyant colors and geometric designs. Baht Israel wears a green and orange gown over an ivory turtleneck; American-style Docksider shoes peek out from underneath. Four fringes dangle from the corners of the garment, “symbolizing that African- Israelites are scattered to the four corners of the earth,” she says. Men dress simply in tunics with hand-crocheted caps, or kepote, but they tend to work in casual American-style dress.

Baht Israel says she sees a common thread running through her Baptist upbringing and her newfound faith.

“Although I wasn’t raised as a Hebrew Israelite, there were certain cultural similarities,” she says. “For example, when a woman is menstruating (in the Orthodox Jewish culture), she is separated from men. She doesn’t sleep with her husband or cook for the family. It is a time of spiritual renewal and her body is giving off toxins. When I was a child, in my household women were separated, too.”

Some of the community’s young men and women are too young to possess any American childhood memories. Shmooel Ben Israel, who did not want to give his former American name without permission from Ben Ami, is a 24-year-old construction worker who moved here with his mother 18 years ago from Washington. He plans to marry his first wife soon.

“At 19 or 20, we ‘come out’ into brotherhood or sisterhood and we can date with the permission of our parents,” he says. “People marry at all ages. Someone may have a wife or two in their 30s and want to marry again in their early 40s.”

Black Hebrew women say polygamy is liberating for them.

“A woman can do everything here but be a man, there are no limits,” says Baht Israel, who shares a husband and her child with his second wife and her two children. “We made the decision together about the other wife. If I’m separated because of menstrual activity, somebody has to care for him. Why not someone who’s a part of the family? This life style affords me time for self-development. I don’t have to be all things for everyone.

“My sister-wife is the sports person,” she explains. “When it’s time for basketball, she and him go to play and, shalom, shalom, I can go and read.”

Baht Israel says they worked out a system where each wife spends two weeks with their husband. The other wife, she says, “becomes a very dear friend and a family member at the same time.”

Economically, the Black Hebrews hope their changing status may be a windfall.

Community members earn money mainly by selling jewelry, working as domestics in Israeli homes or as construction workers. Now that many have work permits, they are hoping to capitalize on Israel’s growing construction needs.

Ten percent of each person’s earnings go into a central fund that provides food, medicine, education and housing. Currently, an average of four families share a household, says Baht Israel.

Administrative duties are divided according to rank. Brothers and Sisters are titles for the common members of the community. Above them are Crown Brothers and Crown Sisters, who run day-to-day operations, and then the Sahreem or Ministers, officials who run many of the group’s international outposts, according to Ben Yehudah.

Ben Ami remains the Israeli-based spiritual leader of the sect with his advisers, the Holy Council, also called the Princes or Apostles. They run a central office that handles economic affairs, negotiating work contracts for men who work in the outside community.

Foreigners who want to join the community must pay their own way to Israel, Baht Israel says.

“It has worked well both in hard times and in times when we were a little more prosperous,” she says. “We’re not millionaires. We get the menial jobs.”

Still, community members say life in Israel provides an escape from America’s crime-ridden society and what they believe is the oppression of blacks.

When asked if she misses her comfortable America, Baht Israel replies, “not really.”

“We were not self-determining,” she said. “It was always somebody else’s culture. Our struggle was to recapture our identity. We were denied access to our culture, and just look at the crime rates and life expectancy rates among American blacks. Finally, the thought came, could there be something else?

“We have developed a model for drug-free living, if nothing else,” she says. “People used to say, ‘What’s a black person going to do in Israel?’ But our longevity says something in itself.”

“Going back to the United States is our last thought,” says Ben Israel. “We have family there, but we came out here for a particular reason: to save the lives of our people.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s