Accessibility links

Breaking News

Dozens of African Hebrew Israelites Face Deportation

FILE - Members of the Hebrew Israelite community rally outside of the District Court in Beersheba, Israel, ahead of a hearing on the deportation orders for dozens from their community, July 19, 2023.

DIMONA, ISRAEL — Toveet Israel and dozens of other residents of the Village of Peace in Dimona, a city on the edge of the nation of Israel’s Negev Deserthave, have lived in fear for two years. Now, she and 130 other undocumented members of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem face deportation.

Toveet has called Israel home for 24 years. Her eight children were born here and know no other country.

Receiving the order to leave two years ago was a “moment of disbelief” for Israel, 53. “I feel like the government has been merciless to me and my children,” she said.

The Hebrew Israelites, as the spiritual community's members are commonly known, first made their way to Israel from the United States in the 1960s. While members do not consider themselves Jewish, they claim an ancestral connection to Israel.

Around 3,000 Hebrew Israelites live in remote, hardscrabble towns in southern Israel. The Village of Peace, a cluster of low-slung buildings surrounded by vegetable patches and immaculate gardens in Dimona, is the community’s epicenter.

Over decades, the Hebrew Israelites have made gradual inroads into Israeli society. After years of bureaucratic wrangling, about 500 members hold Israeli citizenship, and most of the rest have permanent residency.

But about 130 have no formal status and now face deportation. Some don’t have foreign passports and say they have spent their entire adult lives in Israel and have nowhere to go.

FILE - Members of the African Hebrew Israelites, Khazriel Ben Yehuda and his daughter Geelatiyah, 11, attend a demonstration against government deportation orders in Tel Aviv, Israel, June 1, 2021.
FILE - Members of the African Hebrew Israelites, Khazriel Ben Yehuda and his daughter Geelatiyah, 11, attend a demonstration against government deportation orders in Tel Aviv, Israel, June 1, 2021.

The community’s long fight to secure its status shines a light on Israel’s strict immigration policy, which grants people it considers Jewish automatic citizenship but limits entry to others who don’t fall under its definition.

The African Hebrew Israelites are one of a constellation of Black religious groups in the U.S. that emerged in the late 19th and 20th centuries and encompass a wide spectrum of Christian and Jewish-inspired beliefs.

Some fringe Black Hebrew groups in the U.S. hold extremist or antisemitic views, according to the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The community in Dimona does not espouse such beliefs.

André Brooks-Key, an African and African American studies professor at Claflin University in South Carolina, said these various religious communities share a belief that certain African peoples are descendants of the biblical Israelites and that the transatlantic slave trade was prophesied in the Bible.

“Regardless of how they understand Jesus or how they dress or any of these other aspects, that underlying theological point is what binds them together,” Brooks-Key said.

The Hebrew Israelites believe they are descendants of the biblical tribes of Israel who, after the Roman conquest in 70 A.D., fled down the Nile and west into the African interior and were ultimately taken as slaves to North America centuries later.

They observe an interpretation of biblical laws formulated by their late founder that includes strict veganism, abstention from tobacco and hard alcohol, fasting on the Sabbath, polygamy, and a ban on wearing synthetic fabrics.

Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, the group’s Chicago-born spiritual leader, said he had a vision in 1966 from the angel Gabriel that Black descendants of the Israelites should “return to the Promised Land and establish the Kingdom of God,” according to the community’s website.

After a brief stint in Liberia, Ben-Israel and several dozen families of followers arrived in Israel in 1968.

Ben-Israel died in 2014 at age 75 and is revered as a messianic figure.

Shortly after their arrival, the Hebrew Israelites’ legal problems began. Israel initially granted them citizenship, but subsequently revoked it after changes in its Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews.

They remained illegal aliens, some of them stateless after renouncing their American citizenship, until the early 1990s, when they began receiving temporary Israeli residency.

A turning point came in 2002, after a Palestinian gunman killed six people at a bat mitzvah party, including a 32-year-old Hebrew Israelite singer who had been performing. In response, Israel started granting the community members permanent residency.

In 2015, about 130 of them without documentation submitted requests for residency rights, claiming that authorities had reneged on earlier promises to legalize their status.

The Interior Ministry rejected the requests in 2021 and issued deportation orders to 49 people. Four left the country, while the remaining 45 appealed. The rest remain in legal limbo.

The ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority said the individuals subject to deportation had never appeared on lists submitted by Hebrew Israelite leaders and that some had entered Israel recently.

“It’s not clear why their first requests (for residency) were only submitted in 2015,” the authority said, or why the community didn’t submit requests on behalf of those individuals.

The community’s deepened integration into Israeli society over the years has made the idea of deportation especially painful.

Months have dragged on without a decision from the Israeli authorities, leaving the undocumented Hebrew Israelites suspended between their homes in the Holy Land and what they see as exile.