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September 8, 2007


Black Hebrews:
Israel grants ‘’Black Hebrews’’ permanent residency
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——————————————————————————– • Item 3836 • Posted: Wednesday July 30, 2003


Reuters, July 29, 2003
By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM, July 29 — Israel has granted permanent resident status to the ‘’Black Hebrews,’’ a group claiming descent from the Bible’s lost tribes, after a 34-year struggle for recognition, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman said on Tuesday.

Also known as the African Israelites, the sect was founded by 39 U.S.-born blacks in 1969. Its members previously had only temporary resident status in the Jewish state.

About 2,500 Black Hebrews based in the desolate desert town of Dimona will now be able to serve in Israel’s military and vote in municipal elections. Under Israeli law, permanent residents can usually apply for citizenship after five years.

‘’We have been in talks with the government for years, so the decision is a nice surprise,’’ sect spokeswoman Yaffa Bat-Gavriel said.

Under Israel’s ‘’law of return,’’ people considered Jews according to rabbinical codes are eligible for immediate citizenship. The law does not cover those born to illegal or temporary residents in Israel.

Practising a strict version of kibbutz-style collectivism and Old Testament ethics — including polygamy and veganism — the Black Hebrews are not recognised as Jews by Israel’s rabbinate.

The Black Hebrews believe they are descended from one of ancient Israel’s 10 lost tribes by way of Africa and the slave routes to America, an account most scholars dismiss as myth.

Several sect members were deported as illegal residents in the 1970s, but authorities avoided a large-scale crackdown, citing concern the Jewish state would be accused internationally of racial discrimination.

A government initiative in the 1990s to settle the Black Hebrews’ residency status lagged under interior ministers from ultra-Orthodox religious parties. But current Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of the secularist Shinui party has vowed to liberalise the country’s naturalisation policies.

The Black Hebrews strongly support Zionism. Their musicians entertained Israeli troops during the 1973 Middle East war and represented the country at the 1998 Eurovision song contest.

The sect’s demand for recognition was bolstered by public sympathy after a Palestinian militant shot dead a member who was singing at a bat mitzva — a Jewish girl’s coming-of-age ceremony — in the Israeli town of Hadera in January 2002.


September 8, 2007


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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.”


September 8, 2007

Pauline Bartolone, San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, August 5, 2007
Clad in his Sunday sweatpants and a long blue Pakistani-style shirt, Ali, a 59-year old African American Muslim elder, popped in a DVD of “Big Love” – the HBO series about Mormon polygamists in Utah.

“Dude’s not handling this well at all,” he says as he watches Bill Paxton play an overburdened husband with three wives. “You know, I feel sorry for dude.”

Ali – who prefers to only use his first name – faces the challenges of polygamy every day. For 10 years, he’s been religiously married to two women, and lives with them under one roof in a working-class neighborhood of San Diego. Tuesday through Thursday he sleeps with his wife Hasanah on the first floor, then Saturday through Monday it’s upstairs with his second wife Asiila. That leaves his office, cluttered with photocopies of Quranic sayings and dusty pictures of relatives in hijab, as his only private room in the house.

“We get our time off, we got a sisterhood thing going on,” chuckles Asiila, 50, Ali’s wife of 15 years. She crosses her ankles underneath her overhead khimar, a black dress that covers her from head to toe. “To me, polygyny (polygamy) is for the woman. It’s really for the woman.”

This San Diego family’s life is part of a small but increasingly visible phenomenon of African American Muslims practicing polygamy, according to Debra Mubashir Majeed, associate professor and chairwoman of philosophy and religious studies at Beloit College in Wisconsin. For her research, she surveyed more than 400 Black Muslims and interviewed more than 15 polygamists.

“Most African American women who are into polygyny do so by choice,” says Majeed, adding that their reasons range from their interpretation of the Quran, to desire for independence, to needing a father for their children.

She says that a shortage of marriageable black Muslim men may be one reason polygamy is embraced.

“With the high number of African American men in prison, on drugs, out of work, or unavailable in some other way … the options are limited,” Majeed said.
-so the answer doesn’t include breaking the cycle of abuse and change?

African Americans are not the only Muslims who practice polygamy. Plural marriages exist in majority Muslim populations of Africa and the Persian Gulf states, and immigrants continue the practice in the United States. In May, the Times of London reported that as many as 1,000 Muslim men are living with multiple wives in the United Kingdom. There is no projected number of Islamic polygamous unions in the United States, but Majeed says the number of Muslim polygamists in the United States may be fewer than 1 percent of the Muslim population.

In a spring survey conducted by the Muslim magazine Azizah, 150 Muslims – mostly women of all lines of thought and ethnic backgrounds – were quizzed about their experiences with polygamy. Editor in chief Tayyibah Taylor said perspectives ranged from “it was the cat’s meow” to claims it was “tantamount to abuse.” The majority said success hinged on the seeking of spiritual enhancement by all involved, and the male’s ability to “handle” the situation. Taylor said polygamy among non-immigrant Muslims may be more visible because they are more outspoken about it.

Mohamed El Sheikh, executive director of the Islamic Jurisprudential Council of North America, said that many American converts to Islam, of all races and ethnicities, are already accustomed to having multiple sexual partners.
-Moral equivalency alert: apple and oranges, numbers of partners outside of marriage have no relation with numbers afterwards. Part of the marriage is the commitment to one and only one partner.

“After accepting Islam, some have continued this practice by giving the status of spouse to their sexual partners using the Islamic law,” El Sheikh said.
Most Muslims do not seek legal recognition or benefits in their plural unions, according to Majeed. She says that for many, “The religious importance will supersede the legal issue.” When polygamous Muslims do have legal unions, it typically involves the first wife.
-Once again we see Muslim’s hold Islamic law higher than man made law.

The daily practice of Islamic polygamy varies greatly. Most often, according to Majeed, the husband will take on two wives who live separately. The second wife may forgo financial support and a dowry. Other times, two wives may live together in one house and a third wife may come in and out of the situation.

Shiite Muslims even have a temporary marriage, or mutah, where a man may enter into a sexual union with more than one woman. The arrangement need not involve an imam and could last anywhere from one weekend to several years.
-any Muslim female who would agree to this is nothing more than a prostitute. You already know my opinion of Muslim men.

There is no consensus among Muslims about how polygamy should be carried out, although the Quran tells Muslim men that they may marry up to four wives only if he treats them equally and fairly. One passage implies that additional wives must be widows or orphans. Some religious scholars say the aya were written during wartime, and should be practiced only when there is a shortage of men.

Thirty-eight-year-old Azeez of upstate New York says the current shortage of eligible African American men justifies his plural Islamic marriage. The former Olympic wrestler converted to Islam 18 years ago and works as a technician.

“You have all these women out there,” he said, “and Allah has given a remedy to a situation.”

Azeez splits his week between two wives, who live half an hour away from each other. He fully supports his first wife, and is a father to his second wife’s son from another relationship. He says he didn’t consider taking on more than one wife, until he got a raise and the second wife agreed to help financially support herself.

“If it’s for you,” he said, “then Allah will make it easy for you.”

His 22-year-old first wife, who refers to herself as Miz Azeez, recently published diary-style writings about her marriage in “Polygynous Blessings: usings of a Muslim Wife.” Her love for Allah, she says, frees her from dependence on her husband.

“With passionate love, and the whole concept of love in American culture … They put (their husband) up to a status like Allah. Like this is their life source, like if that person leaves, they’re dead – that’s it, life can’t go on. I don’t have that type of love for my husband.”

Miz Azeez says sharing her husband brings her closer to him and to God. After a year and a half of living in polygamy, she says she would never live any other way.

It wasn’t as easy for one anonymous 53-year-old American Muslim woman in the Washington, D.C., area to share her husband. After they had five children together, he took on other women, a total of four on separate occasions. When the international entrepreneur married a woman in a Muslim country, the first wife found herself financially insecure and alone for months at a time.

“I was just not prepared to include another family in that struggle,” she said, about her decision to divorce her husband after 10 years of polygamy. “I felt forced to rise to the occasion, and I felt I as the current wife had some rights.”

Women have few protections when entering an Islamic polygamous relationship. The Quran says the husband must care for his wives equally, but there is no universal Islamic law or accountability mechanism to define or enforce that. Under some lines of thought, the husband need not notify the first wife that he is taking another, and he may even withhold a divorce.

For second wives not married under U.S. law, this can mean difficulty claiming financial support and legitimacy for their children, according to Kecia Ali, author of “Sexual Ethics and Islam” and assistant professor of Religion at Boston University.

“I don’t think polygamy should be romanticized as a solution to man shortage problems,” she said. “It is dangerous for women, in many contexts.”
The lack of state regulation of polygamy, especially in times of marital disputes, concerns El Sheikh of the Islamic Jurisprudential Council of North America. “The spouse and her children may not be entitled to many legal rights. This is against the principle of equality and thus polygamy is not practical in the United States.”

He adds that even the Quran states that men will never be able to do justice between wives “even if it is (their) ardent desire.”
Ali’s two wives in San Diego would disagree; they say their husband is a fair and just man, and they’ve figured out a family model that works for them.
Hasanah works full-time as a social worker and savors her alone time. Asiila takes care of her and Ali’s 10-year-old son, and “plays hostess.” Ali is the head of the household, spending most of his time writing about Islam and providing spiritual counseling.

“I helped him ship out and go get the sister,” jokes Hasanah, recounting how, 15 years ago, she wrote Asiila a nine-page letter asking her to join the family.

Nearby, Asiila pretends to complain. “You gave me six months with Ali when I first got here, but you won’t take them back.”
Ali, realizing he’s being picked on, responds with a joke that he is going to take on another wife.
“You have the computer,” says Asiila. “That’s wife No. 3.”

This story is one part of a larger “News 21″ reporting project at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. To see more stories on “God, Sex and Family,” go to Contact us at

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