Archive for October 17th, 2007


October 17, 2007


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Black Hebrews Become Israelis
History of Israeli Dance

What are a group of African-Americans from Chicago doing living in Israel and fighting the Israeli government?

The Black Hebrews are a sect that believes that they are descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. The first Black Hebrews began arriving in Israel in 1969, entering the country on temporary visas. Today about 1250 members of the sect live in southern Israel and are led by Ben Ami Carter.

The Black Hebrews have their own special rules of conduct:

* polygamy is permitted
* leaders decree who will marry whom, perform weddings adn approve annulments
* birth control is forbidden.
* meat, dairy products, eggs and sugar may not be eaten, and members who are caught consuming these foods are punished
* Hebraic names must be adopted in place of former “slave names”
* women are responsibile for child-rearing and other family obligations
* infractions of rules are severely punished.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared that the Black Hebrews were not Jews, and therefore the sect’s members were not entitled to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

Nevertheless, the Black Hebrew population in Dimona continued to grow due to their high birthrate and also because many of them, some with criminal backgrounds, illegally entered Israel using various forms of subterfuge. The Government of Israel avoided deporting the Black Hebrew members who lived in the country illegally, but at the same time also refrained from granting the Black Hebrews citizenship or permanent residency. During the tension that developed during the ’70s and especially the ’80s, some members of the sect engaged in anti-Israel activity and propaganda, aligning themselves with anti-Semitic groups. They claimed that the white Jews were “imposters”, and that they, the Black Hebrews, were the rightful inheritors of the land of Israel.

The Black Hebrews acquired legal status in an agreement reached with the Israel Ministry of the Interior in May 1990. According to that agreement, the Black Hebrews were initially granted tourist status with a B/1 visa which entitled them to employment; a year later they were given temporary resident status (A/5) for a period of five years. At the end of the five year period in 1995, their status was extended for another three years. In 1998, their status will come up for review.

Their current status gives them two special benefits.

They are entitled to stipends paid by Israel’s National Insurance Institute (social security) — such as child support, assistance to the handicapped, aid for the elderly, supplemental income, etc. Indeed, 830 members of the sect are receiving such benefits from the NII.

The Israel Ministry of Education assists and subsidizes the operation of a school for the Black Hebrew children. Today the school serves 700 pupils who study in 14 clases. The U.S. Congress has assisted this school by appropriating $1 million, half of which was designated for constructing the school facility.
The Black Hebrews derive their income from their famous choir, their seamsters’ workshop which provides the sect with its colorful clothing, and from their vegetarian restaurant in Arad’s commercial center, with an adjacent factory for vegetarian food products.

TEL AVIV, Aug. 8 (JTA) — There are 2,500 new permanent residents of the State of Israel, but not one of them is new to the Jewish state.
Israel’s Black Hebrews, a group that traces its origins through Chicago and, they claim, all the way back to the biblical Jewish kingdoms, have been given a home in the Jewish state.

Though the Black Hebrews began immigrating to Israel from the United States in 1969, it was only last week that the community in southern Israel was granted permanent residency status.

It has been 34 years of bitter struggle, community members say.

“It seems that we are now at the doorstep of citizenship,” says Atarah Yafah Kitanah, spokeswoman for the Black Hebrew community of Dimona.

“We are happy,” she says of the development. “We now move forward.”

As permanent residents, Black Hebrews can serve in the Israeli army and establish government-recognized villages, the Interior Ministry says.

Permanent resident status generally leads to full citizenship after an unspecified period of time, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Tova Ellinson said.

Many Black Hebrews say a Jewish past would help explain otherwise inscrutable aspects of their identity.

“My great-great-grandmother had a Hebrew name, and there were certain practices that were passed down from generation to generation that nobody understood,” Kitanah recalls.

“There were a lot of different things passed on, like my grandmother telling me our people — our ancestors — came from the Holy Land, and we have a history there, and one day we will return,” she said.

Black Hebrews say they are descendants of the Jews expelled by the Romans in 70 C.E. According to Black Hebrew legend, some of those Jews reached West Africa, and many generations later their descendants were among the slaves brought to the United States.

Few in the Jewish establishment accept the Black Hebrews’ claims, however, and Israel’s Rabbinate ruled that they are not halachically Jewish.

In 1966, the community’s spiritual leader, Ben-Ammi Ben-Israel, said he had a vision that it was time for the Black Hebrews to return to their “homeland” of Israel.

In 1967, he left Chicago along with 430 followers and led them deep into the Liberian bush to re-enact the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

“As our fathers needed to sojourn before passing into the Promised Land, to shed their slave mentality, so we had to sojourn in Liberia,” Ben-Israel once explained to the Jerusalem Post.

Community members stayed in the African bush for the next two years, braving heavy rains in leaky tents.

Ravaged by poverty, hunger and illness, they tried to learn to live off the land. Two years later — after nearly three-fourths of the group had returned to the United States — 120 of the Black Hebrews moved to Israel.

They were joined over the years by others who entered Israel as tourists and stayed on after their visas expired.

The Black Hebrews’ path toward Israeli citizenship has been long and arduous.

Originally offered citizenship under the Law of Return in 1969, the community’s status later was challenged and revoked. From 1973 through the early 1990s, the community had no legal status, and many members of the group — who had renounced their U.S. citizenship — were left stateless.

As a result, Black Hebrews could not hold legal jobs, send their children to Israeli schools or utilize national health care services.

The Black Hebrews’ cause was not helped by their insistence that they were the true Jews and that the Israelis were usurpers. As their case made its was through Israeli courts, they mounted a campaign against the state that many saw as vitriolic and anti-Semitic.

The community’s newspapers compared Israelis to Nazis and included images of money-grubbing Jews.

An Israeli government report issued in 1980 recommended that the Black Hebrews be taken through a gradual process of naturalization that would lead to citizenship. The government worried that deportation back to the United States might raise charges of racism.

The report’s recommendations were never implemented, however.

In 1989, then-Interior Minister Aryeh Deri visited Ben-Israel.

“There was an understanding, principles of agreement, between the community and the Ministry of the Interior,” Kitanah says. “The Ministry of the Interior was to grant us legal status.”

A year later, the ministry offered community members work permits, and in 1993 it granted them three-year temporary resident status.

“After temporary residency, we were to receive permanent residency and receive citizenship, but it didn’t go as planned,” Kitanah says.

Interior Ministry officials deny any such commitment.

They periodically extended the community’s temporary resident status, and in 1999 they offered community members Israeli identity cards. However, Many Black Hebrews said they weren’t able to get the cards.

The struggle for citizenship has been mired in controversy focused around the Black Hebrews’ purported lineage.

Early on, the Israeli Rabbinate determined that the Black Hebrews are not halachic Jews. Israel’s Supreme Court offered the community citizenship on the condition that they undergo formal Orthodox conversion.

But Ben-Israel refused, explaining that conversion would imply a rejection of the Black Hebrews’ lineage.

The Black Hebrews also resented being treated differently than the non-Jews among the more than 1 million immigrants who arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s. Though up to a quarter of the immigrants were not halachically Jewish, they were granted Israeli citizenship because of their family ties to Jews.

“Russian and other immigrants come in and introduce prostitution and other vices,” says Andrew Butler, a Black Hebrew performance artist living in Tel Aviv. “They don’t even want to abide by Jewish laws, and still Israel gives citizenship to them.”

Despite their struggles for acceptance, the Black Hebrews established a fast growing community. Members say it is deeply rooted in Biblical teachings, though they reject latter-day interpretations of the Bible, including such injunctions as the rabbinic prohibition against polygamy.

Adherents follow a strictly vegan diet; eschew caffeine, alcohol, drugs and cigarettes; and experiment with no-salt days, sugar-free weeks and raw-food weeks.

According to a study by researchers from Vanderbilt University and Meharry Medical College, the Black Hebrews have an extremely low level of cardiovascular disease, cancer and obesity.

In 1980, the community moved from overcrowded housing in Dimona to an abandoned absorption center nearby, which they cleaned and beautified.

The call their current environs the Village of Peace or the Island of Sanity, and it includes a vegan restaurant that is open to the public.

Community members say they welcome Israeli visitors and are involved in Dimona civic life.

Kitanah says that Black Hebrews “represent the city of Dimona and State of Israel.”

In 1999, for example, two Black Hebrews were part of the boy band that represented Israel at the Eurovision song contest — even though the two weren’t Israeli citizens.

One Black Hebrew youngster, Talila Bat-Israel, a young swimming champion, hopes to represent Israel in upcoming Olympic games.

Though her athletic ability may get her into the games, it remains to be seen whether or not Bat-Israel will be Israeli by then.

~ Lisa Katz


October 17, 2007



The history of the Garifuna (or Garifune) begins before the year 1635 on the island of St. Vincent in the eastern Caribbean. St. Vincent was inhabited by a tribe of Indians who called themselves Arawaks. The Kalipuna tribe from mainland South America invaded St. Vincent and conquered the Arawaks. The Arawak men were all killed and the Kalipuna warriors took the Arawak women as wives. The inhabitants of the island were then the union of these two tribes. The word “Garifuna”, which means “cassava eating people”, is probably descended from “Kalipuna”. The Spanish called these people “Caribes” (Caribs) which means cannibals and that is the word from which “Caribbean” is descended.

In the year 1635 two Spanish ships carrying Nigerian slaves shipwrecked on the island of St. Vincent. At first, the Spanish, Nigerians and Kalipuna fought one another but eventually learned to get along and intermarried, thus creating the Black Caribs.

At that time, St. Vincent was a British colony and the Caribs tried to establish independent control of the island. The French supported the Caribs and there were many battles between the Caribs and the British. The greatest battle took place in 1795 and both sides suffered great losses. In 1796 the Caribs and the French surrendered to the British.

The British now had a problem. The Caribs were free men with black skin and St. Vincent was populated by slave-owning Europeans. The idea of a group of free black men living among them on the island was unacceptable so the British decided to deport the Caribs. The British hunted down and rounded up the Caribs, killing hundreds in the process and destroying their homes and culture. The remaining 4,300 Caribs were shipped to Balliceaux where half of them died of yellow fever.

In 1797 the surviving Caribs were shipped to Roatan Island off the coast of Honduras. Along the way, the Spanish captured one of the British ships which was taken to Trujillo where the captured Caribs did well. Later, the Spanish captured Roatan Island from the British. The Spanish rounded up 1,700 Caribs on the island and brought them to Trujillo where laborers were much needed. The Spanish were not good farmers and Trujillo suffered accordingly. On the other hand, the Caribs were very skillful at farming so they went to work and did very well in Trujillo. Some of the Caribs were conscripted into the Spanish army where they served with distinction.

The first Caribs to arrive on the coast of Belize were brought there as woodcutters by the Spanish in 1802. They were put ashore in the area near Stann Creek and what is now Punta Gorda. At the time, Belize was held by the British and was called British Honduras. The Caribs continued to serve the Spanish army with distinction, earning medals of valor. At one point, the fortress at San Felipe (El Castillo de San Felipe) was commanded by a Carib. Gradually more Caribs moved to the Stann Creek area in British Honduras.

Because of their alignment with the Spanish, the Caribs found themselves on the wrong side of the political fence when Central America achieved independence from Spain. Those Caribs in Trujillo found themselves in the new country of Honduras where sentiments against Spain were strong. Large numbers of Caribs fled to the coast of Belize where other Caribs already lived in numbers. It is this migration that is celebrated annually as Garifuna Settlement Day. This is a major holiday in Garifuna communities celebrated on November 19th.

Gradually, the Caribs spread up and down the coast of Belize. During this century, some Caribs served on US and British merchant vessels during World War II and travelled the world. As a result, there are now small communities of Garifuna in Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York City.

The Garifuna culture is very strong with great emphasis on music, dance and story-telling and with its own brand of religion consisting of a mix of Catholicism, African and Indian beliefs. Because of their difference and independence, over the years the Garifuna have been feared and discriminated against by Guatemalans and variously accused of devil-worship, polygamy, voodoo and speaking a secret language.

In 1996, Garifuna Settlement Day was especially important. The government of Guatemala officially recognized the importance of the Garifuna community and President Arzu paid an official visit to the town of Livingston. The Garifuna culture is a unique treasure.

Rio Dulce Geography


Michael Coe, Breaking The Maya Code, (Thames and Hudson, US). The fascinating story of the long and difficult road to deciphering the Mayan spoken language. Some Mayan glyphs are hieroglyphic where single symbols have an inherent meaning, like a trademark or logo. But the Maya also had a phonetic alphabet composed of glyphs which was only decoded recently. This book is a page-turner despite the dryness of the subject matter.

Michael Coe, The Maya, (Thames and Hudson, US). A thorough look at what we have learned about the Maya thus far from one of the field’s leading archaeologists.

Anne LaBastille, Bird of the Maya, Folk Tales and Bird Identification, (West of the Wind Publications, US, 1993, ISBN 0-9632846-0-7). Along with detailed information on some of the common birds LaBastille includes a thorough species list with names in English, Spanish and Mayan. Half of the book is devoted to fascinating Mayan stories and legends about birds.

Albertina Saravia E., Popol Wuh, (Editorial Piedra Santa, Guatemala, Central America, 1980, ISBN 84-8377-095-4). Saravia learned to love the Popol Wuh as a child and her translation is very readable, suitable for adults or children.

Juan Luis Velásquez Muñoz, Nuevas Evidencias de la Ocupacion de la Cuencas del Lago de Izabal – Rio Dulce y Este del Rio Polichic, (Doctoral Thesis, Escuela de Historia, Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, 1995).


Abram S. Benenson, ed., Control of Communicable Diseases in Man. (American Public Health Assn., 1990).

Anne LaBastille, Birds of the Maya, Folk Tales and Bird Identification, (West of the Wind Publications, US, 1993, ISBN 0-9632846-0-7). Along with detailed information on some of the common birds LaBastille includes a thorough species list with names in English, Spanish and Mayan. Half of the book is devoted to fascinating Mayan stories and legends about birds.

Frank B. Smithe, The Birds of Tikal, (Natural History Press, US, 1966, Library of Congress 66-17459, available in bookstores in Antigua, Guatemala). Smithe spent several seasons in Tikal identifying birds. This book is quite thorough given the magnitude of the task. Good illustrations of some birds but more are needed.


Tom Barry and Deb Preusch, The Central American Fact Book, (Grove Press, New York, 1986, ISBN 0-8021-3038-0 pbk). Although a bit dated today, crammed with interesting facts and background to the economies and politics of Central America.

Walter La Feber, Inevitable Revolutions – The United States in Central America, (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, US, 1993, ISBN 0-393-03434-8 (cl) ISBN 0-393-30964-9 (pa). Excellent historical analysis of the involvement of the United States in the byzantine politics of Central America.

Richard H. Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala, The Foreign Policy of Intervention, (University of Texas Press, US, 1995, ISBN 0-292-71083-6 pbk). Immerman started out to write an expose of the US backed coup in Guatemala in 1954. During his 10 years of research he discovered that the subject was much more complex than simply the US covertly supporting the United Fruit Company via the CIA.


Aldous Huxley, Beyond the Mexique Bay, (Harper Collins/Greenwood). Description of Huxley’s travels through Central America as seen through Huxley’s penetrating and opinionated eyes. A good read.

John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, (Century, US). Accounts of a 19th century American traveler which include some vivid descriptions of the most beautiful places in Central America.

Ronald Wright, Time Among the Maya, (Bodley Head / H. Holt and Company). An excellent book which will give you much insight into the ancient Maya as well as their plight in recent years in Guatemala.


Tom Brosnahan, Guatemala, Belize and Yucatan – La Ruta Maya, (Lonely Planet Publications, Australia, 1994, ISBN 0-86442-220-2). A good travel book that lives up to its title. Does not cover all of Guatemala.

Richard Mahler, Guatemala – A Natural Destination, (John Muir Publications, US, 1993, ISBN 1-56261-075-9). A good supplemental book. Lacks the detailed information needed by a traveler such as city maps, bus routes and other services.

Mark Whatmore, Peter Eltringham, Guatemala and Belize – The Rough Guide, (Rough Guides, Ltd., UK, 1993, ISBN 1-85828-045-1). The best guidebook for travelers to Guatemala – accurate and thorough.


Miguel Angel Asturias, El Papa Verde, (Verso / Routledge, Chapman and Hall). A well written illustrative look at United Fruit presented as a novel by the Nobel Prize winning Asturias.

Carlos Luis Fallas, Gentes y Gentecillas, A novel depicting life on a banana plantation.

Carlos Luis Fallas, Mamita Yunai: El Infierno de las Bananeras, A fast paced novel set in the Banana plantations of the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica illustrating the severe hardships and unfair treatment of the workers. Fallas was a labor organizer in Costa Rica during the 1930s and 40s.

Richard H. Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala, The Foreign Policy of Intervention, (University of Texas Press, US, 1995, ISBN 0-292-71083-6 pbk). Immerman started out to write an expose of the US backed coup in Guatemala in 1954. During his 10 years of research he discovered the subject was much more complex than simply the US supporting the United Fruit Company via the CIA.

Walter La Feber, Inevitable Revolutions – The United States in Central America, (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, US, 1993, ISBN 0-393-03434-8 (cl) ISBN 0-393-30964-9 (pa). Excellent historical analysis of the involvement of the United States in the byzantine politics of Central America.

Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, A novel depicting life on a banana plantation.


Daniel Armas, DICCIONARIO de la expresión popular guatemalteca, (Editorial Piedra Santa, Guatemala, 1991). Fascinating dictionary of popular Guatemalan expressions and their usages. One or more examples are given for each. Very thorough and frank.

Teresa Catarella, Ph.D., Universal Spanish-English Dictionary, (Langenscheidt, Berlin, 1992).

Robert Hendrickson, The Ocean Almanac, (Doubleday, US, 1984, ISBN 0-385-14077-0). A reference book jammed with interesting facts, history and lore of the sea covering every topic from pirates to plankton.

Ramón Sopena, Diccionario ilustrado de la lengua española, (Editorial Ramón Sopena, Barcelona, 1974, 1987).


Instituto Geográfico Nacional de Guatemala, 1:250,000 Map, ND 16-1, Puerto Barrios, 1961, 1963, 1964

Instituto Geográfico Militar de Guatemala, 1:50,000 Map E754 2462 IV, Castillo San Felipe, 1990

Instituto Geográfico Militar de Guatemala, 1:50,000 Map 2463 III, Livingston, 1990

Instituto Geográfico Militar de Guatemala, 1:50,000 Map 2362 I, Rio Tunico, 1990

Instituto Geográfico Militar de Guatemala, 1:50,000 Map 2363 II, San Antonio Seja, 1990



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