The unique case of the African Hebrew Israelites presents multiple complex layers for the construction of African identity in the Middle East. In two short news clips presented by Dateline NBC, and an online website Journeyman.tv, there is a story about a group of African Americans living in Israel. Reporter Matt Brown narrates:
They are officially known as the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. The way they tell the story, they were driven out of the Holy Land thousands of years ago by the Romans. Then they fled to Africa where they were enslaved and taken to America (Journey Man Pictures, “The African-Americans Who Made Israel Their Home”)
Ben Ammi, the spiritual leader of the African Hebrew Israelites, claims to have had a vision from the angel Gabriel to liberate African Americans. In 1969 he and a small group of African Americans from Chicago migrated to Israel and decided to make the country their home. They have since grown to a community of around 2,000. “Community leaders,” the video reports, “say it’s a utopia where a pure form of Judaism is practiced” (Journey Man Pictures, “Black Jews – Israel/Palestine”).
Unfortunately, however, the Black Hebrews have not been recognized or accepted as Jews by the Israeli government. Former Interior Minister of the government, Avraham Poraz comments in one of the clippings, “No they are not [Jewish] because they are not recognized by the rabbis as Jewish” (Journey Man Pictures, “Black Jews – Israel/Palestine”).
In order to be seen as legitimately Jewish, the Israeli government requires them to have rabbi approval and the recognition of Jewish communities outside of Israel. “So far,” Dateline NBC continues reporting, “the Israeli government has rejected [the African Hebrew Israelites’] claims and denied them citizenship under the law of return which says one grandparent has to be Jewish” (Journey Man Pictures, “Black Jews – Israel/Palestine”). Instead, they were repeatedly threatened with deportation and generally shunned by Israeli society and authority.
In 2002, following a Palestinian attack, one of the members of the African Hebrew Israelites was killed along with five Israelis. His death allowed greater consideration from the Israeli government, facilitating new opportunities for the legal status of the Black Hebrews. In 2003, the Interior Minister granted the community permanent residency which ensures their right to Social Security but also stipulates that the Black Hebrew children must serve in the Israeli military.
The interesting aspect about the Black Hebrews consists in the dual threat their African identity posed in more than one place. The racialized violence that informed the socio-political climate of the United States in the 1960s incited their departure from America. As African Americans their diasporic identity already lies in the relentless searching for a more effective balance that resolves the conflictual double consciousness W.E.B DuBois described as the issue blackness poses in the US. Their search led to the adoption of a promised land, ironically in a country that also does not regard Africans or African-descended people positively.
In a video documenting the racism recent African refugees confront when they escape to Israel seeking asylum, independent Israeli reporter David Sheen compares their experiences to that of the African Hebrew Israelis. He insightfully concludes:
Although the reasons for African Hebrew Israelites immigration to Israel are different than those of most asylum seekers, the common thread that runs through both migration stories is the vilification of non-Jewish African peoples by populace politicians and the racial discrimination they are subjected to in Israel…Anti-African sentiment has deep roots in Israeli culture (“Racism vs. Africans in Israel”)
Similarly David Sheen presents another video in which an interview with a black Israeli, Ester Vorknach, reveals the adverse treatment experienced by the Ethiopian Jewish community. Vorknach explains how despite having lived in Israel since she was a year old, she still feels alienated in Israeli society. She describes a coldness and discomfort from her fellow kinsmen. One woman, she recounts, exclaims to her “Listen, is this your country? Go back to Africa!” (David Sheen, “Sick & tired”). Ironically, during the late 1970s to the early1980s the Israeli government assisted the clandestine efforts of thousands of Ethiopians migrating to Israel to escape religious persecution. In 1975, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel officially recognized the Ethiopian Jews as Jewish, preempting the governmental decision to help bring them to their Israeli homeland (“Operation Moses – Aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry (1984)”).
Ester Vorknach also describes a developing political consciousness growing among the Ethiopian Israelis as they begin to employ the rhetoric from the American social justice movement “Black Lives Matter” to protest against the increased police brutality and harassment rampant in their community. In fact, a horrible incident of an Ethiopian Israeli soldier mercilessly beaten by police was captured on a video that received viral attention, inciting much of the protests.
“White folks,” Vorknach declares, “have some kind of stereotype about black folks – that they are criminals. This stereotype must be rejected […] Everywhere you go, you feel bad about yourself – just for being yourself because you know that because you’re black, you’re already prejudged” (David Sheen, “Sick & tired”). In this regard, articulating an African identity becomes constraining, plagued by an intense abhorrence for its presence in the host society. Being black as Vorknack aptly points out, thus seems to devalue the successful integration into Middle Eastern culture, at least in the particular case of Israel. This incongruent subjectivity serves to negatively inform how black people in this society self-identify. Instead of the binary terms Black Hebrew or Ethiopian Israeli serving to express the dual elements that make up one’s complete sense of self, they instead demarcate the aspect that makes these individuals different from the rest of society, provoking discrimination from the supposed authentic Israelis. Therefore, whether a native citizen, a permanent resident, an immigrant or descendants of immigrants, in Israel being of African descent automatically relegates one to outsider status.