American-Israeli Tensions over the Black Hebrew Community
The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, often referred to as the Black Hebrew Community (BHC), is a religious group that claims to be Jewish descendants of one of the “Ten Lost Tribes” of Israel. According to the group, in 1966, their founder, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel (born Ben Carter, a Chicago metallurgist), had a vision calling for African Americans to return to the “Promised Land” (Israel) and establish the “Kingdom of God.”
In 1967, Ben Ammi led a group of a small group of disciples to Liberia and then on to Israel, where they intended to settle permanently. Upon their arrival in Israel, however, the Israeli rabbinical authorities deemed that Ben Ammi and his followers were not descendants of the lost tribe. Slowly, the Government of Israel attempted to deport the BHC.
Over the next several decades, however, new disciples continued to join the BHC’s unauthorized settlement in Israel. Consequently, the Israeli government stepped up its use of creative tactics to spur the BHC to leave of their own accord and to prevent more members from arriving. When these tactics began to affect African Americans who were not of the BHC as well as the American children of the BHC, the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv had no choice but to get involved.
Wayne Leininger served as Consul General in Tel Aviv from 1984-1988, a time when tensions between the Israeli and American governments over the BHC were at a peak. In an interview with Michael Mahoney in February 2004, Leininger recounts the evolution and resolution of the American embassy’s difficulties with Israeli Government and the Black Hebrew Community.
“Black Hebrews in Israel were originally Americans who decided they must be the lost tribe of Israel….No [Jewish] lineal descent whatsoever”
Wayne Leininger, Consul General, 1984-1988
LEININGER: [My] primary task…was dealing with a subset of American citizen problems having to do with Black Hebrews; actually, the Hebrew Israelite Community of Israel. That is a redundancy, but that is what they called themselves… Now, the Black Hebrews were led by a charismatic guy named Ben Ammi Carter who, I don’t know, I guess by his own inspiration, got it in his head that he and his followers, and any other like-minded people in the United States who cared to join up, self-identified, were in fact the lost tribe of Israel… (Leininger is seen at left.)
[The] Black Hebrews in Israel were originally Americans who decided they must be the lost tribe of Israel….No [Jewish] lineal descent whatsoever. They came out of Newark and Atlanta, and Chicago, St. Louis. No prior connection. Once this community was founded, it became a magnet for people, some sincere, others who wanted to some extent masquerade under its umbrella and hide from check kiting, forgery, drug dealing, and other kinds of criminal charges.
I have no reason to believe that Ben Ammi was not sincere. I really believe he was. The conditions within their little community were pristine. Regular study of the Torah. Law and order without any discernable means of coercive exercise of force in any way. People behaved themselves. They were clean. The kids went to school, were polite, alert, well-nourished, well-dressed, industrious…
[They] began to arrive in Israel in the late ‘70s. The original pilgrims made a stopover in Liberia for two years, as I recall, but didn’t find any welcome there. You would have thought they would have. For whatever reason, they decided to come to Israel.
As Americans, they didn’t need Israeli tourist visas. The first group came in and comprised on the order of 35 or 40 people, but that number kept being added to. Hundreds more came over the next ten years. By 1984 when I got there, they numbered about 900 people. By the time I left it was nearly 1300 or 1400…
They were not given formal work permits, but they were, as almost any developed country has, an under-population of folks who were willing and able to do the work that no one else wants to do. They swept the streets. They cleaned people’s houses. They hauled garbage. They did those kinds of things.
They were living in the town of Dimona, which was another burr under the Israeli saddle. Dimona is the site of the Israeli nuclear research program, so having these people camp out in an old kibbutz – that’s what it was, it was an old abandoned kibbutz – just really got to them…
“The political winds were blowing against them”
[The] community itself wanted to be recognized as Jewish.
Now, the Israeli political authorities are not the ones in Israel who decides who is a Jew, or, as a consequence, who qualifies for citizenship under the Law of Return. You read the newspapers even today, and every once in a while this issue still comes up. The Orthodox rabbinical authorities reserve unto themselves the decision as to who is Jewish and who is not.
In this case, they decided unequivocally that these black folks were not the lost tribe. “We have already identified the lost tribe.” Those were the Falashas from Ethiopia, who were equally black, so the [Government of Israel] was covered, you see, politically, from charges of racism, after they rescued the Falashas from the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia by airlifting them all to Israel. In Falashas’ case, there were clear genetic markers linking them to ancient Jews.
[Civil authorities] do not make decisions on who is a Jew. The rabbinical authorities do. Anyone who claims he is Jewish has to demonstrate that to the religious authorities. There are in fact means by which one can convert to Judaism, but that, too, is to the requirements of the rabbinate. The Black Hebrews refused any kind of conversion, maintaining that it was not necessary, redundant. The rabbinical authorities begged to differ, and it was their decision that counted.
And the BHC leaders said, “Okay, we’re here.” Then they realized, being politically savvy, that the political winds were blowing against them. The rabbinical authorities had made a definitive ruling. That ruling hamstrung the civil authorities. They cannot be declared to be citizens of Israel.
By this time, as well, the law enforcement aspect of the issue started to kick in because, as I said, more and more people came to hide within the community who were actual crooks. Well, anticipating that this might have been the outcome, the BHC leadership, not being stupid people, and realizing that being thrown out of the country was a real possibility, embarked on a campaign of formal renunciation of American citizenship.
They wanted to make themselves stateless so they could not be deported to the United States. They came to us in groups of about four to six a week, over the space of about five or six years. It got started before I got there, and continued for the four years I was there. They renounced citizenship. By the time I was getting near the end of my tour of duty, of the 1300 or so people in the community, there were about 800 adults, and of those 800, 700 of them had renounced citizenship…
Well, [for the Israelis, deporting the BHC] wasn’t that simple. First of all, [the Israelis] didn’t want to appear to be arbitrary, capricious, or racist with respect to these folks…The civil authorities at least in the early days were taking a rather measured approach, and trying to work something out…
[The Israelis] did, on an individual basis, [deport some BHC], but initially they didn’t want to have to cope with the scandal, the outrage, that would attend any attempt at mass deportation. Can you imagine the scene of Israeli policemen or immigration authorities marching into this commune and driving out the black Americans, with kids kicking and screaming, all on CNN?
The Black Caucus would weigh in from time to time [in support of the BHC]. That actually diminished as folks renounced American citizenship, but at least initially they had very strong support from the Black Caucus. Visiting delegations would make a point when they went to the Ministry of the Interior who had jurisdiction over the BHC, to ask the Government not to harm these people.
“They, unequivocally, were going to do something about ‘these people’”
Well, long story short. The Israelis had a change in administration. The Labor Government got voted out of office, and was followed by the more conservative Likud party; worse, the Likud formed its ruling coalition only by including what otherwise were the marginally small religious parties. Worst of all, the Ministry the religious parties insisted on having as their part of the coalition pie was the Ministry of Interior – exactly the Ministry that dealt with the BHC “problem.”
The new Minister of the Interior [Yitzhak Shamir] was a member of a religious party, as was his right-hand man, Arieh Deri. They, unequivocally, were going to do something about “these people.” This is how they talked about the BHC, “these people.” Lacking a direct way of deporting them, because most of the adults by this time had renounced citizenship – we weren’t going to take them back as aliens with respect to the United States – they sought other solutions.
The Israelis began to take indirect coercive action, shall we say, to induce these people to leave on their own. They cut off the water and the electricity…
Now, in the past, the Israelis might go after individual adults on the street. Occasionally they would arrest somebody on criminal grounds. These guys were not American citizens anymore; so we had nothing to do with that. They were crooks, so we had no problem with that, either. We didn’t even visit them in jail because they weren’t Americans any more. We didn’t have a dog in that fight.
But once they started to do things against the Community that impacted on the well-being of those 500 kids, we had real reasons to be concerned…
[The children] were Americans, and they were suffering. They were in Dimona, in the Negev Desert, with no fans, not just no air conditioning, but no fans, even in the desert in the summertime. No water.
So we went marching up the hill and said, “You cannot do that to these people. That is inhumane.”
Well then they would relent for two or three weeks, and then there would be outages again. They would be sporadic, pure harassment. Well, eventually the people in the community themselves got fed up with having to put up with things like this, and they started to send out feelers to the Government: “Isn’t there some grounds for compromise here. Okay, you say we can’t be citizens, okay. Can we at least have residence permits and work permits and can you just let us be?”
The Israelis for their part said, “On one condition and one condition only. You become Americans again, so that we can selectively deport those of you who are criminals.”
“They did some very creative lawyering”
[When] someone renounces citizenship…they come before you and you have to counsel them, and you give them a statement of understanding of what is going to happen to them: “You are going to be regarded as an alien with respect to the United States. You and any future children you might have won’t have any rights of return to the U.S. You have to qualify for a visa. We won’t have any ability to intervene on your behalf or welfare,” and so forth.
We tell them to think about it. And you ask them explicitly, “Are you undertaking this action under no force or threat of coercion?” Every single person who came before us would duly read all these things, sign all these things, proclaim themselves to be acting on their own volition, without any compulsion, force or anything applied against them.
Well, [they] did some very creative lawyering and came up with what turned out to be a very helpful interpretation. They said, “Well, though there were individuals who came forward one at a time, or in groups of two or three or six, all of whom individually stated at the time that they were proceeding with renunciation voluntarily and were not acting under any duress or coercion, we believe the case can be made that the overriding political and social environment created a climate in which a reasonable person could not make a reasoned decision” – and they voided all the certificates of loss of nationality that were issued as a result of those renunciations! So all those people had the right again to U.S. passports.
The Israelis relented. The Israelis issued residence permits and work permits. The community now lives there in relative tranquility, as far as I know…
Of course, the real crooks often were not willing to apply for a passport, but once we deemed them Americans, then we would give them a travel letter and they would be extradited, or deported, back to the United States. Some of them were removed. As a matter of fact, some of them had U.S. federal warrants against them. They were wanted by the FBI. So the U.S. had a reason to want to get these people back to face justice…
[Our] reaction to their tightening entry policies is what got the Israeli government’s attention. The measures they were taking at the airports to limit the growth of the community got to be unreasonable, to the point of being abusive to black Americans in general.
They were strip-searching, and detaining overnight without consular access, groups like the Baptist Church Choir of Montgomery, Alabama. We just couldn’t have that. It just went on and on.
I’d go to the Foreign Ministry, and I would get received graciously, and, “Oh, yes,” the people in the Consular Administration would say, “we understand completely. This is awful. It is a blot on Israel’s reputation. We will do everything we can.” Well, yes, but how much pull does any Foreign Ministry have against the power of an Interior Ministry in any society, let alone in one that since its inception has felt itself to be under attack? The security officials trump everything; always will.
So I would get heard out very nicely at the Foreign Ministry, and the abuses would continue. Within another week or ten days there would be another group of people getting strip searched; the whole nine yards.
[The current Ambassador, Tom Pickering,] had been in Jordan…He knew the issues; he knew the personae. His focus, as it was for all political types, was, “We have to make peace. Let’s work with the Israeli government, and we can’t antagonize Israeli government officials if we are going to keep it on track for peace.”
But I eventually said, “Tom, look. We have a whole identifiable group of Americans who are as American as you or I, who are being subjected to conditions and treatment at that airport that are unconscionable, and we cannot allow it to go on. And that is my job, to put out a warning.”
“Give us 48 hours and we will fix the problem”
Now, you have to put this in context. We had not sent out a travel advisory or warning to the American populace to avoid going to Israel even during the 1967 war. Such was the Israeli lobby, the mood in Congress, and the reluctance of people in the Department on the geographic desk to antagonize the Government of Israel. We didn’t even question it at that time.
But the point about this, again for context, is that the State Department in the ‘70s and ‘80s had begun through the Bureau of Consular Affairs being more aggressive in issuing travel advisories when there were problems in other geographical areas. Once an advisory was issued, it could have a dramatic effect on tourism, in addition to having general public relations consequences… and, in turn, on tourist income coming in to various countries.
So the advisories became very politically sensitive issues. This particular advisory, given the nature of the subjects of the advisory, and the reluctance of the Israeli government to be seen as persecuting, or discriminating against black Americans, I knew would get their attention, if we could get it ginned up.
So that is when I talked Tom into backing it, and we got the Department to approve it. We told the Israelis, “We will be issuing this statement next Monday.”
This would have been 1987ish…and only at this point did we get their attention. Tom notified the Deputy Prime Minister, as I recall.
[The advisory] was limited only to black Americans at ports of entry. So Pickering tells the Government that this is en route and that it is going to be issued “next Monday.” They fell all over themselves. “Oh, you can’t do that. Give us 48 hours and we will fix the problem.”
Within 48 hours they replaced the airport immigration authority leadership with new people. They gave us the home phone number of an Israeli senior Foreign Service officer, a former Ambassador. “24/7, any problem with the airport, call and this guy will show up there and resolve it.”
We said, “Okay, we will give you a month. We will test this system”—and it worked.