I was getting a haircut at a Puerto Rican barbershop in Brooklyn. My barber, a young guy with a shaped goatee and the hints of a fade below a flat-brimmed cap, started giving me health tips. It’s no strange thing to converse with barbers and in my experience many won’t hesitate to share their wisdoms. Soon however, I began tasting that far-out new age-y tinge at the edges of his advice. For the most part what he was saying sounded well and wholesome: veggies, venison, and filtered water. When he mentioned Central American gold (Au) powder that he buys off the Internet, I caught his eyes in the mirror and questioned him.
“Yeah, man,” he said, “Gold. You know what makes your body move, papi? Electricity.”
I can buy this. With my limited knowledge of human function and physiology, I can digest the concept of electricity as our essential motivator. As he continued to cut my hair and to espouse his doctrine, red flags began popping up all over the place. Once he’d asked what my ethnic heritage was, and I confirmed his assumptions as to being Puerto Rican, the conversation quickly moved away from dietary supplementation and into statements like: “We used to be able to fly, and walk on water,” or “There are Tainos [indigenous Puerto Ricans], who speak ancient Hebrew in the mountains.” “We,” he said with conviction, “Are the true humans. The Children of Light.”
He told me that our people, Puerto Ricans, were in fact the Lost Tribe of Ephraim, one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. That we were a superior people. He continued to cut my hair, and my face gained prominence against the sloppy look I’d worn over Christmas break. My jaw line pronounced itself in a tight frame around the racially ambiguous features of my Caribbean heritage. “Why do you think the Spaniards came here in the first place?” he asked, “The Inquisition. They came to wipe out the true Israeli Tribes.” I sat and listened silently and wondered at his dedication to this global historical conspiracy. I sat, appalled at his casual supremacy, “These people are trying to kill us, brother,” he said, stepping back and looking into my eyes, “See? We’re the true humans—God’s Chosen—you believe in God, right?” I nodded quickly. He turned and cast a wandering gaze out the glass front of the barbershop, and said, “We’re supposed to inherit the Earth. Just look where we are. Where we still are, and tell me they aren’t keeping us here.” I followed his gaze to the street, dusty with the falling soot of the passing J train above, early-model cars sped along, trash sat in torn bags in front of the shop, and every human that walked by the window bundled up against the February chill, was black, brown—Coloured. I didn’t have to ask him who the they were. Because it was clear who the we are.
The matter here is not whether we are “The True Humans” as my barber put it, or any mystical partition of the species—be it Christian, Jewish, Rastafarian, or otherwise. The matter is that we are human, and no amount of rationalization can wrest the quiet knowledge that we, as a group defined by the color of our skin, have been marginalized in society. My barber’s beliefs made me worried because they drew an ethnic group into a stance of superiority. I would have brushed it all off as unjustified bigotry or ignorance, were it not for a tugging sobriety of recognition. I wanted to believe him. Listening to him made me wonder if, given similar circumstances, I would have been swept up into the Nazi movement of early 20th century Germany. It feels good to be assured that you and yours are somehow more special than the rest of humanity. That you’ve been robbed, mistreated, subjugated, and that your people are being primed to regain divine supremacy. To feel as though you belong to something more than, as Yafa, a follower of the early Black Hebrew Community in the 1970s put it, the “second-class, groping in the darkness in a country that we [don’t] have a chance to make it in.” That was even back in the 1970’s, and after 40 years of movements, marches, and activism, my barber only had to say, “look where we are,” for me to understand. “Where we still are.”
In 1966 a Chicago bus driver named Ben Ami Ben-Israel started a Back to Africa movement that would eventually lead to the expatriation of 300 African American men, women and children to Dimona, Israel. Over the last 40 years, The Black Hebrew Israelites (BHI) have struggled to be granted formal citizenship in Israel based on the Israeli Law of Return which states, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that, “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [Jewish immigrant to Israel].” The problem here was that Ben Ami and his followers were not Jewish, nor did they claim to be Jewish, but instead they claimed to be descended from the ancient (biblical) Israelites, and as such were not recognized by the Israeli government as eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.
Eleven years after that first emigration, in 1977, William E. Farrell, writing for The New York Times, would describe Dimona’s desert landscape as “scorching,” and “ungiving,” but the population as “a crazy quilt of the Diaspora—Moroccans, Tunisians, Rumanians, Russians, sari-clad women from the Jewish settlement in Cochin,” as well as the “community of 420 American Blacks.” (nyt1977) The BHI were not the first black community to claim to be descendents of the Israelites, but Ben Ami’s congregation was the first to take their convictions so far as to challenge the State of Israel for the title of God’s Chosen. In 1971 a “spokesmen for the ‘Black Israelites’ had said… that the members of their sect were authentic scions of the Hebrew patriarchs…and that the country belonged to them…and [that] the blacks [sic] had no intention of becoming Jews or integrating with them.” This attitude of superiority that the early BHI took against Israel didn’t do much to further their cause. Nonetheless, the Black Israelite community pushed their roots deeper into the sparse desert of the Negev, attracting more followers and increasingly harsh treatment from the Government.
Remember, this was 1971, only 23 years since the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 which recommended that British governed Palestine accept the establishment of a Jewish State wherein Jewish refugees would be granted citizenship, the Israeli “Government had reached a decision to halt the influx of members of [the Black Israelites].” (nyt1971) According to the New York Times, “About 200 have entered the country in the last two years, and have concentrated in Dimona, an immigrants’ town.” When they first arrived, the BHI members were welcomed “as visitors,” and “extended…the privileges given to immigrants on housing, jobs and loans.” Soon though their numbers would begin to outgrow their welcome in this town of immigrants. Over the next four decades officials in a state created for the benefit of a subjugated people would exercise their newly won power in providing an answer to the question nobody asked: “Who is Jewish?”
During the early half of the 1970’s the Black Hebrew Israelites grew from 39 original members on tourist visas in 1971, to more than 300 illegal immigrants in 1973. In September of that year 15 members of the group were deported back to the United States. A spokesman for the Israeli police contended that “They are not Jewish people…they have no right to make use of the law of return,” and that it was, “just a matter of time before we send them all back.” The small population of American blacks lead a well organized life. They were strictly vegan, they studied Hebrew in “ad hoc schools in bomb shelters and courtyards,” and when they were able they took jobs in the area. Dimona City officials recognized the “sect members [as] hard-working people.” So where was the problem? The local residents were complaining that, “they beat drums and strummed guitars late into the night.” As for the complaints of the Government, certain immigrants had shown “troublesome” behavior such as shop-lifting, breaking and entering, and trespassing. Because they were not granted the privileges of legal immigrants, the group were unable to work, or send their children to school, and the State would not “allot [them] with more housing.” So by 1977 the group—then weighing in at 420 members—were “crowded into 22 apartments.”
The problem, whatever it was, would not go away. For the Israeli Government, the community were illegal immigrants, but mostly doing no harm, and in some cases—such as their nationally famous Hebrew gospel group the Soul Messengers—providing cultural benefit to the country. For the BHI, there was no question in the matter. This was their home. They traced their lineage from the Bible through to slavery in America, and they’d finally found their way back home. In promotional materials and decorations they had redrawn the world map to become “a key statement of the Black Hebrews’ identity.” It was a subtle change in the boundaries of what most would consider the Middle-East as opposed to Africa. All they did was erase the line that the Suez Canal had created, thereby geographically land-locking Israel to Africa, as well as opening a historical precedent for the open flow of genes to and from the two regions. Even without this material affirmation the question would have remained moot among the group. Many of them had filed at the United States embassy in Israel to renounce their citizenship in a move to become “stateless”, and therefore not legally subject to deportation. It wasn’t so much the state that they were attempting to join, nor were they particularly anxious to become citizens beyond the legal privileges it would establish. The BHI saw themselves as refugees from a country where they were, “no longer needed.” They saw themselves as coming together to form a positive community dedicated to a positive lifestyle which was not available to them in the marginalized Coloured communities of the United States which had become desensitized to the “drive-by shootings, gangs, [and] violence.” Coming to Israel meant escaping a country in which they were “nothing Black American, Afro-American, Negro American,” and gave them “order, a solution, a righteous path to life.”
By 1986 there were more than 2,000 members of the BHI in Dimona in a social position “similar to that of the illegal aliens in the United States who were granted an amnesty…because of prolonged presence.” An immigration raid “led to the arrest and threatened deportation of 46 Black Hebrew men, women and children.” When the group gathered to protest the action they were rebuffed by the Israeli police for the “lack of a parade permit.” After a powerful spectacle in which the group sang “On the Battlefield of God with the harmonies and rhythms of a magnificent chorus and the police interrupting them with loudhailers,” Ben Ami spoke out against the Israeli government, demanding that it “make up its mind once and for all about his followers’ status.” By this time the BHI had softened their stance of primogeniture against the Israeli Jews. But there wouldn’t be a resolution that day, or that year, and the group maintained their immigrant status as well as their focus on a lifestyle of communal betterment.
It would be another 5 years until Moshe Fox, spokesman for the Israeli consulate general in Chicago, said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times that the situation in Israel was, “a human problem…we had a group of people deprived from certain services—housing, education, health. It couldn’t go on like that. We thought we should settle the legal issues.” It was a “human problem” which was allowed to go on for 20 years in Israel, and has yet to be adequately settled in the United States. While the 1991 arrangement did “not grant citizenship status, it permit[ed] the group to live and work in Israel for renewable periods of two years.” For a community intent on the pursuit of self-improvement, this legal status was all they needed to flourish.
When, in 2003, the Black Hebrew Israelites were finally acknowledged as citizens and granted permanent residency by the Ministry of the Interior, they had developed into a community nearly 3000 strong, and proud of their success in departing from “America’s legacy of racism and violence.” Ohmahn Ben Eliazer, quoted by Natalie Moore in the Tulsa World newspaper from Tulsa Oklahoma, said that his “son just turned 17 years, and he’s never been a pallbearer for one of his friends.” The BHI kibbutz, kibbutz Shomrei Hashalom (Guardians of Peace), was noted on the website of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs as being “one of the largest urban kibbutzim in Israel.” They produce tofu, soy milk and ice cream in a “soy foods product factory,” their musical groups are some of the most popular in the country, and “they also produce a varied line of cultural clothing from natural fibers.” The Ministry website goes on to describe how the BHI have,
“become most noted for [their] healthy holistic lifestyle. All members are vegans, eating no meat, dairy products nor foods with chemical additives. Adult members exercise three times a week and are advised to have at least one full-body massage each month for its health benefits. They do not smoke or drink alcohol…the health practices and organic agriculture program of the community have drawn visitors from around the world, especially government officials from Africa.”
The success of the BHI should not be taken out of context, though it was by removing themselves from the context of the American ghetto that they were able to overcome what has quietly become the trope of lower-class hardship among the Coloured of the United States. They were successful because they had a mission with clearly attainable goals, and the faith and drive to accomplish these. But what their struggle and success highlights—and the reason I was inspired by my barber to research further—is a problem inherent in our communities which has not been resolved. The problem of racial exclusion in America has been tempered and dulled into silence. Political-correctness—once heralded as a solution—has created a system which instructs those in power to be sympathetic, while forcing those under subjugation to be complacently accepting and thankful, because to speak out further is to be ungrateful to the successes of our past leaders and the gracious semantic kid-gloves worn by our oppressors. By claiming the ancestral mythology of The Lost Tribes of Israel, the Black Hebrew Israelites brought themselves into a position of international notice. A position that forced action on the global stage.
In a paper published by Anthropological Quarterly, entitled Indigenous People and the Social Imaginary, Stuart Kirsch describes a similar position garnered by literal lost tribes in the Amazonian rainforest. These tribes would disappear from a census region, only to reappear after a few years time. Once returned they would claim to have never been in contact with modern society when in fact they had perpetrated their status as a lost tribe in order to reap the inherent benefits. The local government began paying attention to these groups, the media pandered to them, and missionaries rushed in with food and medical care in an attempt to convert them. This is not to say the intent of the BHI is equitable with these Amazonian tribes. Only that the sudden sensation of novelty, such as adopting the status of a Lost Tribe, creates attention where they had previously been ignored. Kirsch draws the conclusion that “these groups have the same need for recognition and protection” as any other human community. In effect, they were illuminating a problem in their human experience that had not been addressed, or had so far been ignored.
The fact that my barber, and others in our community here in the United States, have created a mythology which elevates them into a genetic position of supremacy is morally and spiritually unsettling to me. Though I don’t agree, I understand. I sympathize. Because more unsettling to me is the fact that we, here in the United States, have a problem—a human problem—that remains unresolved. So I will pose a question to anybody who feels that they have been ignored by their society: What makes your body move?