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The Black Hebrews of Israel

They fled oppression and violence in America, founding a desert community of vegan polygamists in the Holy Land.

DIMONA, Israel — As a young African-American man in late 1970s Chicago, Atur Yirmeyahu was contemplating the fairly standard dilemmas of whether to go to graduate school and ask his girlfriend of three years to marry him.

Before the year was over, he had decided on a wholly unorthodox way forward. Scrapping the university plans and breaking up with his girlfriend, he left his hometown for a sleepy desert settlement in southern Israel.

He has hardly seen his family in the three decades since he packed his bags, but here, in this working-class Negev town, he says he has found his rightful home. Yirmeyahu is part of the 2,500-strong Hebrew Israelite community settled in three neighboring villages.

The first group of vegan, polygamous and ethnically African-American settlers arrived in 1969, following their young, charismatic leader, Ben Ammi Ben Israel. Ben Ammi, formerly a Chicago factory worker named Ben Carter, preached that black Americans were descendants of one of Israel’s lost tribes and needed to return to their homeland.

To the Hebrew Israelites, or Black Hebrews as they’re known here, Ben Ammi is the Messiah and their exodus from America an escape from oppression and violence.

Yirmeyahu said he grew up in a crime-ridden neighborhood, experimented with drugs in college and “shudders to think” what might have become of him if he had stayed in Chicago.

“The most common cause of death in the black community was handgun murder,” he said, sitting on a bench in the village courtyard on a recent afternoon, a group of teenage boys playing basketball nearby. “I’ve been shot. I’ve wrestled with individuals with guns. The black experience — the captivity — it wasn’t a picnic.”

Life hasn’t always been carefree here either. For decades, the group battled the government for the right to live in Israel. They refused to officially convert to Judaism to satisfy the religious nationalists who doubted their authenticity, arguing they didn’t need to prove themselves to anyone. There were mass deportations, and newcomers often resorted to sneaking in, sometimes posing as tour groups.

“It was a big struggle,” said Hagit Peres, a Ben-Gurion University professor and anthropologist who has studied the Black Hebrews. “They didn’t get anything easily, and many left during the process.”

In recent years, some of that tension has dissolved. There was a turning point in 2003 when the government awarded the community permanent residency, allowing them to join the army and apply for full citizenship. Several weeks ago, the government approved a citizenship application from a Black Hebrew man for the first time.