The emergency exit rows on my plane to Israel in May of 2006 provided just enough space for several Orthodox Jewish men to stand in the aisles for morning prayers, bracing their hips and knees against plastic and metal seats in anchored readiness for any hints of turbulence, arms and heads wrapped with leathery black boxes housing Torah verses.
One of the strangers seated closest to me, an African American from Baltimore, wasn’t laying tefillin. He considered himself an Israelite, not a Jew, and this distinction was incredibly important to him. It was his first journey to the Promised Land, though he could chronicle more than a decade’s worth of trips he almost took, plans that fell through because of finances or family emergencies, because of health crises or the temporary persuasiveness of naysayers. We were both headed there for the same reason: To experience New World Passover, an annual holiday commemorating the relocation of several hundred African Americans from the South Side of Chicago in the late 1960s to the southern Israeli city of Dimona, where they now include thousands of members known as the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem.
The assortment of activities that make up New World Passover reveals just about every central theme and concern of this transnational spiritual community, a “kingdom” with its organizational hub lodged squarely in the Israeli desert but also composed of “saints,” as members are called, scattered across five different continents and dozens of countries, a truly global phenomenon with a social influence and historical significance that arguably outstrips its relatively obscured and muted place in most discussions of African American or Jewish life.
Ben Carter was working as a metallurgist at a foundry in Chicago in 1964 when an elder in the community began to teach him about his true Israelite roots. As the story goes, Carter was getting a drink at a water fountain on the job when an elder, Eliyahu Buie, asked him a single question: “Have you ever heard of Black Israelites?” In fact, he had. It was hard to live in urban Chicago at the time and not notice the exploits of various black Israelite groups, even if the sightings were nothing more, for some residents, than fleeting distractions from their peripheral vision. Different black Israelite groups were sprinkled all throughout the city, and Carter had taken note of their presence, but he’d never paid a great deal of serious attention to them.
Carter was in his mid-twenties. He’d already done a short stint in the armed forces and was no longer a newlywed, his marriage, a relationship approaching close to five years, already marked and marred by a young wife’s unfortunate miscarriages. The two of them would eventually separate.
This was 1960s Chicago; full of conflict and corruption, but also rife with seemingly unprecedented possibilities. Like many cities during that turbulent decade, Chicago had a hyper-political public sphere: People taking to the streets; legal institutions slowly bending to the project of formal social inclusion; religious organizations retooled for racial protest. To African Americans on the South Side, or even the North Side, closer to where Carter was born, it meant an urban context informed by an ethos of change, of more or less radical machinations in the ripeness of the political moment—all plotted along a continuum from civil rights to Black Power.
As far as Carter was concerned, the Hebrew Israelites were offering a form of liberation far more expansive than anything else he’d heard out there in the streets, and he’d heard it all. Before long, Carter wasn’t just a student of the truth. He became a teacher and flung himself into this new worldview, into this new sense of self. He had done something of a reversal in his life, from someone prone to hatching “get-rich-quick” schemes to an expert on the Bible who could challenge many of its taken-for-granted and popular interpretations in powerful detail. Ben Carter also began studying Hebrew in classes offered by Chicago’s Black Israelite community, and before long, he would change his name to Ben Ammi, Hebrew for “son of my people,” forming substantive bonds with other members of Chicago’s diverse black Israelite community.
Carter wasn’t an island. The elder who had first taught him, Eliyahu Buie, was just one point of entry into a sprawling African American Jewish/Hebrew/Israelite community in Chicago with roots that dated back quite a while—to people like Rabbi Horace, a man who had been arguing as early as the 1920s that Adam was black, and Elder Warien Roberson, one of the early-20th-century links between Black Jews in New York and Chicago. In Harlem, the Commandment Keepers, founded in the early 20th century by Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, drew from white Jewish traditions as well as black separatist and gnostic ones in their forging of a distinctive black Jewish sensibility.
By the time Ben Ammi was teaching and learning from fellow Black Israelites in Chicago, Roberson, Horace, and others had already begun to pass the baton to some of their younger followers. Prophet Lucius Casey started the Negro Israelite Bible Class in the 1940s. He railed against integrationism, called African Americans “the original Jews,” was known to call white people “Edomites” or “Esau’s seed”—as opposed to true Jews or Israelites—and moved his followers to Pulaski County, Ill., by the 1950s. Elders such as Rabbi Joseph Lazarus, who had been a follower of Roberson, and Rabbi Abihu Reuben, formed another group of Israelite elders in the Chicago community, the Congregation of Ethiopian Hebrews. Invocations of Ethiopia were deployed both as a nod to long-standing Pan-Africanist positions and as a way of linking black Israelites in America to Ethiopian Jews in East Africa. Rabbi Robert Devine, originally affiliated with Matthew’s group, started his own by the late 1950s, the House of Israel Hebrew Culture Center, and all of this was Chicago’s version of the splintering and differentiating that had also created multiple Israelite communities among black Israelites in other parts of the country.
Even if some of these organizational names quickly fade from memory, it is important to realize that each one of these groups represented a somewhat distinctive set of behavioral and ideological answers to the same question: What does it take to be a Hebrew Israelite? Although others might have been confused about how to define them, Ben Ammi was very sure about what made them different from Jews. Jews, including black Jews, he argued, practiced a religion. Black Israelites embraced their true nationality, their actual heritage. “Israelites are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” Ben Ammi would explain, “the seed of the promise, and Jews are people who adopt Judaism. … Sammy Davis Jr. is a black Jew who just adopted Judaism, and that’s his religion. … But I’m talking about Israelites, the descendants of the biblical Israelites.”
This purported difference between Jews and Israelites—conversion and descent—was something of an odd peculiarity for interested parties in the United States during the latter half of the 1960s, but it would have the profoundest consequences for the AHIJ community once they finally left America. When they made their way to Israel, policing the distinction would be their main worry—and a gnawing concern to the Israeli state.