About this Project
Today’s discourse on Israel is dominated by issues of occupation, Palestinian oppression, national security, Orthodox Judaism, and other topics. But the creation of the diasporic nation-state in 1948 has sent other sociocultural waves throughout the world. Through my studies in Morocco, I learned about the complex relationships between Moroccan Jews, Israel, and indigenous Amazigh communities. These lessons broke my own Arab-Jew dichotomy, as well as my ideas of how oppressed people view the world. I had previously assumed that Arabs have no stake in Zionism and that global minorities tend to sympathize with Palestinians. But then I learned about Moroccan Arab Jews and Amazigh-Jewish relations. Jewish identity was a complicated enough concept, but then I learned of Israel’s similarly complicated position in global consciousness.
For this project, I initially endeavored to provide a colorful view of the many minority communities that call Israel home. My idea was to research the various histories of groups like the Druze, Circassians, Armenians, and Arab Bedouins. Preliminary research uncovered the different ways in which these people were connected to Israel. Their stories manifested as unique relationships with Israeli government and they occupied different positions in Israeli culture. I quickly realized that to portray all these rich narratives was beyond my capacity and the scope of this project.
The African Hebrew Israelites piqued my interest as a fascinating Israeli minority. I delved into their history and decided to focus my entire project on their community. What I found was the place where black identity, Zionism, and religion intersected. Today I recall the time when my classmate asked a visiting rabbi what he thought of Black Hebrew Israelites. His response was something like, “I don’t mind them as long as they don’t persuade my children.” Two years since that curious exchange, I’m finding out who the Black Hebrew Israelites are through the construction of this website.
A Final Reflection on Israeli/Palestinian “Culture Wars”
In the context of “Culture Wars,” the class that I’m making this for, the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem bring up a few points we’ve explored in our discussions.
For one, they further complicate the concept of Jewishness. Their claims to Jewishness, and Israel’s initial decline to honor them, reflect Israel’s grappling with a new constructed identity. Making a cohesive culture out of a global diaspora is messy business — who’s in and who’s out? How does the Black Hebrews’ claim to a new (yet ancient) identity clash with Israel’s claim to a new (yet ancient) geography?
The second point I’d like to reflect on is the global appeal to Zionism. The Black Israelites related to the Zionist desire for national sovereignty and a reclamation of something lost. They were also inspired by the concept of a downtrodden, scattered diaspora being globally supported in its long-awaited establishment of statehood. Every time I think of Zionism and its ideals I’m reminded of the Roma, a similarly resented community wandering through Europe. I once asked two young Israelis, “Do you think the Roma should have a state?” One of them quickly replied, “They don’t want a state!” I didn’t expect that response. I rashly assumed that Israelis would sympathize with the nomads. Similarly, I didn’t quite expect Israel to deny anyone’s Jewishness only 20 years after its establishment.
This brings me to my next point. Race is a salient factor in the situations of the Black Hebrews and the Roma. Israel was a European enterprise which carried with it the prejudices of the Old World. And Jews, with a long history of persecution, are not a racial monolith. It follows then that groups like Ethiopian Jews, Middle Eastern Jews, and Black Israelites experience resentment from Ashkenazi hegemony. But with the recent acceptance of Black Hebrews in Israel, we can observe how acceptance is negotiated. Israel accepted this community when it became apparent that it wouldn’t grow to a size deemed undesirable by the government and Israeli citizens. Black Hebrew service in the IDF also opened Israel’s mind to their presence. How does Black Hebrews’ experience with racism and the theology they’ve built around it play into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? I understand that taking up the Palestinian cause would jeopardize the community’s standing in Israel when they’ve only just elevated it. But I’m inclined to predict that after a few more decades of successful assimilation (and stable citizenship) the Black Hebrews may speak out against Israeli occupation. Surprisingly, I’ve found few sources putting the Palestinian issue in dialogue with the Black Hebrew narrative. I’ve found no mention of Palestine at all in my research.
Vetted information about the Black Hebrews is scattered and scarce. The official website is not detailed and does not placed Black Hebrews in historical context. I started my research by reading articles reporting on Ben Ammi Ben Israel’s death. The articles were lacking in detail and were later contradicted by more obscure sources. Eventually, I found a rich resource that discusses black Judaism in general and Israel’s Black Hebrews in particular. Using all of these sources together, I aim to present a more complete picture of this community.
Chireau, Yvonne, and Nathaniel Deutsch. Black Zion : African American Religious Encounters with Judaism, Oxford University Press, 2000. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest- com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/lib/duke/detail.action?docID=271093.