Black Judaism in Chicago
Abeta Hebrew Israel Cultural Center
The Abeta Hebrew Israel Cultural Center (AHICC) was located in Chicago’s South Side. It was led by a group of Righteous Teachers who propagated the Return-to-Africa ideology found in Bishop Turner’s work. African repatriation was an increasingly urgent desire for members of AHICC. This desire was bolstered by the belief that the last hour was approaching.
In 1967, Ben Carter (later known as Ben Ammi Ben Israel) was tasked with heading a journey to Liberia, a beacon of African repatriation. The purpose of the trip was to explore the possibilities of relocating to Liberia. Though they weren’t granted Liberian citizenship, AHICC succeeded in purchasing Liberian land. They returned to attract more members for migration to Liberia.
Liberia was freedom. It wasn’t like the streets of America, where you are
always afraid, afraid of your neighbor, afraid of your brother, afraid of your
sister.. . . In Liberia, it was freedom. You didn’t have to hide from no
were just free.
— member of the AHICC Liberia cohort, quoted by Merrill Singer
Life in Liberia was inspiring but difficult. Physical discomfort and daily toil sparked social conflicts. Their attempt at performing animal sacrifice for Old Testament tradition failed when the goat died before slaughter. The Liberian Black Hebrews believed that God sent them a discouraging sign. (According to the Black Hebrews’ website today, the first migration group stayed in Liberia for two and a half years to “purge themselves of the negative attributes they had acquired in the captivity” of America before relocating to Israel. This may be a spiritual interpretation of the Liberian ordeal.) In 1995, Ben Ammi interpreted the Liberian ordeal as an analogy to Moses’ travel in the Sinai desert. He posited these trials as a crucial catalyst for solidifying the community.
Ben Israel became the unspoken leader of the group when he claimed to receive a divine message. He told the group that God did not care for animal sacrifices, but instead wanted strict loyalty from the Black Israelites.
Seeing that morale was low, Ben Israel proposed the idea of relocating to Israel. The community began to see Israel as northeast Africa, rather than southwest Asia. Ben Israel and another member traveled to Israel and decided that the more developed country was a better place for establishing a community. A letter on behalf of the AHICC was sent to the Israeli embassy claiming Israel as their ancestral homeland. They requested permission to return. Ben Israel’s group claims to never have heard back from Israel. Officials claim that they denied Ben Israel’s claim to Israel’s Law of Return.
Five group members were sent to Israel to persist in seeking admission to the country. They eventually received apartments and jobs in Arad (a developing town in the Negev desert).
Encouraged by their success, another 39 Black Hebrews migrated to Israel. Their entry was scrutinized, but they eventually received temporary visas. This cohort was settled deeper in the Negev, in the town of Dimona.
After some time, the Rabbi of Dimona asserted that the Black Hebrews were not actually Jewish and therefore had no right to citizenship. He offered them the option of conversion. The cohort, already settled in Israel, welcomed the process.
But when Ben Israel arrived with another cohort of Black Hebrews, he reacted poorly to the proposition. He claimed that Jews were appropriators of Hebrew identity, and that Hebrews (not Jews) were the rightful heirs of Israel. Tensions ensued. This group was not offered the same benefits as the one before them, but they were still granted tourist visas.
As Black Hebrews migrated from America, conditions in Dimona deteriorated. The Israeli government stopped providing the immigrants with housing, so they filled apartments beyond capacity. Desperate circumstances led members of the community to behave unethically.
“We came here offering ‘shalom. We have been met with no jobs, no decent housing and Jim Crow policies similar to what we left behind.”
— Ben Ammi Ben Israel to the New York Times
On October 24, 1972, Ben Israel established himself as an official leader by instituting the National Guidelines. This was a penal code to govern the new Black Hebrew Israelite Nation. Some members disagreed with Ben Israel’s establishment. Those who didn’t officially own apartments were expelled out of their residences. Those who were given apartments by Israel stayed even if they opposed Ben Israel.
At Ben Israel’s encouragement, more Black Hebrews migrated to Dimona and overstayed their tourist visas. This sparked a stand-off with police on April 17, 1986. This day is commemorated as the Day of the Show of Strength.
It wasn’t until 1990 that the Israeli government negotiated with the Black Hebrews. A deal was brokered by the Illinois state government. In return for the halt of Black Hebrew migration, the residing community would have opportunities for permanent residency and citizenship. Ben Ammi Ben Israel himself wouldn’t become a citizen until 2013.