Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey are familiar names to those knowledgeable about the freedom struggle. Yet few African Americans know anything about a man named Ben Ammi Ben Israel (October 12, 1939 – December 27, 2014), who successfully led a group of Blacks out of America in the 1960s and established a holistic, God-centered community in Israel. Ben Israel’s recent death in Israel went largely unnoticed by most Black Americans even though he inspired thousands of Blacks worldwide.
Ben Israel’s movement was born out of the turbulent civil rights era of the sixties when 350 African Americans journeyed “back to Africa”. Their quest: to reconnect with the culture and the land of their ancestors, and distance themselves from the maladies that plagued Blacks in America – crime, drugs, unhealthy living. But their journey didn’t end in Liberia. At a time when many Blacks sought answers about their historical roots, Ben Ammi’s Black Hebrew Israelites renounced America based on their belief that they were descendants of the biblical Israelites. History tells that ancient Israelites fell out of favor with the Almighty when God’s elect disobeyed His laws. Generations after the biblical Israelites fled Israel for West Africa, the Hebrews believe that descendants of those Israelites were taken to America as slaves. In 1967, under the spiritual leadership of Ben Ammi, nearly 400 Black Hebrews returned to Israel by way of Liberia, West Africa.
Who is this man who dared to lead hundreds of Blacks out of America and foster a society based on vegan eating, African-centered beliefs and spiritual dynamism? Born and raised in Chicago, Ben Ammi claims to have been taught by a co-worker that Black Americans were descendants of the biblical Israelites – the original chosen people of God. Fascinated, he began studying the Bible and attending classes. Before long, Ben Ammi had aligned himself with other Israelites who believed that it was time to leave America and return home to the promised land. In 1967 Ben Ammi disclosed that the Angel Gabriel told him to lead the Black Israelites out of America. After two years of living “up country” in Liberia , about 140 of the nearly 400 took their movement a step further by migrating to Israel.
But even under the charismatic leadership and insightful teachings of Ben Ammi, life in Israel was very hard for the Black Israelites who refused Israel’s offer to convert to Judaism. “We’re not adherents to Judaism” said spokesman Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda. From the early 1970s, Israeli leaders threw up road blocks: removing their children from local schools, denying the group work permits and intermittently arresting people and deporting them back to America. But the Black Hebrews home schooled their children in their living rooms. Men and women worked menial jobs, cleaning Israelis’ homes or working construction jobs – some time for no pay – in an effort to stay in Israel. Things came to a head in April 1986 when a large group of the community were arrested and deported. Ben Ammi initiated a march in protest but they were barred by the Israeli military. “We will wait,” Ben Ammi told his followers. When Israel saw that the Black Hebrews were not going to return to America, they offered the community permanent residency, and then full citizenship. As part of the deal for legal status, the Black Hebrews agreed to allow their high school graduates to serve in Israel’s military, something Ben Ammi was criticized for by other Israelites.
Nearly 50 years later, the 140 pioneers now number over 3,000 in Israel, with even more congregants in the U.S., Guyana South America, England, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa. Ben Ammi’s message of righteous indignation to a life as 3/5ths of a man in Israel and America was delivered largely by way of his writings. In one of his twelve books, God the Black Man and Truth, Ben Ammi inspired readers by asking “what has happened to the Africa that was the cradle of civilization and birthplace of the original man; that fostered the great empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai; that produced leaders such as Hannibal, the Queen of Sheba, Chaka Zulu, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkruma?”
He also touched thousands more during sold-out speaking engagements in the U.S. and Africa trumpeting the success of the community living outside of America away from drugs and violence, living healthy lives and keeping God foremost in their minds. “Ben Ammi’s genius is reflected daily here and in other countries, where the Dimona [Israel] model, the holistic life of the Hebrew Israelite community, is practiced,” said Zehorah Baht Israel, a community member.
It was Ben Ammi’s God-inspired vision that was the thinking behind a community of righteous-minded, holistic Blacks in the Holy Land, and which led to the establishment of health food enterprises and visits to the community by Stevie Wonder, Winnie Mandela, the Neville Brothers and Whitney Houston. “Men like this don’t come around so often. Their death is not like a finality,” said Ben Yehuda.