Ben Ammi Ben-Israel dies at 75; a leader of Black Hebrew movement

Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, a Black Hebrew who helped his group find acceptance in Israel, dies at 75

When the vision came to him in 1966, Ben Carter thought that the angel "did not have the right address." But the high school dropout from Chicago's South Side ultimately heeded the divine directive that told him it was time "for Africans in America ... to return to the land of our forefathers" — and that he, as their anointed leader, would take them there.

Carter was a Hebrew Israelite, or Black Hebrew, who believed that African Americans were the descendants of the biblical Israelites. He changed his name to Ben Ammi Ben-Israel and in 1967 organized an exodus of 350 believers that ultimately ended in Israel.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Ben-Israel obituary: In the Jan. 11 California section, the obituary of Black Hebrew leader Ben Ammi Ben-Israel said that Israel granted permanent residency to the Black Hebrews in 2002; the year was 2003. The article also said that a member of the sect who was killed by a Palestinian gunman in 2002 was serving in the Israeli military at the time of his death; he was not. In addition, a rabbi eulogized Ben-Israel at a memorial service, not at the funeral.

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Over the next few decades, he built a community in Israel's harsh Negev desert that grew to 3,000 members despite difficult living conditions, repeated government efforts to expel them and critics' portrayals of the sect as a dangerous cult.

Ben-Israel, who helped his group gain acceptance and became an Israeli citizen, died Dec. 27 in Beersheba, Israel. He was 75.

His death was announced on the website of his organization, the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. The cause was not given.

The idea that African Americans had descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel had emerged as early as the 1880s and gained adherents in the 1960s as civil rights battles led many blacks on a quest for their roots.

For Ben-Israel, joining the Hebrew Israelites was "a form of liberation far more expansive than anything else he'd heard out there in the streets," University of Pennsylvania anthropologist John L. Jackson wrote in a 2013 book on the movement.

Born Ben Carter in Chicago on Oct. 12, 1939, he was raised as a Baptist. He had served in the Army and was working in a foundry in the early 1960s when an African American co-worker told him about the Black Hebrews. He began studying the Old Testament and learning Hebrew at the A-Beta Hebrew Israel Cultural Center in Chicago.

Black Hebrews were not a unified group. Some considered themselves Jewish, but others did not. Some believed they belonged in Israel; others viewed emigration as absurd. Carter, who had been involved with black nationalist groups, was drawn to the A-Beta Hebrew center, where the elders advocated African repatriation.

Before long he adopted the Hebrew name Ben Ammi. He also began proselytizing, portraying racism as punishment for ancient Israelites' worship of false gods after Moses led them out of bondage.

"America for us is a land of chastisement," he explained in a 1995 Philadelphia Inquirer interview. "After that time of suffering, naturally we would desire to return to our land."

In 1967 Ben-Israel convinced nearly 400 members of the A-Beta congregation to sell their belongings and make a pilgrimage to Liberia, which had been settled by freed slaves in the early 1800s.

"I can totally see how I would have been willing to sell everything I own, ignore the jeers of skeptical family members, and head over to West Africa as part of his emigrationist project," Jackson, who interviewed Ben-Israel over several years, said this week. "Even in his 60s and 70s, he had a charisma that was undeniable."

But primitive living arrangements in Liberia disillusioned many of his followers, who accused Ben-Israel of swindling them and returned to the United States.

Ben-Israel was still in Liberia when he heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968, proclaiming that he had seen "the Promised Land." Ben-Israel and others in his Liberian colony took it as a signal from God that "the promised land wasn't Liberia, it was Israel," Jackson said.

The first Black Hebrews emigrated later that year, but Israel did not know what to make of them. Although they observed the Sabbath and Jewish laws, they did not consider themselves Jewish.

They eschewed meat, alcohol and drugs; incorporated gospel songs into their worship; wore colorful, African-style clothes; and taught their children to curtsy to adults.

They also practiced polygamy, a violation of Israeli law. Ben-Israel would eventually take four wives and have more than 20 children.

By 1973 Israel had begun to deport groups of Black Hebrews, backed by an Israeli high court ruling that their claims of Hebrew ancestry were "legally worthless." Later the court declared that the Black Hebrews were "a separate sect, distinct from Judaism and remote from the Jewish world … and its heritage down the generations."

Ben-Israel fought back, accusing the government of racism and later enlisting the support of prominent African Americans, including members of Congress, who warned that Israel's actions could damage black-Jewish relations.

"Everybody is saying the Jews returned to the Holy Land, but there is no holiness here," Ben-Israel told the Los Angeles Times in 1973.

The controversy continued through the 1980s with more deportations and allegations from former members of Ben-Israel's flock that he was another Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple leader who led a mass suicide in Guyana in 1978.

American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin called Ben-Israel a "dictator" after visiting the Black Hebrew settlement in the early 1980s to investigate charges that Israel was harassing African Americans entering the country.

As more Black Hebrews were born in Israel and assimilated into the culture, however, relations with the government improved. In 1990 Israel granted them temporary resident status, enabling them to work legally.

In 2002, the first Black Hebrew born in Israel and serving in the military was among six Israelis killed by a Palestinian gunman. Later that year, the government accepted the Black Hebrews as permanent residents.

When Ben-Israel received his blue Israeli identity card, he waved it in the air like a trophy. In 2013, almost a half-century after he had launched his odyssey, he was granted citizenship.

"We arrived here with a chip on our shoulder," he told the Jewish Daily Forward several years ago. "We weren't ready for any Europeans to tell us who we were."

At his funeral in Dimona, the center of Ben-Israel's flourishing community, the city's Orthodox chief rabbi was among his eulogists.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

Twitter: @ewooLATimes

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