Last Wednesday, 50 members of the African Hebrew community in Dimona received letters ordering their deportation within the next 60 days. This announcement came as a shock to them and the other approximately 85 members of the community whose lack of official status in the country has been under review by the Ministry of Interior over the past year. It came as a shock, not only because of their complete cooperation with the Ministry in an effort to normalize their status as contributing members of Israeli society, but also because after decades (for many after a lifetime) in Israel, they will lose the only home they have ever known.
Unfortunately, this effort is only the most recent iteration of what appears to be an agenda of active discrimination against members of the African Hebrew community. An animus that has perennially threatened their continued existence in the State of Israel, and has extended its hostility to African- American and Caribbean American Jews attempting to visit or make Aliyah.
Despite being initially welcomed with open arms and given citizenship in 1969 under the Law of Return, by 1970 the law was changed. The then 400 souls who were previously sent to settle the Negev alongside Moroccan and Indian Jewish new immigrants, were then stripped of their citizenship and exposed to multiple episodes of arrests and deportations in 1973, ’85 and ’86.
This produced an atmosphere of mutual animosity between the community and the government; animosity that sparked international outrage and the involvement of African-American and Jewish-American politicians to cease the deportations. The deportations ended, and what followed was an uneasy period of neglect that persisted until the Second Intifada.
At a Bar Mitzvah in 2002, a member of the community, Aharone Ellis the community’s first male child born in Israel, was murdered by a Palestinian Arab terrorist in cold blood. This event awakened a much-needed spirit of brotherhood and a period of reconciliation ensued, which resulted in the then Minister of Interior, Avraham Poraz, granting the majority of the community permanent residency with a path to citizenship through military service in 2003.
Since then, the African Hebrew community began an explicit effort to integrate into Israeli society. As the late leader of the community, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel stated in an interview in 2009, “We are not neutral when it comes to the State of Israel, we are an integral part of the State of Israel. We would do whatever is necessary to defend Israel.”
On the part of the government, through the efforts of the Herut movement and then Minister of Interior Gideon Sa’ar, the right to citizenship was extended to the parents of those who served; and plans for expansion of the African Hebrew community in the city of Dimona were suggested.
These resolutions, however, failed to address the status of well over 100 members of the community. Around 135 people who either: joined the community after 1999 and have only American citizenship, their children who were born in Israel and have only American citizenship, and/or their grandchildren who were born and raised in Israel and hold no citizenship status whatsoever. These human beings are the grandmothers, grandfathers, children and grandchildren who are currently being targeted for deportation. Elderly men and women who came to Israel seeking refuge and a home where they can live free as Hebrews; and their descendants who today see themselves as Israelis without any other home.
The aforementioned people are part and parcel of communal life in the African Hebrew community. It is a result of their desire to contribute, including but not limited to serving in the military, that inspired them to appeal to the better nature of the Ministry of Interior in an attempt to formalize their status and make a commitment that all future African Hebrew immigrants follow the procedures delineated in the Law of Return in its current form.
Herein, lies the rub. The Ministry of Interior in the past and in its current form has a clear agenda to uproot the African Hebrews from the Land and prevent any further immigration of people associated with the community, including those who underwent legitimate Halakhic conversions to join the Jewish people.
In the Herut movement’s efforts to aid Jews throughout the world in the Aliyah process, we have encountered countless cases of African American Jews who have faced questioning and scrutiny rooted in suspicion of association with the African Hebrew community.
For the Ministry of Interior, this has generally been anathema. Just as in 1970, when government officials wrote off the claim of ancestral descent from the lost tribes of Israel, to this very day the Ministry views the African Hebrew’s claim to Jewish/Hebrew ancestry as imaginary, and therefore irrelevant to the Jewish people and the mission of the State of Israel. Hence, the unapologetic policy, which seeks to bar them from country, deport them, and sometimes even harass Jews of Color by association.
While this jaundiced view and treatment in the 1970s may be forgivable or even understandable, when knowledge of re-emerging lost tribes was mostly in the realm of religious myth; a story oppressed Jewish masses in Europe and the Middle East employed to inspire hope that the tribes they lost long ago would one day return and free them from exile. In 2021, and 73 years into the reestablishment of the Hebrew polity, this is hardly the case. The Jewish people have now witnessed the historic return of the Beta Israel and Falashmura from Ethiopia. The Bene Israel and Bnei Menashe from India. All whom, attribute at least part of their ancestral origins to the Northern Tribes of Israel sent into exile by the Assyrian empire 2,700 years ago.
We have witnessed groundbreaking research identifying millions of individuals in Latin America with Crypto-Jewish origins; a thousand of whom have made Aliyah to Israel from Peru in the 90s with the Bnei Moshe community.
Last, but not least we are currently witnessing the reemergence of the Igbo Hebrews; a large tribe that has over 70 Synagogues, and who are ardently advocating a return to Torah culture and belief; asserting themselves as an integral part of the historic people of Israel and Diaspora.
2021 is not 1970. The Jewish State and Diaspora is not as it once was. Whereas the language of “lost tribes” and “re-emerging” Hebrew communities may have been foreign to us then, we can no longer perpetuate this excuse or intolerance. Zionism: the ideology our forebears used to advance Jewish history to the next stage of the return and redemption of the Jewish people in our historical and indigenous homeland, must inspire us to continue to challenge conventional thinking. We need to revisit with fresh eyes the question of a Hebrew identity beyond just the Judean/Jewish experience (or just the Judean experience in Europe and/or the Middle East and North Africa). A question the African Hebrews first brought to our attention in 1969.
The African Hebrews and the community they have built in Dimona is a testimony to the Zionist dream. It exemplifies the Zionist dream. They defined their journey as a return to their ancestral homeland for the purpose of the contribution. Contribution to Israeli culture, society, and security. In the realms of cuisine, music, art, the military and the police, African Hebrews have made their mark on what it means to be Israeli.
If we allow these deportations to go forward, we would not only damage the future of many children who are citizens of no other nation, the future of the sons, daughters, nieces and nephews of people who have contributed mightily to this country and its security. We would also be damning the future of this community as an integral part of the State and people of Israel. The Prophet Micha told the children of Israel that our main responsibility is “to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy G-D.” If the Ministry of Interior proceeds with these threatened deportations, we will not be humble, kind, or just.