Friday, 1 January 2010

African Hebrew Israelites, second thoughts

Wow. This is going to be a blog and a half because so much has happened since I last shared my thoughts about being here at the Arfican Hebrew Israelite community in Dimona.

I've now been here nearly two weeks. I've learnt a lot, talked to many people, and gone through lots of different feelings about the community. I've also been taking a hell of a lot of photos. Here's one from just before I caught the train in Tel Aviv.

This bird looked quite confused as to where it was.

This is my room in the guest house:

Here's a close up of the picture on the wall.

And here's a few of the village:

This Horus Eye is on the roundabout outside the village.

This, I'm not sure about. The doorway is sort of incongruous with the nuclear bunker-like exterior.

This is a 'park', apparently. But I like it because you can see the desert behind the trees.

The basket ball net with the Yah Khi logo, and the banner which reads Welcome to the Village of Peace in English and Hebrew.

This was my first breakfast. Yes, breakfast.

Some of the decorations on one of the houses.

Some from outside the village, in the city of Dimona.
It's a very artistically designed city. I'm impressed, considering it's not very affluent, by how much effort has been put into this.

The Synagogue.

The next few are from Ben Gurion University, where I went to meet Cara again. The University is right next to a massive canyon.

On this one you can see something quite amazing: the night before there had been a huge downpour, and a flood began at one point on the canyon. The flood progressed quite rapidly, by the time this picture was taken it had moved more than 2km, and was still gushing. People were following it and some had driven to this point where it would cross over the road. It was a great site. Eventually the flow would end in the Dead Sea, having picked up plenty of minerals on the way.

The next one didn't come out like I wanted, but it's accidentally quite cool. When I came back to Dimona in the morning there were dozens of pigeons using this fountain as a bath/swimming pool. Unfortunately you can only see the one who's flying away.

Not sure why I took this picture.

This one was during the tour. We were in the gym and I liked the motivational poster on the wall (click picture to read it)

A lot of the houses have this black plastic lining - I don't know why, I'm sure it must make them hellish in summer.
Rather large for a bonsai tree, no?

An angel in the park.

I was trying to work out what this structure thing was. Dimona is famous for being the site of a nuclear facility, and I thought perhaps it was something to do with that. It turned out to be a shopping mall.

A couple of Avraham and Negilla and their children. This week I am helping Negilla in the school, assisting the class with their English work. This has been quite good fun.

A Zionist roundabout decoration.

Modern art? I could do that.

I had the honour of attending a Wisdom Hut - this is basically a bachelor party except without the rowdiness. Twenty of the elders sat and exchanged stories about the groom (on left facing the camera) and the early life of the community. I learnt a lot about how intense the struggle for acceptance was, and also came to understand the personal background of the founders a little more. For many of them, they had no father-figures and quite troubled personal lives before travelling to Liberia. Once there, many expected a paradise-like existence and were quite upset when required to work for their sustenance. The remaining were the committed hardcore who entered Israel. During this evening I developed a great respect for what they have achieved, and realised anew the sheer audacity of Ben Ammi's plan. Despite multiple run-ins with Israeli law and military, as well as Israel and US immigration and FBI, they never countenanced violence. This is something which speaks volumes I think.

Another of the village:
And the next evening was the wedding.

(This is the altar I mentioned last time. This is used for all ceremonies)

As you can see, there was much singing, dancing and celebration. This couple have been a 27-year potential romance in the making, so it was a big deal for them to finally tie the knot.

The last week has been a Writer's Conference. These have been running anually for nearly 30 years now, attracting a number of delegates from around the world. I'm glad I was around for this - not only did I learn a lot about the community, their beliefs and ideas, but I also met several very cool people, including quite a few from England. Being at the conference has really helped me find my feet here in the past week.

This is a display of the artwork of one member.

This is Ben Ammi, presenting a speech in the hall of the local school (there was nowhere big enough in the village). I was impresed by what he said, but also by his manner - he was quietly spoken but with great passion and concern for the world and humanity. There was also some great music provided by one of the in-house bands - or rather two of the musicians. I've never heard xylophone sound so good. I recognise the sound and style of playing from Miles Davis, but actually watching him play with four sticks was really something. He was accompanied by a bassist.

The next day we went on a 'sacred visitation'. This was a 2-day excursion to some of Israel's holy sites, but with a twist: our guides provided a very specific narrative, including a debunking of many irregularities and deceptions which they believe have served to obscure the truth both about the history of Israel and its inhabitants, and about the facts behind religious stories.

This is Sar Dr Amadiel, Minister of the People, talking outside Jerusalem's Old City. I really liked being back in Jerusalem again.

I have been surprised by the constant references to Jesus (or Yeshua as they prefer). I had been under the impression that the group sought to identify more closely with Ancient Judaism than Christianity. However, I have come to understand that their's is quite a complicated and well-thought out theology/history. They reject traditional conceptions fostered by the Church regarding Jesus' divinity, as well as the idea that Jesus' coming marked a fundamental shift from the teachings of Judaism up until then. Instead they see Jesus as one of a long (and still continuing) line of Hebrew messiahs who came to try and bring people back to a more fundamental version of the faith, reminding the community what their society was supposed to be focused on. Ben Ammi is understood as being the latest in this line of messengers, having come at this crucial historical juncture to bring the lost children of Ancient Israel back to the fundamental precepts of the faith and lead them out of the land of their captivity. I am forced to admit, this he has done admirably. But wait, more photos.

Sar Elyakim (left), Rose (a Canadian who, before leaving, gave me a really sweet speech about respecting my ability to come here to a place where I was a complete alien and open myself to all kinds of ideas which contradicted my own), Dr Lez Henry (a London academic/campaigner who is well known on the lecture circuit, and presented a very good speech at the conference), Monty (a Jamaican now living in the US, he was amazed by the community and life here), a brother from one of the American branches, and Immanuel, another Londoner who is a member of the community.

Crown of thorns on sale in the Old City.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

These pictures were remarked on because they are in a small unlit hallway in the Church. When Amadiel shone a torch on them it became apparent that most of the faces were black. Why had all the pictures, depicting black religious figures (including angels and even, it seemed, Jesus) been hidden away in the darkest corner of the Church, we were asked? It was certainly quite curious. There was a light bulb but it was turned off. Amadiel remarked that every time he had been there that bulb was turned off. Of course, I can't help thinking that if they really wanted to cover these pictures up they would have taken them off the wall entirely. Why leave them there at all, if we follow the conspiracy narrative?
Another one. So, throughout the trip one of the issues repeatedly given was that there had been a huge undertaking on the part of the European civilizations (Euro-Gentiles is the technical term) to cover up the essentially African nature both of Hebrew religion/people and of Jesus. I am familiar with the idea of the Hebrews being black - American rapper KRS-1 first brought this to my attention way back in my early teens, pointing out that if Moses passed for Pharoah's son then he obviously must have been black. It's a pretty self-evident point when you think about it. There has also been several books published recently (the past 20 years or so) providing further food-for-thought about the presence of Jewish traditions, language, ceremonies, etc throughout Africa. Without going in depth so far, I've been impressed by the wealth and depth of independent research into this idea. Of course what this means is something else, and something I will endeavour to reach my own conclusions about. Ten tribes were lost to history, and there's been no sign of them in Europe...whereas the continuity of the Judean people from the end of the second temple period is fairly well establishable, despite the oft-mentioned point about the Khazar-descent of the Ashkenazim majority.

As far as Jesus being black, I haven't heard any evidence other than the black Madonna thing. This also is only circumstantial, and could depend on various other mother-cult traditions. I'm far from dismissing the claims, but I did feel like there were a lot of small holes in the narrative they were pursuing. Besides, I'm always very dubious about conspiracy claims. I think this vastly overestimates the organisational ability of groups of humans.

I really liked this knight.

From the Ethiopian Church. This crumbling ceiling image depicts a pyramidical halo. Worth thinking about.

We drove to Tiberias, where a family lives who fed us. They had a really nice house and, even better, homemade grapfruit wine!

These are from the next morning actually.

All of us outside the host's house. l-r:the host, Sylvia (American now living in Germany), Sar Amadiel, brother who's name I forget, myself, Dr Lex, Susan (a Londoner), Dr Atur Khazriel, Steven (Susan's brother), Sar Elyakim, Monty, Rose, Immanuel, Sandra (another Londoner) and a sister whose name also escapes me. I should give special mention to Susan and Steve, who I spent a lot of time talking to, especially Steve who as a secular guy there on the advice of his mother, helped me feel slightly less like an outsider. Everyone was great though, and, despite slightly dubious beginnings as I tried to work out my own position on the information they were providing, I had a really good time.

Some from the Jordan River.

These plaques are a verse from Mark presented in translation from various international communities.
The river was oddly green. Some people were immersion-baptising. We weren't sure this was very hygeinic.

We saw an otter. Several people of the international variety had never seen these before and had to be told what they were.

This next one is great - Mark 1:9-11 rendered in Hawaii Pidgin English!

And God said, You my boy!

Dr Atur preaching.

Dr Lez. These are from Jericho, were we climbed the mount of temptation to the monastery. I must point out, I've heard about the checkpoints going into the West Bank and how problematic the soldiers there can be. But all Amadiel had to say was 'Dimona' and they smiled and waved us through. I've heard a lot about the community's improving relations with Israel and this was clear evidence of it. They are very well respected now. Amadiel told us that Ben Ammi had arranged for the musicians to play gigs for the IDF and everyone had been complaining or expecting to get paid for their work. Ben Ammi told them good will would be their payment. He wasn't wrong.

To be frank, it didn't look very tempting from the bottom.
Although I love the monastery carved into the mountainside.

Steve was here.

Some views from the mountain.
Steve, Sandra and Lez.

Entry to the monastery.

On the wall outside.

In the holy seat.

I really liked these images of angels.

More distinctly black figures

The ceiling.
Dr Atur discusses the above painting of Jesus being tempted by a very blackskinned devil. The monk became more and more concerned as we talked, eventually ejecting us (thoguh it was nearly closing time).

And the walk down again. Yes, that is our van.
We stopped briefly in the centre of Jericho to get some fruit.

I wasn't repeatedly bugging Dr Lez for photos by the way, his camera had run out of battery so he was asking me to take these pics.

And that's it. We went on to the Dead Sea but it was dark by then. The rest of the conference was very interesting. I'm trying to collate my ideas about the community into some kind of form, so I may do a more academic blog soon. I want to say though, that despite a bit of a rocky start as I and they got used to each other, I've really come to admire what they've achieved and the work they're doing globally. Especially in Africa, where they're providing leadership, work forces and conflict resolution, and also within Israel where they are growing in esteem as a people committed to peace, to bringing humanity back from the troubled-times we have created, and generally acting with compassion, respect and charity.



  1. I think the animals you saw are hyraxes.

    Although hyraxes look rodent-like from afar, their closest relatives are actually elephants.

  2. Yes, you're correct - I found out later. Funny little animals, and the elephant connection is bizarre! Glad you like the blog :)