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Title Black Hebrews - The shadowy Kingdom of Yah turns 30
Founder Ben Ammi Ben Israel (formerly known as Ben Carter)
Description The shadowy Kingdom of Yah turns 30

Reuters/1999

Dimona Israel in the shadow of an Israeli nuclear reactor in this desert backwater, the Kingdom of Yah goes about its business, an African-American colony of veganism and polygamy oblivious to the outside world.

The kingdom's subjects, Hebrew Israelites, known in Israel as the Black Hebrews, last month celebrated 30 years in their adopted promised land, having left US inner cities to establish their communal utopia in remote, blighted Dimona.

"Are they Jews?" Israelis asked rabbinic authorities and each other when the pioneer band of 39 Black Hebrews arrived in 1969, their religious doctrine embracing reincarnation, the Jewish Sabbath, and rules allowing men up to seven wives.

The rabbis' answer was swift: "No way."

But the cult, undeterred by deportations, bleak living conditions and public scorn, has grown into a community numbering some 900 members in Dimona alone, with another 600 living in three smaller communities in Israel.

Today, more than half are Israeli born.

At last month's anniversary celebrations, there was little trace of the hard road the Black Hebrews have traveled.

They wore colorful African-style clothing with distinctive patterns for each family - with some multiple-wife households comprising 14 or more members - as they ate watermelon to the sound of reggae and R&B in a two-day toast to their exodus from America.

The sect has gradually become part of the scenery in Dimona, known for little else than the reactor long believed to be a factory for nuclear weapons Israel is reluctant to acknowledge.

For years, however, the Black Hebrews sparked controversy. They annoyed rabbis by shunning synagogues and issuing policy statements such as "We do not subscribe to any religion because religions have only divided men."

Reflecting popular opinion, an Israeli geographic magazine once described the group as "an island of insanity."

The sect's members, claiming to be direct descendants of the Israelites forced into the Diaspora during the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 AD, further angered rabbis by claiming their questionably kosher rituals made them the "only true Jews."

The Israeli authorities struck back by declaring them ineligible for the automatic citizenship conferred on Jewish immigrants.

Government benefits such as housing, education and health care were doled out sparingly to the Black Hebrews, if at all.

Worse still, officials in the 80s deported Hebrews found straying from the rude compound they called home, a tattered complex built 30 years before to house new immigrants.

"Men would go to work in the morning, then call us from New York to tell us they had been deported," said Yafa Bat Israel, who after 17 years of being Alfreda Waller of Chicago decided to make the move - and the change of name - in 1977.

Revered by disciples as the Messiah, sect leader Ben Ammi Ben Israel was Israel Carter when, one night in his early 20s, he had a vision while lying in bed in Chicago. It was 1966, high time to return to Israel, the Archangel Gabriel told him.

Ben Israel managed to gather some 300 people willing to leave the United States for Liberia, in the first stage of the planned exodus to Israel.

He conceded that race-based riots in the mid-60s, followed by Chicago's "Great Snow" in the winter of 1967, had helped warm people to the idea of living in sunny Africa.

Most of the pioneers soon returned to the United States, however. By the time Ben Israel called for the faithful to follow him to Israel, only a handful remained.

It has taken them much of the intervening time to win the relative acceptance that allowed two of their number to compete in the 1999 Eurovision song contest without raising an eyebrow.

Official treatment, meanwhile, has gone from hostility to tacit tolerance. Asked to comment on their residency status, Interior Ministry officials replied, "What Black Hebrews?"

This does not trouble the sect's disciples, pleased to be left alone to pursue their singular lifestyle.

"Today our community is free from drug abuse, poor health and violent crime," Ben Israel said. "Can you imagine a community of African-Americans where in 27 years there has been no instance of cancer, HIV or heart attack?"

They own their own organic farm and run a tofu ice cream factory that helps cover expenses.

In the last decade, official aid has been more forthcoming.

After the US government gave $750,000 for the construction of a school in 1992, Israel provided most of the teachers, in a step toward integrating young Hebrews into the Jewish state.

But the older generation's sense of non-acceptance by Israel, despite their having represented the state in a number of sporting and musical events, has left many feeling bitter.

"Many of the [former] Russians who came here unfortunately were Christian, and still they are granted citizenship [as Jews], whereas we have been here for 30 years and we have not been given citizenship," Yafa Bat Israel said.

Despite the drawbacks, 60-year-old Shmaya Bat Israel, who was born Billy Jean Edwards in Mississippi, said it had not been a difficult decision to leave her job as a banker in Detroit in the early 70s for the Kingdom of Yah.

"There was nothing much to give up. As a black person you could not succeed," she said. "America could not be my home."