Spiritual Leader of Israeli 'Black Hebrews' Dies

Founder of the African Hebrew Israelite movement dies of unknown causes, aged 75.

Tova Dvorin ,

Ben Ammi Ben Israel
Ben Ammi Ben Israel
Jorge Novominsky/Flash 90

Ben Ammi Ben Israel, the spiritual leader of the African Hebrew Israelites in Dimona, died Saturday, leaving his followers in shock. 

“It was an honor and a blessing to have known him,” community spokesperson Yafah Baht Gavriel told Haaretz Sunday morning. “We will continue to live our lives according to his teachings.”

Baht Gavriel could not confirm the cause of death, but did note that Ben Israel had been traveling throughout West Africa in the past several months, and had been fighting off a malaria infection. 

Ben Israel, 75, was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1939 as Ben Carter.

Carter become involved in the African Hebrew Israelite community in Chicago after being approached by a believer while he was working at a foundry in his teens and twenties, according to Haaretz, and given the name "Ben Ammi Ben-Israel" by a mentor, Rabbi Reuben of the Congregation of Ethopian Hebrews, in the early 1960s. 

In 1963, he said he had received a prophecy from the Archangel Gabriel to "bring his people back to Israel," and left with about 350 people to Liberia in 1967 for that end.

In 1969, the group entered Israel on temporary visas, and refused to convert, claiming they were the true descendants of the Biblical Israelites.

After a long struggle with the Israeli Interior Ministry over his status, as Ben Israel was not considered Jewish by the Rabbinate and thus ineligible for citizenship under the Right of Return, he finally was granted citizenship in 2013.

The group as a whole gained permanent residency status in 2003, and several members have slowly gained full Israeli citizenship. 

The African Hebrew Israelites believe that they are the ancient ancestors of black Americans, and reject Judaism and Christianity, but do believe in the Tanach (books of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings) as well as the New Testament - but have rejected the Talmud and following works entirely. 

Regarding ancestry, the group rejects the term "Jew," saying that they represent other tribes besides that of Judah, and claim as well that the Arab world at large are not descendants of Ishmael, as cited in some Jewish traditional texts. 

The group also follows a vegan diet, citing a verse from Genesis as the source.