Despite living in Israel for decades, Black Hebrew Israelites are being judged as not being authentically Jewish and face deportation as a result.
Israel is preparing to deport dozens of Black Hebrew Israelites with residency permits who have been living in the south of the country for decades.
Prince Immanuel Ben-Yehuda, the spokesman for the African Hebrew Israelites, said the Israeli Interior Ministry had given notice to at least 46 families, saying they must leave the country within 60 days, calling it a “shock to the system.”
Black Hebrews are a spiritual community of African-Americans who identify as descendants of an ancient Jewish tribe and view Israel as their ancestral homeland. With around 2,500-3,000 members, most of them live in the southern desert town of Dimona.
The community was founded by Ben Carter, a Chicago steelworker who renamed himself Ben Ammi Ben Israel after moving to Israel along with 30 of his followers in 1969. They were able to settle in the country as the Israeli Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to Jews who settle on historically Palestinian lands.
But Israel wasn’t sure what to make of the newcomers who arrived on tourist visas, adopted Hebrew names and a West African style of dress. Then in 1973, members of the community were denied Israeli citizenship as Israel concluded that they are not ethnically Jewish.
After being denied health care and other social services due to their lack of official status, Black Hebrew Israelites were finally given temporary residency status in Israel, thanks to the pressure from US Congress in the early 1990s.
“For quite some time, we’ve had a number of members of the community with different levels of immigration status, some of us have full citizenship, some taken permanent residency, some have temporary residency, and some have no status whatsoever,” said Ben-Yehuda. He said the community has been working for years with Israeli authorities to sort out the legal status of those without permanent residency.
But Israel says it gave residency status to around 1,200 and claims those whose applications were rejected were not members of the community.
“All those who were not included in the list of community members and didn’t meet the criteria received a negative reply and in effect are residing illegally in Israel for a long period and must leave according to the law,” Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority said in a statement.
The intersectionality of race and Jewish faith has been a heated debate in Israeli society as the question of whether ethnicity or faith makes one Jewish is still contested. Right-wing and ultra-Orthodox groups have long pressured the Israeli government to expel African migrants to protect the Jewish identity of Israel. The debate soon began to shape the state’s approach to Africans. Coinciding with Trump’s anti-migrant policy, the Netanyahu government has been increasingly hostile to African migrants.
There is even a talk about the 'African menace’, a term used by Israeli politicians of various parties when it comes to Africans, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not.
As of the end of 2018, around 40,000 African migrants live in Israel, according to the Israeli Immigration Authority. They make up only 0.5 percent of Israel’s total population and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch regard most of the African migrants as legitimate asylum seekers and refugees.
Netanyahu has called African migrants “infiltrators”, who have “either the choice to leave the country and take their money or to spend the rest of their life in an Israeli prison”.
Thousands of Africans have been forced to leave Israel for Uganda and Rwanda regardless of their home nations in order to avoid jail.