The African Hebrew Israelites Community, Dimona’s African-American Village

A savvy owner of a silk garment stall, part of the Friday fair

photography by: Omri Westmark

Best known for its nearby nuclear facility, the low-key town of Dimona in southern Israel is also home to one of the country's most intriguing communities, the African Hebrew Israelites. Originally from the United-States, thousands of African-Americans who considered themselves as the descendants of ancient Jews, emigrated to Israel, where they formed a distinct and fascinating community, the majority of which is concentrated at the Village of Peace in Dimona.

A Brief History

Born in 1939 to an African American family in Chicago, Ben Carter was a high school dropout student, a military serviceman for three years and then a metallurgy expert. During his work in a local foundry, a close co-worker introduced him with the concept that African-Americans originate from the ancient Israelites. After attending several gatherings with likeminded people, he became a fervent adherent of a religious sect that is inspired by both Christianity and Judaism.

 

In the following year, Carter changed his name to Ben Ammi Ben-Israel and became the leader of a group of 350 Black Hebrews. According to Carter, he was contacted by Angel Gabriel who instructed him to revive the presence of his African ancestors in the holy land. In 1967, Ben Ammi and his followers settled in the West-African country of Liberia, where they formed the proto-community of what would later evolve into the African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem.

 

Following two years in Liberia, where the group experienced severe conditions of diseases and poverty, dozens of Ben-Ammi’s disciples arrived to Israel. As the influx amounted to hundreds of people, including Ben-Ammi himself, they were granted a former reception center for Jewish migrants in the town of Dimona in Israel’s southern province, whereas others settled in Arad and Mitzpe Ramon.

 

Initially, the Black Hebrews came to Israel in accordance to the national law of return, which states that only Jews and their descendants are entitled to immigrate to the country. After a while, when it became clear that the group has no intentions of converting to Judaism, the local authorities launched a crackdown in an attempt to curb the arrival of additional followers. That in turn, prompted a heated exchange of insults and accusations between the African Israelites and the Israeli government that lasted for more than two decades.

 

In the 1990’s, the two sides reached an agreement, where the Black Hebrews will receive a legal status and a permit to work in the country, in return to their commitment not to admit new members into the community. In recent years, as tensions subsided, every family was promised a full citizenship if their sons complete a 3-year military service in the Israel Defense Forces, an offer that seemingly contradicts the group’s strong adherence to pacifism. Ben Ammi died in 2014, yet his legacy is apparently stronger than ever, with many of his devotees still remaining fully committed to the core principles of their late leader.

A local center for divine health

photography by: Omri Westmark


The townscape abounds with cacti and other desert-dwelling plants

photography by: Omri Westmark


The village’s main public square, where a bulletin board notifies locals and visitors about upcoming events

photography by: Omri Westmark


One of the district’s many verdant pathways

photography by: Omri Westmark


The hamlet is chockfull of African art, whether it’s sculptures or paintings

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Community and its Daily Life

Numbering around 5,000 members all over Israel, the Black Hebrews maintain a distinct set of beliefs and a way of life. The main idea behind their movement is that African-Americans are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites, including the conviction that slavery was a punishment for disobeying god.

 

Asserting that the group’s origins are from all 12 tribes of Israel, they reject the term “Jew”, as it only represents one tribe. While the African Israelites practice many Jewish rituals, they renounce Judaism in its current form while also incorporating certain Christian elements into their eclectic faith. In addition to biblical Jewish holidays, they also allocate two days for their own unique holidays. One of which is in mid-May, where they celebrate the group’s relocation to Liberia and the other is in mid-February, dedicated for unity among its members.

 

Interestingly, the Black Hebrews follow a series of restrictions when it comes to their food, including a vegan and organic diet, much of it is based on self-sufficiency, as the community grows its own fruits and vegetables. As part of their dietary agenda, they also refrain from alcohol consumption, excluding a home-made wine, naturally fermented by themselves.

 

Perhaps one of the group’s most controversial practices however is polygamy, which is considered illegal under the Israeli law. According to the African Israelites, a man can marry up to 6 wives, albeit in reality, only a third of the marriages throughout the community is polygamous.

The main bazaar, taking place every Friday morning

photography by: Omri Westmark


A narrow alley next to the village’s only guesthouse

photography by: Omri Westmark


A common sight across the neighborhood are the multiple pint-sized farms, where locals grow fruits and vegetables

photography by: Omri Westmark


A shaded narrow alleyway

photography by: Omri Westmark


A densely-packed street

photography by: Omri Westmark


The village’s main commercial center

photography by: Omri Westmark


The supermarket, where one can find organic groceries

photography by: Omri Westmark


Visiting the Village of Peace

Spanning across 2.8 hectares along Dimona’s Derech Barlev St., the Village of Peace is home to roughly 3,000 Black Hebrews, making it by far their largest population center anywhere in the world. In 1969, when the first members of the community left Liberia in favor of Dimona, they were all spread out throughout the town. During the late 1980’s, the group took hold of an abandoned reception center for Jewish migrants, where they established their own communal village.

 

In contrary to the rest of Dimona, which consists mostly of single-family homes or 3-story residential buildings, the Village of Peace is a densely populated district, traversable solely by narrow alleyways. As you might expect from an African-American enclave in the middle of the Negev Desert, English is widely used as the place’s main language, whilst most members speak Hebrew as well.

 

Suffice to say that the Black Hebrews’ exceptional lifestyle is well-reflected in the village’s ample culinary scene that recently made it an epicenter of vegan-tourism. The small neighborhood is awash with vegan eateries. Most notably are the “Miznon” restaurant that offers a plethora of scrumptious eats, including vegan omelets and patties, and the local ice-cream parlor, whose flavors are expectedly vegan only. Not far away is the main supermarket, where one can find homegrown fruits and vegetables, as well as different kinds of relishes, pickles and kimchi, all of which are organically manufactured by the community. As it turns out, the village has cooking classes tailored for the most enthusiastic vegan foodies, available at their site (Hebrew only).

 

The best time to visit this cultural enclave is during festivities or Friday mornings, when an outdoor bazaar takes place at the village’s main entrance. Besides the community’s famous colorful silk garments, one can also find here organic treats, knickknacks and a smattering of stationery items. As you stroll around the neighborhood’s shaded alleys, you’ll come across multiple mini farms, where the Black Hebrews grow their food, alongside pieces of African arts, whereby they reconnect to their ancestral continent.

The entrance sign saying “Welcome to the Village of Peace”

photography by: Omri Westmark


The place’s Friday market

photography by: Omri Westmark


All of the buildings across the village are one-story tall

photography by: Omri Westmark


The narrow streets are decorated with all sorts of signs

photography by: Omri Westmark


The village’s ice-cream parlor, where one can gorge on vegan gelato

photography by: Omri Westmark


Some of the buildings’ facades are embellished with art, African and international alike

photography by: Omri Westmark


Making it an open-air gallery

photography by: Omri Westmark