Dozens of members of a polygamous, vegan sect in Israel have received deportation orders from the government, the group's spokesman said Monday, despite much of the community having received permanent residency under arrangements with Israel.
The community, which numbers around 3,000 people, is comprised of Black Americans whose founders moved to Israel in the 1960s and believe they are descendants of an ancient Israelite tribe. Most live in the southern desert town of Dimona.
Prince Immanuel Ben-Yehuda, spokesman for the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, said the Interior Ministry had given notice to at least 46 families that they must leave the country within 60 days, calling it a ‘shock to the system’.
The African Hebrew Israelites began arriving in Israel in 1969, following Ben Carter, a Chicago steelworker who renamed himself Ben Ammi Ben Israel and claimed to be God's representative on earth.
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. The government was unsure whether they qualified for citizenship under the country's ‘Law of Return,’ which is granted to almost any Jew who requests it.
The Interior Ministry granted many members of the community temporary residency in 1992 and permanent residency status in 2003. Many members study in Israeli schools and serve in the military.
‘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.
The Population and Immigration Authority said in a statement that in 2003, 1,200 African Hebrew Israelites were found eligible for residency, and that in the years afterward the office received other requests from people who 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,’ the authority said in a statement. It added that those who had received deportation letters were entitled to appeal.
Ben-Yehuda said the community would appeal the decision. ‘We're here because we chose to be here to build this country and give our energy to the improvement and the betterment of this nation, so it's quite a bit disheartening in that respect,’ he said.