Flowers in the Desert

From the center of the world
In the holy land
From Northeast Africa
There is a special band
Known by the name of the soul messengers …
—“Equilibrium,” Soul messengers

Maybe you’ve seen them in Times Square, in Union Square, or on 125th Street. Half a dozen black men dressed like characters out of an old Sinbad movie. They wear black robes and bracers, helmets and knee-length boots. For all you know, they’re hiding scimitars and broad axes underneath their capes. And what are they doing? Screaming about the “white devil.” Hollering at white men and women, who somehow can’t help gathering around them to listen with hostile curiosity and shame. These are the African Hebrew Israelites, and here in New York they all seem to be nuts.

But there’s another story about the Hebrew Israelites, one rarely told and little known. It’s about a group of black Americans who followed the gospel of Ben Carter, a former foundry worker from the South Side of Chicago who began preaching in the 1960s about Zion. Ben Ammi Ben Israel, as he renamed himself, was so charismatic that he convinced his followers to leave the United States and create a new homeland in the deserts of Israel. They are still there today. They don’t wear costumes out of bad movies, and they don’t scream on street corners. They live on a vegetarian diet, they run their own kibbutz, and some of their children serve in the Israeli army. This is the other face of the Hebrew Israelites, and I have seen it.

I visited Dimona in the summer of 2006, during Israel’s war with Lebanon. It’s a hardscrabble town in the arid Negev Desert, thirty-five miles west of the Dead Sea. Track 12 of a recent CD, Soul Messages from Dimona (Numero Group, 2008) refers to Dimona as the “Spiritual Capital of the World,” even though its rocky landscape looks remarkably like the surface of the moon. In addition to the African Hebrew Israelites, Dimona harbors Bedouins, goats, and a nuclear weapons facility. Because of the colorful street dramas I’d witnessed enacted in New York by the Black Hebrews — an older white woman harassed to the point of tears, a white businessman pressured to get on his knees and kiss one of their boots in payment for the sins of his race, a Jewish college kid debating the algorithm that compared him to Hitler — I wasn’t sure what to expect when I showed up outside the compound’s metal gate. “Village of Peace,” the sign read.

“Oh, we left that anger behind,” Sister Aturah told me on a tour of the grounds. “We don’t sing the blues anymore.” She was the latest wife of a man called Dr. Khazriel, who had a few wives and many, many children. He had come from Detroit as a teenager decades ago and was now head of Dimona’s School of the Prophets, a kind of college. Sister Aturah was a more recent immigrant, originally from the Bahamas. The sun was going down over the village, and there were happy children bouncing around all over the place like jumping beans. “Avner! Yeshaia! Bashan! Zehorah!” their mothers called from the doorways of little tarpaper shacks. “Dinnertime!”

Sister Aturah showed me the birthing center, the bakery, the fitness center, the sewing center, the worship center, and the school. I was duly impressed by the oasis the African Hebrew Israelites had built, out of nothing, in the sand. It was something like a Native American reservation, an independent nation within a nation, only without the alcoholism and casinos.

So how were the African Hebrew Israelites supporting themselves? They’ve been in the holy land for forty years, but they’re not exactly a part of it. Israel doesn’t recognize them as Jews. They’ve recently gained permanent residency status, but not the rights of full citizenship. Sister Aturah and Dr. Khazriel explained that the community grows much of its own food, sews most of its own clothing, and even operates a couple of vegetarian restaurants in greater Israel, but I wondered how they made their living if they weren’t a part of Israel’s economy. As it turns out, they’ve been doing it all along, with music.

Soul Messages from Dimona is compiled from a series of LPs recorded in Tel Aviv in the mid-1970s, a few years after the community established itself in the desert. Most of its sixteen tracks are by a horn- drenched funk band called the Soul Messengers, whose core members got their musical start in the mid-60s as session players in a band backing Chicago R&B group the Leaners. It was a turbulent era for black America, a time of social protest and awakening reflected in the pounding sound of its music. Martha and the Vandellas’ hit Motown single “Dancing in the Streets” and James Brown’s civil rights anthem “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” were used by young black demonstrators as rallying cries for change. Bass player Charles “Hezekiah” Blackwell, guitarist Thomas “Yehudah” Whitfield, and singer John “Shevat” Boyd helped make that sound. When they weren’t backing the Leaners, they were attending Hebrew Israelite meetings to study the Bible.

In a poignant memoir, The Impregnable People: An Exodus of African Americans Back to Africa, Hebrew Israelite Prince Gavriel HaGadol writes about that time:

We were a nation of rejects … The realization of the plight of the “negro” in America — the continual victim, the constant target, the “national” object of hatred, bigotry and oppression — were devastating … We were at war and didn’t realize it. Our foxholes were the deepening pits of denial and dehumanization; our bunkers were the crumbling tenement slums. Facing these harsh realities confronting our people, Ben [Ammi] and I asked the questions, “Where do we go from here? Is there no help for us? Why are we in this despicable condition? Should we join one of the existing Black movements and seek to negotiate our freedom or attempt to arm ourselves and take it?

As Prince Gavriel suggests, the Hebrew Israelites were one of several Black Power groups to emerge in the 1960s. Members of other groups, such as the Black Muslims, accused them of being timid, anti-revolutionary Bible lovers, suckered by the white man’s book. In fact, Ben Ammi taught his followers that the Bible bridged a gap between social and religious activism. It contained explicit directions to reconnect them with their original land, language, and culture, and was therefore a true black nationalist text. He taught that the Bible was a black history book; that its characters were black; that the sorrow songs they’d grown up singing in church about Zion and crossing over the Jordan River were not metaphors but literal truths; that heaven was not a pie in the sky but a place on earth, located in Israel; and that as Hebrews that was where they belonged. Rhythm and blues, with its deep gospel roots, was yet another expression of their history as a chosen people. These ideas resonated deeply with the musicians. In The Impregnable People Hezekiah is reported to have said:

I had always been in the church singing about Zion and singing about crossing over the Jordan River, so it was something to hear the teachings and find out that it was our people we were singing about. Folks were saying that the Bible characters were Black folks and it was Black folks who sang “Go Down Moses.” When I found out that Black folks were really “the people,” it all made sense, ’cause I used to always wonder why would Black people sing all these songs about white folks. It just didn’t make sense. When I found out Blacks were the people in those songs, it made more sense why these songs had meant so much to me as a youngster.

To symbolize strength and unity as a people, they clenched their fists, called one another “brother” and “sister,” refused to salute the American flag or sing the national anthem, studied Hebrew, kept kosher, dressed in dashikis, and changed their names.

The path to the Promised Land was not straight. Steeped in the prophetic tradition of Marcus Garvey, Ben Ammi first led a group of approximately 350 Hebrew Israelites — Hezekiah, Yehudah, and Shevat among them — to Liberia. West Africa may have been the endpoint of Garvey’s Zionist dream, but for the Hebrew Israelites it was just a weigh station on their exodus to Israel, which they perceived as the homeland of their forefathers. Their tradition holds that whereas the Jews descend from Judah, the Hebrew Israelites descend from Adam, the original man. Over two thousand years ago they were exiled from the Holy Land and migrated southward, down the Nile. Over the centuries, they drifted westward to the coast of Africa, where a great number of them were captured and shipped into modern Babylon as a curse for sinning against God’s law. (The Hebrew Israelites distinguish their curse, referred to in Leviticus and Deuteronomy as a great dispersal and a voyage into captivity by boat, from the eternal curse of Ham, which was used by white slave owners to justify slavery. While Ham’s curse cannot be redressed, the African Hebrew Israelites believe their curse can be, by right living.) They decided to follow the route by which their people had come to America, to trace their footsteps home.

Liberia was where their ancestors had departed from God’s grace; it was also part of a continent that had been brutally raped by Euro-Gentiles of its precious resources: diamonds, grain, coffee, gold. For the Hebrew Israelites, going “back to Africa” was synonymous with going “back to the land,” a geographical and psychological journey to leave urban blight behind.

The Hebrew Israelites practiced for their return by camping at a forest preserve. When they arrived in Liberia in 1967, they were gob-smacked by culture shock. Life in the bush was hard; even harder, some admitted, than life in the ghetto. They set up in Sears-Roebuck tents a hundred miles from the capital and tried to build their utopia in earnest. Then came the mamba snakes, malaria, driver ants, and endless rain. The tents began to rot. A faction of women mutinied against the institution of “divine marriage” (polygamy). A few of the children died from malnutrition. When the plot of land they farmed failed to produce enough crops to feed the community, dozens returned to the United States. Neighbors in Liberia were never entirely welcoming; although the Hebrew Israelites were not to be confused with the Americo-Liberians in power, they were also not recognized as Africans. Driven by hunger and with their families’ lives at stake, Hezekiah, Yehuda, and Shevat traveled a hundred miles to Monrovia with their instruments in hand.

The gamble paid off. After performing James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” at President Tubman’s inauguration, the trio quickly became one of the most popular live acts in Liberia. Local demand for America’s soul hit parade ensured the band’s success. The liner notes to Soul Messages from Dimona argue that the Soul Messengers (as they became known) were the first funk band to land on the African continent. While Fela Kuti was still playing highlife in Nigeria, these three American expatriates were gigging night after night to support their families. They built a happening nightclub in Monrovia called the Soul Spot. Soon, the entire African Hebrew Israelite settler community was dependent on the band’s income.

By 1969, Ben Ammi was ready to make the final push to Israel. Liberia wasn’t the land of milk and honey, Dr. Khazriel explained to me, it was a place for the African Hebrew Israelites to “cleanse ourselves of the slave mentality” and to “shed our American identities.”

But when the Afrocentric group of Americans arrived in Zion with their Old Testament names, Israeli officials weren’t sure what to do with them. The Black Hebrews weren’t Jews, according to the Chief Rabbinate, so the Law of Return did not extend to them. They were African Americans who, having been historically rejected by America, had rejected it in turn. America was their Egypt. They believed they would die in the States, dispossessed, degraded, and oppressed. This was their Exodus, and they saw themselves as one of Israel’s lost tribes.

Dr. Khazriel maintained that the Law of Return was altered because of the African Hebrew Israelites. He claimed the only proof Jews used to need to be registered in Israel was an innocent declaration. The modification to the law came shortly after the arrival of the first Hebrew Israelites from Liberia, whereupon Jews came to be defined as people born of Jewish mothers or who converted to Judaism. “It’s not a coincidence. It’s a conspiracy,” he said, likening the law to the grandfather clauses used to block African Americans from voting during Reconstruction. “The question of who is and isn’t a Jew has never been under such scrutiny as when those of African descent return to the Holy Land.”

Of course, the Hebrew Israelites see themselves as the original Jews. Upon their arrival in 1969, they refused to convert, calling the Israelis “heathens” and publicly threatening to run them into the sea. When it became clear Israel wouldn’t legitimize their brand of Judaism, they made a desperate bid for political asylum on humanitarian grounds. Whether or not their claims were legitimate, it might have damaged Israel’s public image to deport them. In any case, they were allotted temporary visas and allowed to squat in Dimona, where through the practice of polygamy and wide-scale proselytizing efforts in major urban cities throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean, the numbers of Black Hebrews (as they are known in Israel) began to swell. There are now an estimated 2,500 of them living in the desert — the largest group of black Americans living outside America today.

As the community began to grow, so did the Soul Messengers. By 1972, newcomers Amnon, Ahman, and Abshalom rounded out the group on trumpet, tenor, and alto sax, respectively. The musicians practiced from dawn till dusk. As in Liberia, the livelihood of the entire community rested upon the success of the band. The Soul Messengers tirelessly toured the tiny nation, performing regularly at small clubs and discos, changing the lyrics of hit songs to reflect their beliefs. Steam’s “Na Na Na (Kiss Him Goodbye),” for example, became “Our Lord and Savior” (track 2).

Natives looked on the Soul Messengers as a charming curiosity. Then in 1973, the Yom Kippur War provided the Soul Messengers with a unique opportunity that made them the hottest, most sought-after party band in the country. Perhaps seeking to court government favor, the group volunteered to perform at Israeli Defense Force military bases for free. With their spirits lifted by hard-hitting funk, the troops began spreading the word about the Soul Messengers. Soon the Black Hebrews were booking street festivals, theaters, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. With the Soul Messengers at its heart, the stage show eventually grew into a sprawling musical supergroup that included the Tonistics (a boy group inspired by the Jackson Five), the Spirit of Israel (a gospel inflected women’s choir), and the Sons of the Kingdom (a message-oriented soul quartet).

Seizing the opportunity to capitalize on their wild success, CBS Records’ Tel Aviv arm booked the Soul Messengers into a recording studio in 1975. Six of the tracks they laid down at that session are included on Soul Messages from Dimona. (Due to a rift between the band and the label, however, the record never saw wide release.) In 1976 the band recorded another album, Sweet Land of Mine, which featured the satellite acts on the Soul Messenger’s bill. “Dimona (Spiritual Capital of the World)” reflects what the town had become for the African Hebrew Israelites:

Dimona, the opposite of all the wicked nations / Wicked rulers, wicked governments of the third dispensation

These lyrics also reflect how the group speaks out of the nineteenth-century Christian tradition of Dispensationalism. Back in the late 1800s, a strategy of black theologians was to critique America’s pretensions of being the Promised Land. They saw Western Civilization-worshipping Anglo-Saxonism instead of Christ. This civilization corrupted Christianity by preaching racism and would destroy itself in the End Times. Dispensationalism appealed to them as a plan of divine human redemption. As certain blacks saw it, the role of Shem, the Semites, was to preserve the word of God. The role of Japeth, the Europeans, was to preach the Word of God. Ham, the Africans, had the most important dispensation. Their role was to put the Word of God into practice.

Later in 1976, Ben Ammi ordained the Sons of the Kingdom ambassadors of funk and sent them to tour the U.S., Africa, and Europe to entertain and indoctrinate, armed with a 45 RPM single. Its two tracks, “Hey There” and “Modernization,” are included on the Numero Group compilation and were written to recruit more blacks to the faith, with the mission of saving the world.

The CD documents a turn from anger to praise, from Babylon to Zion, from oppression to self- reliance, and even, on ”Go to Proclaim” (track 6), from English to Hebrew. This song is the best in the collection. Sung with the burning honey of Al Green at his most yearning, it’s a stirring mix of sacred and secular.

But what happens to black music when it’s no longer blue?

The compilation’s more infectious tracks are its sad and angry ones, the ones that let the finger linger on pain’s jagged edge, the ones that bleed a little. Take “Modernization” (track 9). Reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” the tune opens up with inner-city street sounds — honking horns and sirens — then opens out in protest:

High level apartments
Tower in the sky
What kind of people desire to live so high?
Tower of Babel and everybody’s confused
I think I’ll stay on the ground
One level house is all I’ll use
People are dying from fires in the sky
Fireman, please save my baby
“Sorry lady, my ladder don’t go that high”

This song, “Burn Devil Burn” (track 1), and “Equilibrium” (track 7) are the songs that make you want to dance, even as their overt politics date them squarely in the post–Civil Rights era of black social protest. They are righteous and blisteringly exuberant. “Junky Baby” (track 13) is something like Diana Ross’s “Love Child” — it sounds almost like a caricature of itself, but it’s got undeniable soul. “Born in sorrow, born in pain,” it cries, and you could weep. “Daniel” (track 4) is a gorgeous straight-up gospel song with a psychedelic twist, like something out of Godspell. “Equilibrium” is saturated with complex polyrhythms and a funky guitar digging out an infectious groove. “Listen to the voice of peace,” it beseeches, like an earnest and anguished prayer.

But when we get the voice of peace in “A Place to Be” (track 14), it sounds exactly like the Partridge Family.

It’s a place that’s free and easy
It’s a world of love and peace
Maybe you should come and see it
It’s the place to be!
I just wanna live in Israel
Live a life of purity
Away from the wild and wicked world
Teach my children how to be free
Just to see my children play
On a hillside as free as can be
They will never ever know
The pain of slavery

Stripped of pain, it’s stripped of soul. Without that heavy bottom to underscore its joy, the song comes off as anodyne and flat.

This is the kind of music I heard when I visited the Village of Peace almost thirty years after the original Soul Messengers disbanded. Sister Aturah led me to a recording studio built in a disused bomb shelter. I watched a band rehearse there, a group of Israeli-born outsiders who no longer thought of themselves as on the fringe. Though they stood on the shoulders of the Soul Messengers, their music was forgettable. Sister Aturah was proud to report that in recent years, singers from the community have twice represented Israel at Eurovision. They did not win. “We have a new musical genre now. We call it Songs of Deliverance,” she said, kindly offering me a few sample CDs of the African Hebrew Israelite’s new sound. I listened to them once. Once was enough.