The African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem (also known as the Black Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, the Black Hebrew Israelites, or simply the Black Hebrews or Black Israelites) is a spiritual group now mainly based in Dimona, Israel, whose members believe they are descended from the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The community now numbers around 5,000. Their immigrant ancestors were African Americans, many from Chicago, Illinois, who migrated to Israel in the late 1960s.
They believe they are Jewish but when they began emigrating to Israel, the religious officials and the state did not consider them Jewish and as a result, they were asked to convert. In 2003, the remainder of the existing community (those who had not received residency permits earlier) were granted official Israeli permanent residency and later were entitled to acquire Israeli citizenship by naturalization, which does not imply any Jewish status. Since 2004, some members of the community (both men and women) have enlisted to the Israel Defense Forces.
The group was founded in Chicago by a former steel worker named Ben Carter (1939–2014, also known as Ben Ammi Ben-Israel). In his early twenties Carter was given the name Ben Ammi by Rabbi Reuben of the Chicago Congregation of Ethiopian Hebrews. Ben Ammi was working in an airline factory when he first discovered the Black Hebrew movement and its philosophy. According to Ben Ammi, in 1966, at the age of 27, he had a vision in which the Archangel Gabriel called him to take his people, African Americans, back to the Holy Land of Israel.
Ammi and his followers draw on a long tradition in black American culture which holds that black Americans are the descendants of the Ancient Israelites (Ammi cites Charles Harrison Mason of Mississippi, William Saunders Crowdy of Virginia, Bishop William Boome of Tennessee, Charles Price Jones of Mississippi, and Elder Saint Samuel of Tennessee as early exponents of black descent from Israelites).
They are also influenced by the teachings of the Jamaican proponent of Black nationalism, Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), and the black civil rights milieu in 1960s America, including figures such as the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. From these they have incorporated elements of black separatism as well as the doctrine which advocates the repatriation of the African Diaspora to its ancestral lands in a “return to Africa”, of which they consider Israel to be a part. To them, Israel is located in Northeast Africa instead of West Asia.
The inspiration to move to Israel was born from several components. One was the hardship black community members faced in America and within American culture, especially in Chicago in the 1960s, at the height of the Civil rights movement. Another component was the community’s will to form a confident and positive African identity, as opposed to the damaging identity the group felt they carried in America. The last component was this spout of religious and spiritual connection to a long-standing culture and history and promised land.