African Hebrew Israelites are part of the fabric of Israeli society; they should not be deported.
About the Panelists
Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda is on the Engagement Committee of Heart of a Nation and a member of the African Hebrew Israelite Community where he serves as a National Spokesman and the Director of International Affairs. He is the chief political liaison for the community, engaging with government officials at the local and international level. He also serves on the board of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr/SCLC –Ben Ammi Institute for New Humanity Conflict Resolution.
Yahlital Hercules is 23 years old and was born in Israel. Because she has no legal status in Israel she was unable to serve in the army, nor take advantage of international academic programs offered to her as an honors student in high school. She was able to get into Ono College through the goodwill of the institution and is currently in her last year of studying Occupational therapy. Now she is facing the threat of deportation instead of entry into an Israeli pre-med program.
Avishai Burgess is 22 years old, recently completed his service in the Israeli Navy, where he taught electronics to high school students from troubled homes. He enlisted after serving a year as a national service volunteer in Eilat to counseling at risk youth. Now that his service is done, he works on a community organic farm project as he contemplates enrolling in college to study business administration.
Prince Immanuel, I’d like to begin the conversation by asking you to tell us a little about the African Hebrew Israelite community and its connection to Israel.
Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda
There is a rich history among African-American communities who have traced their lineage back to Israel. And there is a great historical anthology written by a Professor James Landing of the University of Chicago called “Black Judaism and the American Story”. Blacks in America who identify with Israel and Judaism go back to the 15th century. Our community was one of those. In 1966, our community leader indicated that it was time to acknowledge Israel as our home. A year later, in 1967, 350 of his followers left Chicago and went to Liberia where they spent two and a half years. In 1969, the first groups of Hebrew Israelites began to enter Israel. Those initial arrivals were granted new immigrant status. But in 1971, the community was found ineligible. Nevertheless, those members stayed, and others came. They began to create their own institutions: A school system, a medical system, trying to grow food on whatever land was available, they became vegan, we practiced holistic medicine, we made all our clothes out of natural fibers.
Fast forward to 1989, then-Minister of Interior Arye Deri was the first Israeli cabinet member to visit the community and he gave the community legal status. It was a process: In 1990, we got B1 visas and work permits, in 1993, we got temporary residency. It was projected that by December 1995 we would receive permanent residency. But November of that year was the tragic assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. And after the changing of governments, the issue of our status wasn’t addressed for another 10 years, not until 2003.
Congressman Tom Lantos wrote then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a letter in 2002, about our problems with status. Sharon wrote him back saying everyone born in Israel would get full citizenship — but that never happened. And it still hasn’t happened to this day. But nevertheless, the community continued to make progress and work very intimately with the rest of Israeli society. And while these issues of status continued in the background, life has gone on in many respects. The community has represented Israel — globally, at international academic programs, sports programs, cultural programs, extensively throughout Africa. We worked with the Foreign Ministry, in fact, on projects in Kenya and Ghana and South Africa.
Our two special guests on this call are Avishai Burgess and Yahlital Hercules. They are two of the many outstanding young people in our community. Avishai is 22 years old. He just finished his service in the Israeli Navy. He came to Israel at the age of seven. Yahlital is 23. She is currently completing her last year of occupational therapy studies at Ono College. She was born and raised here in Israel. She has been an outstanding student. And she has received a deportation order.
How many members of the community are citizens of Israel? And how many have served in the IDF?
Out of a community of over 3000, approximately 700 have full citizenship, and 1200 have permanent residency; about 500 have served in the IDF. Those who serve in the military for 18 months can apply for and get citizenship. Normally that should accrue to their parents and any siblings under 18. In some cases, that has happened — in some cases it has not.
Back in 2014, some of our soldiers visited the Knesset and met with former President Rivlin — who at the time was Speaker of the Knesset. After that, Minister of Interior Gideon Sa’ar visited our community in Dimona. Sa’ar got a list of 64 people who had no status whatsoever, and he said, we can fix the status of these individuals. Most were born in Israel. But a few months later, he resigned from his post for political reasons. And that group went into limbo. A year later, Arye Deri became Minister of Interior. I met with him in Dimona and presented him with the same list. He too agreed to solve this — but nothing happened.
Two years later, I met with Bibi Netanyahu when he was on a campaign trip in Dimona and presented him with the same list. He said, “Yeah, we can solve this, bring this list to my bureau and we will work on it.” I did that but three years later, we still had no answer. Last year, members of our community approached the Ministry of Interior with that same list and they said, “Yeah, we think we can do something.” Then, in April of 2021, we received deportation letters for 60 members of the community. We were shocked because we thought we had a working relationship with Israel’s political leadership. This is not 50,000 refugees. This is 60 people who are a part of a community that’s been serving Israel for decades, in the military, representing the country in the Maccabiah Games, working together overseas.
When did you receive the letters and when was the deportation supposed to commence?
The first letters came in April and they were to take place in 60 days. Each family filed an appeal and the Ministry of Interior could not act on the deportation while the appeal was pending. They did not respond to the letters of appeal until about two and a half weeks ago. And they denied the appeal and said, you now have 14 days to leave the country, a deadline which passed a few days ago. So we are preparing another appeal, to the district court and humanitarian tribunal, with the possibility going to the Israeli Supreme Court.
Your community is concentrated in Dimona; what’s your relationship with the mayor and the people of Dimona?
Like extended family. We’ve grown up together; our kids play together. The mayor has written a very strong letter in support of the community to the Prime Minister as well as to the new Minister of interior. And on television, he has said that no one should be expelled from his city. We’re part of the fabric of Israeli society; this is our home.
Can we hear from Yahlital and then from Avishai? Can you tell us about the life that you’ve led in Israel?
I was born and raised in Israel. I’ve lived in Dimona for my entire life until recently when I moved to attend college. I’ve only traveled once out of the country, and that was for a trip to Poland focusing on the Holocaust experience. Other than that, I’ve only lived in Israel. I’ve never lived anywhere else. I don’t know any other place. This ordeal has been very hard on me because I’m in my last year of college. When I first heard of the deportation letters, I was pretty shocked. I was in the middle of an internship at a hospital in Talam Shomer. It was hard for me because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I don’t know what my future will be.
Yahlital, do you have siblings? Brothers and sisters living in the community? How is this ordeal affecting them?
My mom has eight children. I’m the oldest of them. She and all of her children got deportation letters. All of my brothers and sisters were born here, they’re being raised here. So, it’s affecting us very personally. One of my sisters graduated with honors as well. She went to dance school for three years and is now part of a dance company. It’s affecting us very personally.
Avishai, I’d like to bring you into this conversation. You have served in the Israeli Navy. I assume you’re still in the reserves. How are you processing all of this?
Well, it’s really something because it’s you give everything you have to the country you love and you look over your shoulder and it’s like, “We’re taking your friends, your extended family, and sending them away.” It’s really confusing because during my military service, they say “You did good you we appreciate your efforts,” and you receive awards of excellence from the military, and they say “We love your community,” and then it’s like, yeah, “We’re taking some of you and sending them away.”
Before his military service, Avishai was volunteering with at-risk young people, ninth graders, for a year in the city of Eilat.
Rabbi Judy Schindler
What can we in America do to support you?
Rabbi, thank you for the question. Please contact anyone you know in the Israeli government; in the Prime Minister’s office, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Justice — which is where Gideon Sa’ar is now. A petition drive is important. We are also fundraising to finance attorneys.
I’m in Jerusalem, and my sense is that this story is not one that most people in Israel are tuned into, there’s always a lot going on here. I don’t think people are even aware that this is happening. But I’m deeply moved by the three of you. And I feel like other people would be as well. I’m thinking out loud as to how we could raise the profile of this issue.
We have had some good press coverage; television, print media and social media. It has been empowering, but you can always get more. There’s still a lot of ground for us to cover.
This is a very upsetting and moving presentation. I really appreciate you speaking with us. Why did the deportation letters go out right now?
The only thing I can come up with is the recent orientation of the Ministry of Interior. Shas, in particular, has maintained dominance over that ministry for years, and has made it difficult for many, not just members of our community, to get status. It seemed like this was an opportunity to slap us on their way out the door. Other than that, it doesn’t make sense. That’s the only reason I could come up with.
My second question is, what can stop these deportations and not leave you in limbo?
The new Minister of Interior, Ayelet Shaked, can cancel the deportation order. That would remove the immediate threat of deportation while we move to the second stage, which is to finally get legal status to stay in Israel. That’s not implausible, because it has been done in cases similar to ours. Three years ago, a large group of Filipino children, who were here with parents who came to Israel as workers and stayed longer than their visas allowed, had their status regularized. Why can’t that be done for us? Why can’t that solution be applied to us and let us move on?
Have any civil society institutions taken up this cause in Israel? Is anybody taking up this issue?
There have been groups that have expressed support and created a petition drive and a crowdfunding platform to assist us with the legal aspect. But it has not been enough.
Adi Ben Boher
As a resident of Dimona, I know that the Mayor is a very good advocate for you. On the other hand, how can he not have solved this for so many years? Also, how involved is the local community on your behalf?
The mayor has been very active. He was the one who facilitated the meetings that I had with Deri, and he drove me in his car to the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem with the list of names. He was there for the meetings. We figured at the time that the reason Aryeh Deri hadn’t moved to resolve the problem was because he might have jeopardized his position within his own party. That’s why we reached out to Prime Minister Netanyahu. We thought that would let Deri off the hook and the Prime Minister could solve this problem. But his political situation was also precarious. Everyone figured, “Let’s just kick the kick the problem down the road a few more years.”
Do you think Ayelet Shaked is someone who’s going to resolve this? She’s not a person who’s says, “Oh, yes, I love everyone, welcome!”
That’s something we’re very well aware of in terms of the political spectrum. Her party was further to the right than Likud on this particular issue. But at the same time, we know that there has been support from the public. She has apparently had conversations with the Mayor saying, “Give me some time. I think we can solve this.” But we’ve certainly heard that before.
Have there been any direct approaches to the Ministry of Justice?
Members of our community have had contact with the Ministry of Justice. They are hesitant to step ahead of the Ministry of Interior. Everyone wants to wait and see what decisions will be made before other interventions are tried.
The United States has its own issues with immigration but least if you’re born here, you become a citizen. The idea that somebody could be born in Israel, and not have some kind of status in Israel just makes no sense to me.
Bringing this issue up, especially with any visiting Israeli ministers, gives this another level of visibility and viability. If this issue was brought up during the visit to the US of Prime Minister Bennett, or Foreign Minister Lapid, or Defense Minister Gantz, it would get immediate attention and traction here. It would be very helpful for you to do that if you have that kind of access.
Thank you for this very meaningful presentation. Would it be helpful to reach out to Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai and the Israeli ambassador to the United States? I mean, they are trying to mend bridges, and they understand the importance of the views of the American Jewish community.
There would definitely be value in that. We need as many of the cabinet members and diplomats as possible to inquire about this particular issue, so it will resonate through the government. So that’s very important.
These are tough times for every minority in Israel. Many minorities have not been treated with fairness. I live it here in Israel every day. I wanted to ask specifically about President Hertzog. He has often spoken about his own relationship with African American communities. I’d like to see him stand up and say that this is not acceptable. As a result of this discussion, tomorrow morning, I’m going to send off letters to several Members of Knesset. They have to correct this injustice.
We did reach out to the President’s office and actually had a meeting scheduled with former President Rivlin and a representatives from the Ministry of Interior. But just before we were to meet, Rivlin got the invitation to come to Washington, so the meeting was canceled. We have met with President Hertzog on three different occasions: First, when he visited Dimona back in 2004. Then, twice after he became Minister of Tourism.
I would like very much like to thank Prince Immanuel and have Yahlital and Avishai share some final thoughts with us.
It’s very heartwarming and reassuring to hear that so many people are concerned and invested in helping us. Hearing people like you, who have connections with people higher up, helping us and wanting to make a change is really encouraging.
It’s so encouraging to know that we also have support from our friends abroad. Thank you very much, we really, really appreciate it.
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