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Black Hebrew Has a Song in His Heart for Israel, and His People

Once considered a cult, his sect has been marginalized for decades. But the group is gaining acceptance, thanks in part to music.

April 16, 2006|Laura Resnick | Associated Press Writer

DIMONA, Israel — Israel has denied him citizenship since birth, dismissing his group as a bizarre cult, but all the same, Eddie Butler will represent the Jewish state this year in Europe's biggest song contest.

Butler belongs to the Black Hebrews, a community of polygamous vegans originally from Chicago, who say they are a lost tribe of Israel.

"I love the state of Israel," Butler said, "and I want to show every black and white person here and abroad what we can do."

For that he'll have an international TV audience when he sings "Ze Hazman" -- This Is the Time -- Israel's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, a 37-nation pop jamboree being held in Athens from May 18 to 20.

The Black Hebrews began arriving here in small groups in 1969, led by Ben Carter, a former Chicago steelworker. He called himself Ben-Ami Ben Israel -- son of my people, son of Israel -- and said he was God's representative on Earth.

The government, unsure where they fit into Israel's Law of Return that grants every Jew automatic citizenship, moved them into remote desert towns and gave them temporary visas without permission to work.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that Black Hebrews were not Jews and thus not eligible for automatic citizenship under the Law of Return.

Now, after being marginalized for almost four decades, things are finally changing for the community, thanks in large part to the music of people like Butler.

"A small community that had its origins in not being at all accepted as part of Israel, and now we're representing Israel!" exclaimed its spokeswoman, Yaffa Bat Gavriel. "And that's where we want to be. We want to show that we're here to do our part for this country."

Butler was born 34 years ago in a taxi that broke down on the road to a hospital in the Negev Desert. His parents had immigrated here three years earlier to help found the Kingdom of Yah. The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, as they call themselves, say they are the lost tribe of Judah, exiled from the Holy Land by the Romans 2,000 years ago.

No scholar gives the idea any credence, "but to any group that does not have a history, this is a very attractive claim," says Rivka Gonen, former senior curator of ethnography at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The first 39 arrivals were followed by almost 600 more in the next two decades. Arriving on tourist visas, "the Black Hebrews had a very bumpy arrival here," said Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli who has written extensively on the group.

They refused to convert to Judaism, even though it would have entitled them to citizenship and the right to work. They considered themselves the true Jews of ancient Israel, and they followed a lifestyle they said was based on the Torah and Ben Israel's teachings, but without traditional Judaism's rabbinical interpretations.

Now a community of 2,500 people in Dimona and two other Negev towns, the Black Hebrews live a communal life, dress African-style and reject birth control. Most of the men have more than one wife. Babies are born at the group's "house of life" birthing center.

Butler's mother, Karaliah, a registered nurse in the U.S., helped set up the center and is one of its midwives.

The newcomers started out living in plywood shacks, but some have since moved into permanent housing. Over time, they climbed out of poverty by producing textiles and developing a thriving health food industry. Meanwhile, music was earning them acceptance, said Butler's older brother Avraham, who runs a tofu factory near Dimona.

It began with their choir, in which Butler sang as a youngster. They also formed two bands that entertained Israeli soldiers on the front lines in the 1970s.

Their albums and concerts helped the community survive financially. "Back then, all the money that we made from our music, we put into a central fund for the community, because no one was getting work, and it was hard for us to earn money at that time," Avraham Butler said.

In 2003, the Black Hebrews finally won permanent residency.

Their young people can now enlist in the army, a rite of passage in Israeli society. More than 70 have already done so.

Eddie Butler has a Hebrew first name, Etan, lives in Tel Aviv and is studying to convert to traditional Judaism.

"Ze Hazman," the song that is taking him to Athens, is a pop ballad influenced by R&B.

This will be his second appearance at Eurovision, a musical talent show that introduced ABBA in 1974 and Celine Dion in 1988. Butler and a brother were part of a larger Israeli group at the 1999 contest. "But this is really what I've been waiting for," he says.

"This time, I'll be singing solo and the stage is mine. This is my chance to do something for my country."

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