Spiritual leader of the African Hebrew Israelites dies

Gabe Friedman

(JTA) — The spiritual leader of the African Hebrew Israelites, a group of African-American Jews who moved to Israel in the 1960s, has died.

Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, born Ben Carter in Chicago, died Saturday in the Negev town of Dimona, The Associated Press reported. He was 75; the cause of death was not announced.

Ben-Israel believed that some African-Americans were descendants of the biblical tribe of Judah who migrated to West Africa and were sold as slaves in the United States. In 1966, he and a few hundred followers settled in Liberia before moving three years later to Dimona, in southern Israel.

“While obviously deeply saddened at the loss of our Holy Father’s physical presence, we are nevertheless emboldened in knowing that his spirit truly lives in each and every one of us,” group spokesman Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda said in a statement.

Before forming the movement, Ben-Israel dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Army. He also worked as a metallurgist. In 1966, he claimed that the angel Gabriel told him to “return to the Holy Land” by the way in which he came.

The approximately 3,000 remaining African Hebrew Israelites make their own clothes, practice polygamy, and avoid eating meat, dairy, eggs and sugar. They have established craft and tailoring businesses and vegan restaurants. They did not officially convert to Judaism and were not granted permanent residency in Israel until 2003.

Ben-Israel is survived by four wives and over 20 children.