FRIDAY, MAY 7, 1999
group spotlights black Hebrews' cause
'Eden,' representing Israel in
European contest, draws attention to its people's unresolved legal status
Ilene R. Prusher
Special to The Christian Science Monitor
When he was growing up in Chicago, Gabriel Butler Sr. would sometimes harmonize on
street corners with his friends. Back in the 1950s, he never imagined he would someday see
his singing sons represent Israel on stage in Jerusalem - with an estimated 100 million
people watching across Europe and beyond.
|BLACK HEBREWS IN
THE DIMONA COMPOUND: The founders were African-Americans from Chicago who came to Israel
in 1969, adopting Judaism.
(SHARON ABBADY /SPECIAL TO
THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR)
On May 29, two of his nine children - Gabriel Jr. and Eddie - will
perform in the annual Eurovision Song Contest. Virtually unknown in America, the glitzy
pop-music extravaganza will draw vocalists from about 25 countries - including
extracontinental wannabes like Israel and Turkey - to vie for a first-place spot that
promises play at clubs and radio stations throughout Europe.
But the Butler brothers are in an odd position to be Israel's contenders in the
contest: The country they're singing for doesn't recognize them as citizens.
Stop. Rewind. The Butler brothers are children of a sect known as the black Hebrews, a
group of African-Americans who came to Israel in 1969 and declared they had returned home.
Israel didn't roll out welcome mats but didn't deport them either. Thirty years later, the
legal status of the group - which today prefers to be called the African Hebrew Israelites
of Jerusalem - is still undecided.
One thing is clear: Gabriel Butler, who came here when he was 8, and his brother Eddie,
who was born here, feel as Israeli as anyone else. "We've been here all our lives.
I'm as Israeli as it gets," says Mr. Butler Jr., taking a break from recording at a
Tel Aviv studio, where he chats with his producer in flawless Hebrew.
In addition to the Butlers, the two other members of their group, Eden, are ordinary
white, native-born Israelis with extraordinary voices. The result is an unprecedented
hybrid of Hebrew with American R&B that makes Eden sound something like an Israeli
cross between Boyz II Men and the Neville Brothers.
Hours away from the buzz and bright lights of Tel Aviv, where all four members of Eden
live, is the remote desert town of Dimona. Here, Gabriel Butler Sr. and his wife,
Karaliah, make their home, along with most of the other 2,000 black Hebrews living in
Israel. They came to Israel by choice, but to Dimona - a name synonymous in Israel with
unemployment, poverty, and a nuclear power plant - by circumstance.
In 1966 a man named Ben-Ammi Carter had a vision that his African ancestors had been
among the lost children of Israel. Preaching on Chicago's South Side, he persuaded
followers to adopt his interpretation of Judaism based on the Old Testament. About 350 of
them sold their homes and joined him for a two-year period of purification in Liberia
before moving to Israel. When the first black Hebrews arrived in the Jewish state on
tourist visas and refused to leave, an exasperated Israeli government directed them to an
empty building in Dimona - a so-called "development town" aimed at settling new
immigrants in unpopulated areas.
"Now, when I look back, I think we were a little crazy," chuckles Mr. Butler
Sr., as he looks over old newspaper clippings documenting their controversial relocation.
"The spirit of God moved us."
But these days, even after moving into better accommodations, the community has
outgrown its quarters. Members say they'd prefer to start a kibbutz - or agricultural
settlement - in a place that could accommodate their communal lifestyle.
But first they have to win their battle for citizenship. They seemed a step closer to
that in 1990, when the Interior Ministry agreed to give them temporary residency permits
and most basic rights afforded to citizens. In return, the black Hebrews promised not to
bring over any new members from the United States and to end polygamy in the community.
But they've maintained other religious tenets not found in traditional Judaism. All
members are strictly vegan, eat only raw food for four weeks out of the year, and fast on
the Sabbath. A hierarchy of princes and ministers has the right to approve marriages and
discourage members from wedding outside the community. They also run their own school,
where the primary language of instruction is Hebrew.
And through its two gospel choirs, which have been warmly received in Israel and
abroad, the community has gained a reputation for developing outstanding singers. Elisheva
Bat-Israel, who once managed Gabriel, Eddie, and three other siblings, says the Butler
children's talents helped the community survive.
"Back when we didn't have any legal status and we weren't allowed to work,
Gabriel's performances helped feed everyone here," says Ms. Bat-Israel.
Like other members of the community, she hopes that Eden's success will put the black
Hebrews' cause back on the national agenda. "It's not that we're being
mistreated," she says. "It's just that we don't have [citizenship] yet, and
we're just waiting now for the next step."
"I just want to represent my country in dignity," adds Mr. Butler Jr., who
says he'd prefer to be called an Afro-Israeli. "It's about the music, and if we lose
that focus, we don't stand a chance."