DIMONA, ISRAEL // In a dusty desert village in southern Israel, thousands of African-Americans claiming to be a lost tribe of Israel face an uncertain future. Although the government has, after a four-decade battle, agreed to allow them to pursue citizenship, only a handful, five adults and 16 children, have so far been approved. The remainder are classed as permanent residents, and are forbidden, much the same as Arab Israelis are, to build permanent structures on the land they rent from the government. Sheets of tarpaulin cover their homes, giving a sense of impermanence.
Still, the Black Hebrews, as they are known here, are used to challenge. In 1984, Dov Shilansky, the then speaker of the Israeli Knesset, called the community of peace-loving, then-polygamous vegans "worse than the PLO". "In a very short time, the Black Hebrews won't be here anymore," he warned. Two years later, Israeli Defence Forces surrounded their village, hoping to scare them into leaving "We've never had weapons and that day [the soldiers] were armed to the hilt," Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, a spokesman for the community, says. "There were sharpshooters all around us."
Frightened, but determined to stay in Israel - which they claim is their ancestral homeland - the immigrants warned that if the soldiers did not withdraw, they would march to Jerusalem, nearly 100km away. "That was the turning point," says Mr Ben Yehuda. "All this media descended on Dimona and everyone realised 'why all this use of force.'" More than 20 years have passed since that day, which the Black Hebrews refer to as The Day of the Show of Strength, and while they no longer face harassment from the army, their relationship with the government has remained tense.
The Black Hebrews consider themselves Jewish, one of 10 lost tribes of Israel. According to their legends, they immigrated to West Africa, where they were caught up in the slave trade and sold into the United States. Their spiritual leader and founder, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, formerly Ben Carter, a factory worker from Chicago, received his first vision in the late 1960s that he should take his tribespeople back to their home in Israel.
But when the first immigrants arrived in 1969, the Israeli government did not know what to do with them. Under the Law of Return, Israel is obliged to grant citizenship to any Jew. But religious authorities here were reluctant to recognise their form of Judaism, pointing at the time to their polygamous nature and other un-Jewish behaviour. Over the next 40 years, the government turned hundreds away at the airport. But still their community flourished, in part because believers were sneaking into the country on tourist visas - but also because of their strict rules banning contraception. Mr Ben Yehuda, who acts as a national spokesman, was barred from re-entering Israel after travelling to the US in the 1980s. Undeterred, he changed his name, got a new passport and returned to Israel.
"After The Day of the Show of Strength, being surrounded by army troops here, there's not too much that can shake us," he says. Reflecting on that difficult period in the community's history, he says, "We were literally trying to build with one hand and fend off attackers with the other hand while running from the police." There was a turning point in 2003, when the government awarded the community permanent residency, allowing them to join the army and begin the process of applying for full citizenship.
Despite the allegations that they are not real Jews, the Black Hebrews trace their lineage to the region via the music of their enslaved ancestors, who arrived in America with nothing in hand. "The only [cultural] expression they had was song," Mr Ben Yehuda says, "and the songs were not of West African places, there were of places in Israel - the River Jordan, Jerusalem, Jericho." Music remains an important part of their culture. "It's our lifestyle," says Samakeyah Bat Israel, who is in charge of education in the community. Like study and prayer, Mr Bat Israel says, song is a way to fill children with a love of life.
In the past, music seemed as though it might be the Black Hebrews' key into mainstream society. Eddie Butler, who was born and raised in Dimona, represented the country in the 2006 Eurovision contest. Over time, many of the younger generation have eschewed the practice of polygamy, and, while the Black Hebrews do not advocate violence and are in favour of a one-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis, some 300 have joined the Israeli Defence Force.
Although the majority do not go into combat posts, several did end up in Gaza during Israel's three-week assault last year, and came back deeply disturbed by what they saw, Mr Ben Yehuda says. The community is also concerned by Israeli plans to build a wall on the porous southern border - where Darfuri and Sudanese refugees enter the country - and proposed legislation that would effectively criminalise African asylum seekers.
"There has to be some sensitivity," Ben Yehuda says. "It's the human element." * The National