The Black Hebrew Exodus, 50 Years On

Rare images reveal the group's first days in the Promised Land

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

One day while working at a foundry in Chicago, the man who would become known as Ben Ammi Ben-Israel had a revelation.

“I realized that I was the Messiah,” Ben-Israel later recounted.

In 1967, hundreds of his followers sold all of their belongings and followed him to the Liberian jungle where they built a village for themselves, pursuing a process of spiritual purification after hundreds of years of slavery and racism.

Some ultimately went back to America, while others – largely inspired by the words uttered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just prior to his assassination – decided to journey on to their own Promised Land, the Land of Israel.

In December 1969, some three dozen members of the community, officially known as the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem and generally referred to as the Black Hebrews, completed their exodus, settling in the Negev Desert. Ben Ammi Ben-Israel stayed behind in Liberia to tie up some lose ends before coming with an additional group and joining his own family and the community in the small town of Dimona in March 1970.  According to Ben-Israel, once he came to Israel he received an additional name:  “Nasi Hashalom”, Hebrew for “The Prince of Peace”.

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

The rare photographs appearing here were taken in January 1970, just a few weeks after the community was established in Dimona, and prior to the arrival of the group’s charismatic leader. The images are part of the Dan Hadani Archive, from the National Library of Israel’s Pritzker Family National Photography Collection.

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

The Israeli authorities did not know how to handle the Prince of Peace and his followers, self-proclaimed descendants of the lost tribes of Israel who appeared to practice some form of Judaism, yet also had customs and a belief system all their own. In an unprecedented move, the government granted the African Hebrew Israelites tourist visas, yet also afforded them all of the benefits to which immigrants are entitled, including education, public housing, employment assistance and full medical coverage.

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

One early report tells of the curiosity and warmth exhibited by Dimona’s Indian and North African Jewish residents towards their new neighbors. According to another report about the Black Hebrews, “Anyone who comes in contact with them is full of praise: hard-working people, pleasant, put together, clean. Great citizens.”

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

Nonetheless, their arrival was also accompanied by significant suspicion and even antipathy, largely driven by their unusual origins and practices. When Meir Kahane moved to Israel in 1971, his first public appearance was in Dimona, where he accused the group of insulting the honor of the Jewish people. African Hebrew Israelites who came in smaller groups throughout the 1970s and 1980s were deported. Upon landing in the country in 1977, three community members even tore up their tickets and American passports in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent deportation. At one point, a high-ranking Egyptian official somewhat ironically offered to settle the African Hebrew Israelites in his country, then still officially at war with the Jewish state.

Nonetheless, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel had no intention of continuing his community’s exodus on to Egypt or anywhere else for that matter. He urged his flock to be patient. After enduring inner city Chicago and the jungles of Liberia, certainly a little perseverance could best the bureaucratic and cultural challenges they faced in Israel, as well.

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

Sure enough, in 1990, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party established guidelines that would ultimately ensure that the vast majority of the community be allowed to stay in Israel permanently.

While Ben Ammi Ben-Israel passed away in 2014, his teachings live on in the “Village of Peace” urban kibbutz in Dimona, where most African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem still live. Over the years, the strictly vegan community has thrived and become increasingly integrated into Israeli society and culture. They have opened a number of successful vegan restaurants, as well as factories for both vegan foods and natural fiber clothing. Many serve in the IDF, wearing special boots made from synthetic materials so as not to violate their religious prohibition against wearing leather.

Most members of the community today were born in Israel, yet the influence of 1960s Black America lives on in the cadence of the English they speak, as well as in the music and dance for which they have become legendary. Community members twice represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest: 1999’s “Yom Huledet/Happy Birthday” by Eden, and 2006’s “Together We Are One” by Eddie Butler.

Though it took some time, it now seems hard to deny that the vision Ben Ammi Ben-Israel expressed in a newspaper interview shortly after arriving in Israel half a century ago has largely been fulfilled, “We only really want one thing: that you will understand that we love the Land, want to be good citizens, to be the friends of all people.”

Photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge


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The Hebrew Women of His Majesty’s Armed Forces

During WWII, Hebrew women lined up to volunteer for the British Army. Posters from the period offer a fascinating glimpse of this unique chapter in Zionist history, as well as the history of feminism in Israel

"Join us, dear sister!" – A poster encouraging women to enlist in the British Army, the Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

Mess Halls: If you like order and cleanliness and are prepared for any job – choose this service and set the spirit of the soldiers, in both training and active duty.

The above quote is taken from a 1940s military volunteer form for Hebrew women. The style certainly appears outdated or even offensive by today’s standards, but this was how Jewish women in Mandatory Palestine were called upon to join the British Army. It wasn’t all about “order and cleanliness”, of course – thousands of women enlisted and served in a variety of combat support roles. Some were stationed in Israel while others were deployed to different bases in the Middle East and even Europe, where they served in the fields of medicine, munitions, transport and more.

Below is a Hebrew quote from Isaiah 52:1: “Put on thy beautiful garments”. The Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

Undoubtedly, the idea of Jewish women serving in the British army was considered unusual. The British themselves certainly weren’t thrilled about it and among the Yishuv (the Jewish community in the Land of Israel), many were also opposed.

Pictures and posters from this period (many of which can be found in the National Library collections) offer an interesting view of a highly important chapter in our history, and, some may argue, of the history of feminism in Israel as well.


“Announcing the recruitment of women for military service – Enlist!” The Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

In mid-1941, representatives of women’s organizations such as WIZO, the Council of Working Women (known today as NA’AMAT) and Hadassah, requested that the British Army open its women’s branch, the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), to Jewish volunteers from Mandatory Palestine.

The Yishuv considered itself part of the Allied struggle against the Nazis; from the beginning of the war, women were called to enlist alongside men and serve in the army, despite certain objections from religious parties.

The Jewish Agency joined the request put forth to the British and in October of 1941 permission to draft 5,000 women – 2,000 of them immediately – was granted.

“Sign up for the ATS and the WAFS [Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron]… at the Jewish Agency’s enlistment offices” The Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

In December of that year an official announcement was published. Numerous ads were posted in newspapers and on notice boards encouraging women to drop everything and volunteer. The Jewish Agency itself operated many of the enlistment centers and was at the forefront of this initiative. The following excerpt was published in Hebrew in the Davar daily:

Since the beginning of the war, the Hebrew woman has demanded her right to join the battle against the enemy. This demand has been accepted. Women must now fulfill their duty. Since the beginning of our resurrection in this land, women have stood side by side with men in building our country’s foundation. In every effort. Sacrifice and success were the lot of women just as they were the lot of men. Now women are allowed to contribute, in uniform, to the Yishuv’s war effort. The honor and privilege of volunteering in the army is now hers as well.


“You can shorten the road – To Victory…Join the ATS” The Shamir Brothers Collection at the National Library of Israel

In January 1942 the first class of 60 women designated to become officers and NCOs was recruited and trained at the Sarafand army base.

A Hebrew anthem was written for the female recruits. In June of 1942 the national institutions announced that military service would be mandatory for all women between the ages of 20-30 who did not have children. Due to religious objections however, not all of the eligible women were actually enlisted in the ATS.

Throughout the course of the war, a total of 3,500 Hebrew women were recruited to the ATS, in addition to 700 women who served in the WAAF, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Female soldiers served as drivers and nurses and filled various administrative and munitions roles.

During the Second Battle of El Alamein, Jewish drivers from the ATS brought badly needed troops and weapons to the front, an effort which helped block the Nazi advance toward Mandatory Palestine.

The Yishuv benefited a great deal from all of this. Many of the female volunteers later joined the various Jewish underground organizations. Their service had enabled them to acquire professional knowledge and expertise in an array of military fields, a fact which contributed immensely to these groups’ struggles against the British themselves as well as to Israeli efforts during the War of Independence.

Historically speaking, this episode provided a significant boost to the status of women in the Yishuv, as they proved they could contribute no less than their male peers.

In the underground movements, many women took on active roles in actual combat, and were not limited to support duties, though this policy was changed with the formation of the Israel Defense Forces in 1948. With the IDF taking shape during the War of Independence, many ATS alumni joined the ranks of the new Israeli army in command roles. IDF policy has since gone through many evolutions and today, thousands of Israeli female soldiers serve in active duty combat roles.


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When the Egyptians Bombed Tel Aviv

Despite its somewhat hedonistic and detached image, the city of Tel Aviv faced its share of difficulties during the War of Independence. So what does Leonard Bernstein have to do with all this?


The Tel Aviv central bus station after the attack by the Egyptians. The Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium collection, Bitmuna

If you’ve read The Other Side of the Coin (Hebrew) by Uri Avnery, you may recall the stories of a sense of bitterness which spread among Israeli soldiers in 1948. This feeling stemmed from the impression that while the soldiers were risking their lives at the various fronts, the citizens of Tel Aviv were going about their merry lives in the bustling Jewish metropolis on the Mediterranean coast. Avnery, a journalist turned activist/politician who would eventually become an icon of the Israeli left, described his feelings in blunt detail from his time on home leave. While this narrative concerning the Tel Aviv “bubble” and its reputation for hedonism remains somewhat relevant to this day, the truth is the city suffered its share of hardships during the most difficult of Israel’s wars. In the spring and summer of 1948, Tel Aviv was bombed repeatedly by the Egyptian Air Force.

The Palestine Post, May 20th, 1948

And this is where the camera suddenly freezes and our record screeches to a halt. Let’s rewind a bit and get some background: The War of Independence was already underway. Only two days after the State of Israel declared its independence, Egyptian warplanes appeared in the skies over the first Hebrew city. On May 18th, 1948, the Tel Aviv central bus station was bombed in the deadliest attack carried out by the Egyptians. These bombing runs lasted for about a month on a nearly daily basis, until June 11th. Sirens went off incessantly. An additional round of bombings began in July 1948. Simultaneously, in early June, Egyptian ships reached the waters off Tel Aviv and began shelling the city. Later on, Egyptian planes would continue to exploit the vulnerability of the nearly non-existent Israeli Air Force, conducting sorties over central Israel.

Upon hearing the sirens…pedestrians must evacuate the streets and gather in the lower floors of nearby buildings…” A poster published by the Tel Aviv municipality with guidelines in case of an attack. The Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel


Another part of this story begins some time earlier, in the days of the British Mandate, when the acclaimed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein first arrived in the Land of Israel in April 1947. This was the first time he played with the local Philharmonic Orchestra, and the maestro was immediately captivated by the charm of the small Jewish Yishuv.

It appeared Bernstein not only fell in love with the new country which was struggling to survive; he would also make a considerable contribution to the war effort. On a 60-day tour which included no less than 40 shows, Bernstein performed several times for soldiers scattered in different corners of the land. Some of you may have heard of Leonard Cohen’s special performances for Israeli soldiers fighting in the Yom Kippur war, but it turns out he was not the first famous Jewish “Leonard” to do so.

Leonard Bernstein and the Philharmonic Orchestra perform for soldiers in Be’er Sheva, November 1948. Photo credit: Hugo Mendelson, GPO


The lack of a significant Israeli Air Force affected Bernstein’s concerts with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra in the Tel Aviv area. David Sidorsky, who was then an overseas volunteer with the IDF and who would later become a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, described one of the concerts he attended. He told of how everyone who was present at the concert – including the orchestra musicians and Bernstein himself – was evacuated to a nearby bomb shelter after an Egyptian plane was identified flying over Tel Aviv.



When the plane had left the area, Bernstein continued conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6. The incident repeated itself 10 or 12 times, according to Sidorsky. Every time a plane flew overhead, a siren went off and everyone headed to the shelter. Every time the ‘all-clear’ signal was given, the crowd reentered the hall and Bernstein and the musicians continued the performance. “He was determined to complete the Sixth Symphony!” said Sidorsky.



Indeed, this wasn’t the only time Bernstein’s concerts coincided with Egyptian attacks. We found evidence of at least one other concert interrupted by Egyptian planes – and there may have been more. In another incident, a crisis almost arose at a concert held in Be’er Sheva for a few thousand soldiers. The large gathering raised the Egyptians’ suspicions and they even planned to divert forces to the area, out of concern that Israel was planning an offensive in the Negev region. Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first President later commented on the Egyptian reaction: “After all, who would make time for a Mozart concerto in the middle of a war?” In fact, the IDF actually did carry out an attack on a different area of the Negev at the same time, with Bernstein’s concert serving as a diversion.

“The Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein in Be’er Sheva” Davar, November 26th, 1948


An estimated 150 people were killed in the attacks on Tel Aviv. Though the city’s suffering was somewhat forgotten within the context of the ongoing war, Tel Aviv’s perseverance and ability to withstand enemy attacks contributed greatly to the Israeli victory in the war. After all, this was the location of headquarters for the IDF and the various underground organizations as well as the institutions of the young state. The war could not have been won, without the homefront doing its part.

The bombs left their impressions on the citizens of Tel Aviv. Years later, a child from the neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan, who had witnessed the deadly Egyptian attack on the Tel Aviv central bus station, wrote a piercing Hebrew poem, based on his painful memories: “It was at the age of three / that my youth was lost forever / on the way from preschool to the shelter // planes with their beautiful wings/ flew swiftly above me / leaving me, my face covered in dust.” This child was Hanoch Levin, who would become one of Israel’s greatest playwrights. The poem, ‘It Was at the Age of Three’ , was given a melody composed by Zohar Levy and included in Levin’s classic play ‘Queen of a Bathtub’.


This article was written with the help of the Toldot Yisrael Collection, which records the testimonies of the 1948 generation.


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“Stranger Things” in Jerusalem: Goethe and Goebbels in the Ticho Family Garden

How Else Lasker-Schüler ventured into her own alternate universe in downtown Jerusalem…

“The Banished Poet”, by Else Lasker-Schüler, 1942. The National Library collections

We may imagine the Ticho family garden in its heyday: a serene spot in the midst of a slowly expanding city, pine trees providing a sanctuary of scent and occasional shade; Patients of the famous eye doctor quietly erring across the garden path into the clinic, their companions catching a glimpse of Anna Ticho’s drawings and aquarelles; British Government officials, emigre intellectuals and local artists strolling the grounds while contemplating the state of the Mandate and of the escalating War in Europe.

Or we could delve into Else Lasker-Schüler’s version of this garden. In her play “I and I”, completed in Jerusalem in 1943, the poet conjures up a dystopic alternative to the eye doctor’s “tropical garden”. This “garden of hell” could be described as an early slapstick version of the “Upside-Down” – the parallel universe featured in Netflix’s “Stranger Things”. The writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is able to move between both gardens, while Goebbels, Goering and other figures are confined to the diabolical garden. The rest of the horrific yet humorous cast consists of Faust, Mephisto, Max Reinhardt, the poet herself, a scarecrow, the editor of the Haaretz newspaper, and other historical and fictional characters from the German literary and theatre worlds or from the country’s political and military elite.

Else Lasker-Schüler, February 1919, the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

The play itself was written during Else Lasker-Schüler’s period of forced exile in Jerusalem, after the Swiss Authorities had refused her re-entry to the country in 1939. By 1941, when she began writing “I and I”, she was already seventy years old and a distinguished poet and painter, although now deemed a “degenerate artist” by the Nazi regime. In Jerusalem she would publish her most famous poetry volume, “My Blue Piano”, through the Tarshish Publishing House in 1943. During these years she continued to paint and worked on her third play, which was not staged during her lifetime.

A 1979 production of Lasker-Schüler’s play “I and I” (Ichundich) in Düsseldorf. Photo by Ulli Weiss, Foto Lore Bermbach, the National Library collections.

Her young admirer, the literary scholar and writer Werner Kraft, likewise a refugee from Germany since 1934, settled in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, where he wrote his major studies on Karl Kraus and Rudolf Borchardt. Mostly working from the desk at his home, he wrote a journal chronicling and reflecting upon the fate of German-Jewish refugees amidst the urban and rural communities of the yishuv. His entries on Else Lasker-Schüler from these days include a passage from July 24th, 1941, in which he fittingly depicts the courageous and outrageous imagination of Else Lasker-Schüler, which reaches its creative peak in the play “I and I”: “She speaks of Wolfgang Ephraim Goethe, divides herself into Faust and Mephisto, lets the latter claim to have saved the former from the ‘bourgeoisie’. She lets the devil capitulate in face of this world of Hitlers, has Goebbels copulate with Mrs. Martha Schwertlein, and evokes all the magic of the old, noble Germany. She breaks grammar rules, sometimes writes in verse or in a “platt” everyday language, generates associative rhymes like children or the sick, yet with an overall effect of shattering greatness” (originally quoted in Marbacher Magazin 71, 1975).

A 1979 production of Lasker-Schüler’s play “I and I” (Ichundich) in Düsseldorf. Photo by Ulli Weiss, Foto Lore Bermbach, the National Library collections.

Indeed, the play moves between past and present, Germany and Jerusalem, and even contains a play within a play. It portrays awe-inspiring literary magnets alongside the devils of their day. While Goebbels appears in the play as a diabolical pleb, the Nazi Minister had in fact impacted Else Lasker-Schüler’s personal fate, as she notes in several letters from the 1930s to friends and acquaintances. She names Goebbels as directly responsible for banning her works and inciting violence against her. These letters are scattered among the two main portions of her archive, kept at the National Library in Jerusalem and the German Literary Archive (DLA) in Marbach, Germany. Examples include letters she wrote to Emil Raas and Fritz Strich, which are kept at both archives.

In a long letter to Professor Strich from December 1934, for example, Lasker-Schüler bewails her last days in Berlin before fleeing to Zurich. She speaks particularly of Goebbels who vilified and haunted her on the radio, in newspapers and in pamphlets handed out on the street. She continues to painfully note how she was beaten in public, had stones thrown at her and was encouraged by her landlord to leave, since he no longer felt he could guarantee her safety. Upon arrival in Zurich she had no choice but to sleep six nights on a bench by the lake because none of her acquaintances were in town (letter kept at the DLA). The letter is sealed with a drawing of a female and male figure with a new moon hung above them and relates to brief descriptions of the poet’s recent trip to “The Land of the Hebrews” and the fantastical travel journal she was writing.

The fusion of fact and fiction in the above letter is repeated, albeit in heightened fashion, in “The Land of the Hebrews” and later in “I and I”. In the play, Lasker-Schüler also moves between real and imagined locations, all inhabited by historical and fictional figures from both the past and the present. The sixth act of  “I and I“ takes place in the “eye doctor’s garden” where the “princely poet” – Else Lasker-Schüler herself – converses with a well-read scarecrow who tells her of his past travels with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Hermann’s Dorothea. The poet herself claims not to read much because she disdains the sound of pages turning. Among the many characters evoked and transformed in the play, the scarecrow in the sixth act takes on a unique, transgressive position – he is on the one hand a well-read, cultured figure who in the past accompanied literary giants, yet is now kept at the end of a “tropical garden” with no food at his disposal. This we may read as a reflection of the poet’s state: on her material and intellectual isolation in exile, her banishment into this “tropical garden” of Eretz Israel where tea parties and salon conversations take place, but from where she nonetheless longs for her past life.

“The Banished Poet”, by Else Lasker-Schüler, 1942. The National Library collections

The poet’s state in the world is an ongoing topic in Else Lasker-Schüler’s writing long before her exile, yet the “banishment of the poet” becomes a real and thematic trope in her writings and painting after 1933. The National Library holds many paintings and drawings of Else Lasker-Schüler, one in fact named “The Banished Poet”. It was completed between 1935 and 1942. Lasker-Schüler added the year “1933”, probably for symbolic value, as well as lines from her first poetry volume “Styx” from 1902 from which she frequently quoted to her friend and muse Ernst Simon in Jerusalem during her years there. The painting is both thematically and aesthetically typical of Else Lasker-Schüler during these years, when she was already complaining about pains in her arm but also insisting that she “must paint”. The iconic left profile features flat pencil strokes, with depth and color added by the use of red, blue and yellow crayons.

The appearance is Oriental, of course: apart from the Egyptian profile, the wide clothes and pointy shoes also remind us of the famous 1912 photograph from Berlin in which the poet is dressed as an Oriental prince, a figure that slowly emerges during these years in prose volumes like The Nights of Tino from Baghdad (1907) or The Prince of Thebes (1914).

Else Lasker-Schüler as an Oriental prince, 1912

The melancholic and perhaps even resigned recline of the poet’s figure in the painting preempts a far more confusing and deliberately split personality in “I and I”. Here the poet does not fold in the face of evil that conquers the world, or refrain from confrontation with the Mephistos, Goebbels or Goerings. Her fate and dealings with the world continue the paradigmatic Faustian split in the attempt to confront the forces of good and bad in the world. In the eye doctor’s garden, she glimpses her very own past, as well as Germany’s, in the hollow, hungry figure of the scarecrow. The playwright thus dangles the audience intermittently between metaphysics and history, between poetry and politics, between the hellish garden of Nazi horror and the estate of a renowned Jerusalem eye doctor.


You can find Else Lasker-Schüler’s Archive at the National Library of Israel


This article is part of a series of guest articles written by participants in the archival project “Traces and Treasures of German-Jewish History in Israel”. The project, which was initiated in 2012, is a collaboration between The Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach and the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow (Leipzig). It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

This project promotes the arrangement and description of archives of German-Jewish scholars, writers, and artists and encourages archive-based research in the fields of Cultural Transfer, the History of Science, the Migration of Knowledge, and the History of Ideas. It offers junior scholars and students the opportunity to combine academic research with archival practice and provide an essential foundation for new cultural and scholarly discussions, by making previously inaccessible personal archives, literary estates, and historical collections available to international research.


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