Spiritual leader of African Hebrew Israelites dies aged 75

By Ian Deitch ,AP

JERUSALEM — The spiritual leader of the African Hebrew Israelites, a movement that believes some black Americans are the descendants of an ancient Israelite tribe, has died in the southern Israeli town where he brought his followers four decades ago, a spokeswoman for the polygamous vegan group said Sunday.

Ben Ammi Ben Israel died Saturday at the age of 75, the group said. He was born Ben Carter in Chicago in 1939.

He maintained that some black Americans were descendants of the biblical tribe of Judah. He said they migrated to West Africa after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and were eventually sold as slaves to the United States.

In 1966, he had a vision that the angel Gabriel told him to ��return to the holy land by way in which we came,�� Yafah Baht Gavriel, a spokeswoman for the group said.

He then gathered his few hundred followers, mainly from Chicago, and led them to Liberia, the West African republic settled by freed slaves in the 19th century. In a statement, the group said that time was spent ��shedding the many detrimental habits that as an enslaved people, they had acquired.��

They moved to Israel in 1969 and settled in Dimona, a poverty-stricken town in the southern Negev desert, which was then a melting pot for immigrants. ��Ben Ammi’s immense love for the Land of Israel remained constant throughout his life �X from the initial awakening to his Hebraic roots,�� the group said.

But Israel didn’t know what to make of the newcomers, who adopted Hebrew names and a West African style of dress, and the government was unsure where they fit under the country’s ��Law of Return,�� which gives citizenship to almost any Jew who requests it.