To Me, O Israelites, you are Just like the Ethiopians, Declares the Lord. -Amos 9:7
Our seminar center is opening a new program in the fall, a three-month residential program for young women between high school and the army, intended to provide an intensive experience of pluralism and empowerment, study and service, set in the human and natural landscape of the Galilee. We have been traveling around the country for months, recruiting in high schools. Generally, if we dont have a personal contact, we simply call the 12th grade coordinator, or the principal, explain our project, and ask for an opportunity to meet with senior girls. And so it happened that we landed in one of the high schools in Dimona, a somewhat poor, isolated development town in the heart of the Negev. Dimona has a reputation as being at the end of the world, surrounded by sand and rock, inhabited mostly by North African and now FSU immigrants who were sort of placed there by the authorities, to build the Negev. After a four hour drive through a decreasingly green landscape, it did indeed feel like the end of the world.
When we arrived, we discovered that the particular public high school we had called upon was the school that serves the Black Hebrew community exclusively. The Black Hebrews immigrated to Dimona in the late sixties. A small band of African Americans, with their leader, Ben Ami Carter, the group essentially squatted in the town, attracting some sympathy but mostly negative attention from the media and the authorities. There were rumors of criminal pasts, of cult-like behaviors. There was the problem of poverty, of their ideology (they believe they are the true spiritual descendants of the biblical Hebrews), of citizenship, of who was responsible for their welfare. When Tami and I lived in Beersheba in 1970, they were much in the news, one more exotic element in the Negev landscape.
Today their community, concentrated in Dimona and a few other Negev towns, numbers around 5,000. Their economic situation is not good. Much of their income is derived from the sale of handicrafts; they keep fairly isolated both socially and economically. Ben Ami Carter is still the leader of the community, which has a strongly disciplined, hierarchical structure. Smoking and drinking are forbidden. They are vegans, fasting on Shabbat, and celebrating Rosh Hashanah on the first day of the first month Nisan (i.e., two weeks before Pesach).
The school is an Israeli public school, teaching the full (non-religious) curriculum. As we sat in the teachers lounge waiting for our appointment, several teachers were conversing in Russian among themselves; others in Hebrew; others in Afro-American-accented English. The 12th grade girls with whom we met were all dressed in baggy, bright green school uniforms with yellow scarves neatly covering their hair. Many of the teachers from within the community were wearing African-inspired shirts and dresses featuring bright prints and embroidery. During recess, the kids organized themselves into groups, playing games that seemed about two generations out of date; the calm, order, and good cheer of recess felt quite different from the typical Israeli public school scene today, an impression confirmed by outside teachers we spoke to.
The 12th grade girls we met, all born here, are the first class to face the draft, as the community has finally gotten permanent residency status. Some are going enthusiastically, some less so all with trepidation. They are studying for their matriculation exams in Hebrew, as they continue to speak among themselves a language that takes me back to Chicago. As we thought about these girls interacting with kibbutzniks, Ethiopian immigrants, and others in our program, we were overwhelmed for them and for us. And as we made our way back across the dust-blown wastes of the Negev where the patriarchs roamed we were a bit overwhelmed by what an interesting country this is.