In the Israeli city of Dimona, some 20 miles from the Dead Sea and two hours south of Jerusalem, the Village of Peace doesn’t just hum with activity, it sings, chants, shouts, prays, sprints, and dances. One day there may be a flurry of preparation for the community’s New World Passover—a two-day festival with concerts, feasts, plays, and volleyball showdowns. Next a group of African dignitaries may be welcomed, or a holy day celebrated, or maybe a celebrity will arrive, as Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, and Erykah Badu have all done in the past. As one frequent visitor put it: “There’s always this frenetic energy there, either in gearing up for a big event or as a result of one they’ve just survived.” But for the newcomer, the Village of Peace can also be an enigmatic place, governed by unfamiliar—and, at times, seemingly contradictory—rules and beliefs. It’s not unusual, for instance, to hear Hebrew words and prayers or see residents debating specifics of the Old Testament, yet those same people say they’re not Jewish, or even religious at all. Members of the community believe they know the secrets to eternal life, and they aren’t shy about encouraging others to hop on their strict path to immortality, which includes eating only vegan fare; avoiding alcohol, drugs, and tobacco; and regular exercise.
They’re also the largest organized group of African-American expatriates in the world: about 3,500 strong, with new arrivals all the time.
That community, the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, was the reason John L. Jackson Jr., now the Richard Perry University Professor of Communication, Africana Studies and Anthropology, found himself on a plane to Israel in 2005. He’d been studying the group on and off for several years by that point, amassing extensive information but never doing much with it. When he’d heard that one of his graduate students was heading to Israel for her dissertation research, he’d asked her to swing by Dimona and visit the AHIJ Village of Peace for him. “They told me, on camera, that I had to come and visit,” Jackson says now. “And since they specifically asked me to, I started planning a visit for the following semester. That was my first trip there, and I haven’t looked back since.”
Jackson would return to Israel multiple times over the next decade. He’d also travel to Jamaica, Africa, the Caribbean, and dozens of US cities, conduct more than 250 interviews, and write his new book, Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (Harvard University Press), all in an attempt to answer some seemingly simple questions: Who are the AHIJ, what are they doing in Israel, and what can the rest of the world learn from their story?
This is an excerpt from John Jackson, Ethnography, and the Hebrew Israelites, written by Molly Petrilla for the Pennsylvania Gazette.