R&B group spotlights black Hebrews' cause
'Eden,' representing Israel in European contest, draws attention to its
DIMONA, ISRAEL — When he was growing up in Chicago, Gabriel Butler Sr. would sometimes harmonize on street corners with his friends. Back in the 1950s, he never imagined he would someday see his singing sons represent Israel on stage in Jerusalem - with an estimated 100 million people watching across Europe and beyond.
On May 29, two of his nine children - Gabriel Jr. and Eddie - will perform in the annual Eurovision Song Contest. Virtually unknown in America, the glitzy pop-music extravaganza will draw vocalists from about 25 countries - including extracontinental wannabes like Israel and Turkey - to vie for a first-place spot that promises play at clubs and radio stations throughout Europe.
But the Butler brothers are in an odd position to be Israel's contenders in the contest: The country they're singing for doesn't recognize them as citizens.
Stop. Rewind. The Butler brothers are children of a sect known as the black Hebrews, a group of African-Americans who came to Israel in 1969 and declared they had returned home. Israel didn't roll out welcome mats but didn't deport them either. Thirty years later, the legal status of the group - which today prefers to be called the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem - is still undecided.
One thing is clear: Gabriel Butler, who came here when he was 8, and his brother Eddie, who was born here, feel as Israeli as anyone else. "We've been here all our lives. I'm as Israeli as it gets," says Mr. Butler Jr., taking a break from recording at a Tel Aviv studio, where he chats with his producer in flawless Hebrew.
In addition to the Butlers, the two other members of their group, Eden, are ordinary white, native-born Israelis with extraordinary voices. The result is an unprecedented hybrid of Hebrew with American R&B that makes Eden sound something like an Israeli cross between Boyz II Men and the Neville Brothers.
Hours away from the buzz and bright lights of Tel Aviv, where all four members of Eden live, is the remote desert town of Dimona. Here, Gabriel Butler Sr. and his wife, Karaliah, make their home, along with most of the other 2,000 black Hebrews living in Israel. They came to Israel by choice, but to Dimona - a name synonymous in Israel with unemployment, poverty, and a nuclear power plant - by circumstance.
In 1966 a man named Ben-Ammi Carter had a vision that his African ancestors had been among the lost children of Israel. Preaching on Chicago's South Side, he persuaded followers to adopt his interpretation of Judaism based on the Old Testament. About 350 of them sold their homes and joined him for a two-year period of purification in Liberia before moving to Israel. When the first black Hebrews arrived in the Jewish state on tourist visas and refused to leave, an exasperated Israeli government directed them to an empty building in Dimona - a so-called "development town" aimed at settling new immigrants in unpopulated areas.
"Now, when I look back, I think we were a little crazy," chuckles Mr. Butler Sr., as he looks over old newspaper clippings documenting their controversial relocation. "The spirit of God moved us."
But these days, even after moving into better accommodations, the community has outgrown its quarters. Members say they'd prefer to start a kibbutz - or agricultural settlement - in a place that could accommodate their communal lifestyle.
But first they have to win their battle for citizenship. They seemed a step closer to that in 1990, when the Interior Ministry agreed to give them temporary residency permits and most basic rights afforded to citizens. In return, the black Hebrews promised not to bring over any new members from the United States and to end polygamy in the community.
But they've maintained other religious tenets not found in traditional Judaism. All members are strictly vegan, eat only raw food for four weeks out of the year, and fast on the Sabbath. A hierarchy of princes and ministers has the right to approve marriages and discourage members from wedding outside the community. They also run their own school, where the primary language of instruction is Hebrew.
And through its two gospel choirs, which have been warmly received in Israel and abroad, the community has gained a reputation for developing outstanding singers. Elisheva Bat-Israel, who once managed Gabriel, Eddie, and three other siblings, says the Butler children's talents helped the community survive.
"Back when we didn't have any legal status and we weren't allowed to work, Gabriel's performances helped feed everyone here," says Ms. Bat-Israel.
Like other members of the community, she hopes that Eden's success will put the black Hebrews' cause back on the national agenda. "It's not that we're being mistreated," she says. "It's just that we don't have [citizenship] yet, and we're just waiting now for the next step."
"I just want to represent my country in dignity," adds Mr. Butler Jr., who says he'd prefer to be called an Afro-Israeli. "It's about the music, and if we lose that focus, we don't stand a chance."