New humanity?

IssueJune 2008
Feature by Topher Vollmer

Rarely is involvement with the military associated with nonviolence training and the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King. However, as Peace News recently reported, this is the case in Dimona, Israel, where the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem are not only sending their youth to fight in the Israeli Defense Force but also running the Dr. Martin Luther King/SCLC-Ben Ammi Institute for a New Humanity.

Brother Gamariyahu, the interim director at the Institute, confirmed to Peace News that the African Hebrew Israelites have been sending people to fight in the IDF since 2004, and that out of approximately 2,500 members in Dimona around 120 young people are fighting in the Israeli army. These numbers include four Hebrew Israelites who were involved in the IDF’s actions in Lebanon. However, Brother Gamariyahu defended his community’s nonviolent ideals despite its involvement with the IDF.
“The unfortunate reality is that there are forces committed to violence operating in this arena. We too have lost a son in the course of the intifada. And while we wish for no other families – Arab or Israeli – to have to feel that pain and loss, we are compelled by the realities of the times to send our young people to help defend their homes, like in so many lands where conscription is the law,” said Gamariyahu.
In fact Gamariyahu, who has been affiliated to the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem for 15 years and the Institute for a New Humanity for about two and a half years, claims that their involvement in the IDF is not a contradiction to the ideals of their nonviolent conflict resolution centre but instead it is “a sign of our commitment.”
“We have worked with both Palestinians and Israelis for the cause of peace in this land, conducting nonviolent trainings in both the West Bank and in Dimona. We are actively seeking relationships with those new voices prepared for the cause for peace,” Gamariyahu said.
The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem and their Institute for a New Humanity have also received support from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the United States, a country in which the organisation claims to have 20,000 members.
“I saw King’s vision in practice among the daily lives of the Hebrew Israelites in Dimona,” SCLC President Charles Steele, Jr., said at the inauguration of the Institute for a New Humanity. Along with Steele, SCLC executive board member and prominent American civil rights leader, Dr. Bernard Lafayette has also lent his support to the African Hebrew Israelites and their work with the Institute in Dimona.
Dr. Lafayette is one of the preeminent civil rights activists in America and has long been at the heart of America’s nonviolence and civil rights movements. His résumé includes a long list of actions taken along side Dr. King in the 1960s, including the Freedom Rides and the Selma Movement. Today Dr. Lafayette is Director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island. Dr. Lafayette was also present in Dimona, Israel, at the dedication ceremony of the Institute for a New Humanity. Dr. Lafayette has remained in contact with the Institute through his Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies in Rhode Island and through the nonviolence training of young people and students. He even plans to visit Dimona and the Institute in November when he tours the Middle East.
Dr. Lafayette, who has two sons who served in the United States military, believes that it was not Dr. King’s desire to disband the military entirely. In fact, Dr. Lafayette claims that some of his best nonviolence trainers had gone as far as becoming military generals before taking up a nonviolence stance.
“We don’t dismiss people because they are part of the military. We want to train them to use nonviolence,” said Lafayette.
Dr. Lafayette believes that force, when used to protect civil rights, has its place and that while the goal is to create a world where there are peaceful relationships and large armed forces are not necessary the reality of the current situation is that militaries do exist. He said that in places like Israel where participation in the military is a condition for citizenship then military involvement is an inescapable reality even for nonviolent communities like the African Hebrew Israelites. It is his goal to move even those involved in the military away from violence, and to lead them to nonviolent forms of reconciliation whether they are in or out of uniform.
According to Gamariyahu the African Hebrew Israelites see their community as a reflection of Dr. King’s desire for a beloved community, and the belief that their “Village of Peace” in Dimona is a living embodiment of Dr. King’s ideals has been echoed by prominent civil rights leaders like Dr. Lafayette and SCLC President Charles Steele.
As of now the Institute for a New Humanity is run completely out of the African Hebrew Israelites “Village of Peace” even though involvement in the African Hebrew Israelites is not officially a mandatory requirement to be a part of the Institute. The Institute has also sent trainees to work in other parts of the world and is in the process of obtaining the legal status to pursue funding and donations from outside sources. Applications for the Institute to be given tax-exempt status are pending.
The African Hebrew Israelites have maintained that they are on the “precarious journey” for peace in the Middle East, and have the support of some powerful international nonviolence advocates. This despite the fact that of the approximately 120 young African Hebrew Israelites currently serving in the IDF none, according to Gamariyahu, “have refused to serve, nor declined from particular operations.”