What would King think?

IssueMay 2008
Feature by Topher Vollmer

Peace News has discovered that an international “peace” group (usually referred to as the “Martin Luther King Institute for a New Humanity”), which carries out nonviolence trainings in the UK, is actually run by a forty-year-old religious group that sends its youth to serve in the Israeli Defence Force and acts, in the eyes of the Israeli ministry for foreign affairs, as “effective contributors to the national public relations effort”.

A British representative of the Institute, Yehoeshahfaht Ben Israel, has made presentations and conducted trainings on the theme of Martin Luther King at London’s St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.
While the Institute is keen to stress its connection to King, it is more reticent about its connections to the religious group the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (AHIJ), a community of former African Americans who claim to be descendants of a Jewish tribe and who now live in the southern Israeli desert town of Dimona, following their spiritual leader, who goes by the name Ben Ammi. (See box for more about the group.)
In February 2005, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the US civil rights organisation co-founded by Martin Luther King, decided to confer his name on an AHIJ organisation. At first known as the “Institute for a New Humanity – from Chaos to Community” (named after part of the title of King’s last book), the group seems to have been renamed the “Martin Luther King/SCLC - Ben Ammi Institute for a New Humanity”, indicating the equal significance in its operation of King’s legacy and Ben Ammi’s teaching.
In Britain, the name is generally contracted to the “Dr Martin Luther King Institute for a New Humanity”, obscuring the connection to the AHIJ.

IDF values

The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem claim that they are: “a tangible, viable and more importantly, righteous, alternative for those who long to see peace, justice, mercy, truth, love.” According to the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs, “more than 100 of their youth are serving in the Israeli Defence Forces [IDF] in regular units.” Reports in mid-2007 say 120 members of the 2,000-strong community are serving in the military.
The first AHIJ member to enlist in the IDF, Uriahu Butler, was inducted into the army in July 2004. The first AHIJ member to become an officer in the IDF (in July 2007) was Itay Ben Yisrael.
Ben Ammi, the leader of the AHIJ, and co-inspirer of the Martin Luther King Institute for a New Humanity, told an Israeli reporter: “From now on, no one will doubt our willingness to serve in the Israeli army. Itay is certainly a pioneer, our first officer, and we’re proud of him.”
The Israeli ministry of foreign affairs also states that the AHIJ “are effective contributors to the national public relations effort, speaking to audiences on behalf of the State of Israel.”
Sergeiy Sandler of the Israeli peace group New Profile commented to PN on the militarist culture in Israel: “Most peace songs are sung by military bands, counter-recruitment work and support for war resisters of all sorts are branded as immoral, the late Rehav’am Zeevi – a former general and minister who promoted the vision of forcefully ‘transferring’ the Palestinians over the border – was normally referred to as ‘Gandhi’, and finally, the main promoters of the ideas of nonviolent resistance a la Martin Luther King known to the Israeli public are Jewish West Bank settlers and other fanatic right-wingers.”
However, by opening the institute in conjunction with the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has agreed to put the name of its iconic founder in the official title of an institute with direct ties to the IDF and the violent acts that the Israeli military has taken part in.
In preparing this article, Peace News has repeatedly sought an explanation of how service in the IDF can be reconciled with the values of Martin Luther King. We have repeatedly (over seven days) contacted British representative Yehoeshahfaht Ben Israel, the Israeli headquarters of the Institute for a New Humanity, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but received no explanation from any of these groups.
As PN went to press, we were assured that an official statement was being prepared by the AHIJ. We await its arrival.

African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem

In 1966, it was revealed (by the angel Gabriel) to Ben Ammi, originally Ben Carter from Chicago, that many African Americans were descendants of West African members of the Jewish diaspora, and that it was his duty to lead all these Hebrew Israelites back to the Holy Land. In 1967, Ben Ammi led 400 “African Hebrew Israelites” to Liberia for nearly three years of struggle. Then the remaining members of the group travelled to Israel in 1969, settling in and around the desert town of Dimona.
After years of friction over their status (they are not officially recognised as Jewish), the “African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem” won residency in 2003.
Members of the vegan community (smoking and drinking are also forbidden, polygamy is permitted, according to Israeli reports) have represented Israel in track and field events, in international academic competitions, and (twice) in the Eurovision song contest.
There are nine AHIJ communities in the US, including in Washington DC, and new branches springing up elsewhere, including South Africa.
Accusations of criminality have followed the AHIJ. In 1981, three members of the Chicago African Hebrew Israelites were apparently indicted on charges of wire fraud, passport fraud, cashing forged cheques, and attempting to transport more than $700,000 in stolen cheques and savings bonds across state lines.
In 1985, according to a US newspaper, the FBI arrested 27 African Hebrew Israelites, including the highest-ranking US member of the group, and charged them with running a credit card and passport fraud ring. Nine members apparently pleaded guilty to the charges; all are said to have escaped with suspended sentences or credit for time served.
In 2005, AHIJ leader Ben Ammi told the Jerusalem Post: “We have not one member of the community incarcerated worldwide... No one is standing under an indictment for any kind of criminal allegations for the last 15 years.”