Thursday, June 28, 2007

Earnest EU Goes to Izzland

The question has long loomed on the political horizon. Will Israel ever become a full-fledged member of the high and mighty European club? This problematic of international convergence encompasses a plethora of diplomatic and geographic considerations that render Israel insecure about its future position among the various supranational blocs.

Currently, the political relationship between Israel and Europe is governed by the EU-Israel Association Agreement, as part of the network of Euro-Mediterranean Partnerships, designed to bring the EU closer together with its southern neighbors.

For now, the world's lone Jewish state finds itself accepted only by a limited number of its neighboring governments. By ironing out better relations with the Arab republics with which Israel shares borders, Israel would also condition itself for a more intimate and profound relationship with the EU. A serious improvement in Arab-Israeli relations would undoubtedly be concurrent with a warming of Israel's ties with Europe.

Israel has always struggled to feel a sense of belonging in many international circles. However, its predominantly Western identity and cultural infrastructure highlight the shared European values that have only been accentuated in the past several decades. Israel already participates in the Top 16 in basketball, the European Championship in football, and the Eurovision song contest. This common cultural heritage is borne out by youth exchange programs, film grants, and extensive tourism links.

In the economic arena, research, hi-tech, and trade ties render Israel squarely in the European camp, especially due to the advanced position of Israel’s domestic tech industry. The endless list of products that have been developed in Israel and the sheer volume of tech firms that have offices in Israel would buttress European economic rigor. In addition, Israel's recent invitation to the OECD tops of the list economic justifications for accsession.

Financially, joining the EU would mean that Israel would ultimately use the Euro. Perhaps Israelis would have no problem ceding control over their currency. Yet, in many other domains, the Israeli desire for wholly sovereign self-rule would highly reluctantly, if at all, concede control over many facets of national life that are entailed in EU membership and convergence.

The roots of Israeli nationalism and the renaissance of Jewish national expression in the brazen dreams of Theodor Herzl emerged in the context of the dissolution of Europe's grand empires. In the belly of European Christendom, the Jewish political consciousness ripened.

Yet, the distinctly Hebrew culture of Israel renders it unapologetically Semitic, characteristic of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Oriental moeurs – albeit in a somewhat hybridized manner. There is something as yet untamed and forever untamable about the pioneering Israeli spirit that would horribly frustrate European attempts to bring Israel in from the figurative cold of Near Eastern strife and civilizational clash.


Generally, there are three documents that govern the EU accession process. First is the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which outlines geographic and other general political guidelines - which in and of itself would not pose too much of a problem. Second are the three Copenhagen criteria, posing far more difficulty. Third is the specific "framework," which varies depending on the particular status of the applicant nation.

The geographic extent of the EU has not yet been pushed to the farthest potential territorial reaches of expansion. While being located in "Europe" is an obvious prerequisite, it is not a sufficient condition. But according to the Maastricht Treaty, any nation that adheres to European standards is allowed to apply for membership. The definition of "European" is rather vague and could apply to any number of ethnic, historical, and/or cultural criteria. Israel, as a developed, industrial nation with significant historical ties to most of Europe, would be fit to join under this criterion.

Notable geographic exceptions include Cyprus, Georgia, and French Guiana. Cyprus, though geographically considered a part of Asia, is already a member of the EU. Georgia, though not yet a member, is considered eligible, despite its “Asian” location. French Guiana, as a French overseas department in South America, is the westernmost and southernmost part of the EU.

Undoubtedly, Israel's most difficult task would be to pass muster with the three Copenhagen criteria in order to gain acceptance to the EU.

Two parts of the political criteria pose serious problems. First, Israel could not join with its current human rights record. Europe would force Israel to meet stringent European legal and ethical standards in order for Israel to become a member of its club. The ongoing Palestinian question is the essence of this stumbling block. It has been suggested that that EU would offer Israel membership once a peace treaty is signed and a final settlement reached.

Peace with the Palestinians could be negotiated within the context of accession to the EU. The international reputation of the EU would provide viable strategy for withdrawal of Israeli occupying forces. EU stance on Israeli occupation of territories is less than positive, despite Berlusconi’s firm and optimistic suggestions that an expanded EU could include Israel.

Second among the main political problems is the fundamental notion of the Jewish state. Ethnic preferences are not terribly tolerable under the EU rules. Israel would have to renounce the Law of Return and then dismantle theocratic basis for much of its government. It would also need to establish a constitutional framework, which does not yet exist in Israel (or in the EU as a whole).

Recent steps towards NATO accession are encouraging, in terms of the integration of Israel into Europe. Maybe NATO membership is a bit more likely than EU membership.
Israel is already developing somewhat of a Euro bubble of protection – in Rafah and with UNIFIL in South Lebanon.

There are not really any other states in the world that are not members of a regional alliances. Europe perhaps feels compelled to guarantee Israel's security in light of the Holocaust. The Italians have offered to crack down on Hamas in Gaza. While this is unlikely, it is inevitable that international peacekeeping forces will soon be on the ground to provide buffer zones in north Gaza, east Jerusalem, and perhaps certain locales in the West Bank.

Notwithstanding accusations of Eurabia, the expansion of Europe into Israel would largely depend on Euro-nationalist center-right groups who have similar experiences contending with restless Muslim populations.

Cooperation in dealing with anti-Semitism and counter-terrorism is already commonplace in the military and legal arenas. Political compensation for Holocaust might materialize to an even greater extent. The so-called genocide credit takes the form of continual restitution – both tangibly and intangibly. Will Israel grow to become a protectorate of the European empire?

Is Israel too much of an American vassal state for this to occur? Security, economic, and civilian ties to the United States perhaps prevent Israel from becoming too close to the EU. If Israel became part of Europe, would it be moving away from the American imperial relationship in favor of a more palatable arrangement with Europe?

Turkey also has very intimate ties with the U.S. and is generally considered to be closer to EU membership that Israel. Is it feasible, that Turkey, with its relatively impoverished, vast Muslim population, would join the EU sooner than Israel?

A study conducted by German foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in early 2007 revealed that 75% of Israelis would support EU membership.

6% of Israelis already hold a European passport. Another 14% with European-born parents are eligible for EU papers if they so desire.

The above study also found that 11% of Israelis would move to Europe if they could.
In addition, half of Israelis have visited Europe in the past three years – with France and Italy capping the list of destinations.

Would EU accession be a surrender to accusations that Israel is truly a European-derived Zionist-imperialist ethnocentrist-colonial entity? Would such a move allow European ambitions to trump Israel's ability to acclimate itself in the Middle East? What would Arab resistance amount to in such a scenario?

European resistance is most likely the biggest factor in terms of the opposition. A recent BBC poll revealed that Israel is perceived internationally as the biggest threat to world peace. Unpopularity at a level on par with North Korea, Iran, and the U.S. meant that around half of European countries ranked Israel as the least popular country in the world. This is not promising for an EU aspirant nation.

If Israel were to emphasize that it seeks to remain a Jewish state in cultural and linguistic terms, rather than in an ethno-religious sense, then it would be able to remain so within the EU framework.

It would also have to adhere to minority rights standards, which pertain to the massively crucial Palestinian predicament.

Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu have openly advocated for Israel's accession to the EU.

Leon Hadar, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, stated that "conditioning Israel's entry into the EU on its agreement to withdraw from the occupied territories and dismantle the Jewish settlements there, would strengthen the hands of those Israelis who envision their state not as a militarized Jewish ghetto but as a Westernized liberal community. The tragic fate of the European Jewry served as the driving force for the creation of Israel, and welcoming the Jewish state into the European community makes historical and moral sense.”

Notably, Italian MEP Marco Pannella proposed Israel's accession in the aftermath of the 2nd War in Lebanon: “It is a real intellectual, anthropological scandal that the European Union and Israel, with the concurrence of the United States, have not already corrected this pathological situation: that the only strong democracy of a territory – of which it occupies 0.2% – under an illusion and therefore choosing the instrument of absolute national sovereignty, is led to a survival logic necessarily armed, military and in a constant state of exception. Therefore it is urgent that Israel operate within the judicial, civil, political framework of the European Union, as a frontier region – for now, we stress: for now – of an institutional community of half a billion people, with its rules, laws, jurisdictions, its democratic parliament and its executive power (certainly imperfect and inadequate, but nevertheless corresponding and legitimated by its constituent treaties).”

Top Israeli diplomat Oded Eran said, "Since 1967, Israel puts its trust solely in Washington in all matters pertaining to security, relations with Arab nations, and, to a great extent, economic issues. It is certainly time for an Israeli prime minister to visit Brussels, the capital of the European Union. Even as a stop on the way back from a visit to Washington. It's hard to remember the last time that an Israeli prime minister visited Brussels or the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Europe is not on our policy map. We missed a number of opportunities as a result of the lack of any serious deliberation by the government to date, of our desired relations with the EU. Increased terror in Europe, the growing conflict with some European, Muslim communities, and the need to grapple with the Iranian nuclear threat contributes to greater understanding of Israel's position and balance in the European position...It is permissible to define the EU as a power. The Second Iraq War taught Americans a lesson in the limits of power. Now, the U.S. is prepared to involve the EU, in the context of the Quartet - though Sharon denied and ignored its existence - and in the battle against Iran's nuclear program. That contributes additional importance to the EU and creates the need to seriously relate to its foreign policy in issues relevant to Israel."

Famously, far-right demagogue Avigdor Lieberman's ambivalence on the question baffles observers. While he fully supports his country’s membership in NATO and EU, he bemoans that Europe is willing to sacrifice Israel for its own economic self-interest. The strange fact is that Israel's far-right party is pro-EU, unlike in Europe, where the far-right bloc is generally Euroskeptic, always unable to concede that cooperative international bodies are good for ethnically and culturally shifting states.

The “Wider Europe” policy pushes Israel closer to Europe by virtue of its high economic and political attainment, not by virtue of the geographic considerations that are the basis of the Mediterranean Basin concept.

In this framework, non-European states are not eligible for full membership but can develop relations with the Mediterranean Basin as part of the Barcelona Process laid out by the European Neighborhood Policy.

The likelihood is relatively low that Israel will accede to EU anytime soon. However, relations will gradually become more intimate as part of the European neighborhood policy.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Ingathering of Workers

The Kingdom of Pork franchise is perhaps the best example of a Tel Avivian establishment that caters to the new arrivals. This business evokes the zeitgeist of a disengaged nation that has turned abroad for cheap, expendable, and nonviolent labor. How kosher are these folks for the long term?

The busy shop has two locations in neighborhoods largely populated by foreign workers residing temporarily in Tel Aviv - Israel's turbo-charged urban entity that bustles with the sort of diversity found only in global cities. Since its genesis as the quintessential core of Old-New land over a century ago, Tel Aviv has pulsated with a continuously cosmopolitan energy - arising from a wide range of immigrants that have docked there.

Initially, the arrivals stepped onto the pacifying shores of Tel Aviv from the waters of the Mediterranean and from European jetplanes. Subsequently, like the rest of the state of Israel, the city matured with waves of olim from the Near East.
Nowadays, the absorption of ever more Jewish souls from around the world is complimented by an explosion in the number of non-Jewish foreign workers, whose ranks have swelled to approximately 50,000 in Tel Aviv (about 12% of the city's residents) and to 150,000 in the nation (about 2% of the country's residents). According to most estimates, approximately 2/3 of foreign workers in Israel are legal.

Many of these workers have arrived since 2000. As the neighborhoods of southern and eastern Tel Aviv resound with vernaculars originating in Manila and Accra, Bangkok and Mumbai, the cultural fabric of the nation remains in flux.


Foreign workers have filled a void in Israeli society. While Israel's agriculture and construction sectors traditionally employed Palestinian laborers, the number of work permits issued to workers from the West Bank and Gaza has decreased dramatically since the commencement of the Second Intifada in 2000. While over 150,000 Palestinian workers used to commute to jobs within Israel, the number has now decreased to a mere several thousand, depending on fluctuating permit and closure conditions.
Foreign workers have been present in Israel since the early 1980's, but they first began arriving in significant numbers with Yitzhak Rabin's government, as official policy advocated employing foreigners - rather than Palestinians - in many sectors that had traditionally been dominated by Arab labor.

"The use of foreign workers in Israel reveals a clear and open policy of substituting Palestinian workers with a workforce from overseas," according to the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR), which co-authored a seminal 2003 study on migrant workers in Israel.

The report concluded: "The migrant labor situation in Israel resulted first from the further destabilization of Israeli-Palestinian relations, whereby passage between the [territories] and Israel was severely restricted and hence, Palestinian workers were unable to continue to travel to and work in Israel; and secondly, from the increase of the strong feeling of insecurity among Jewish Israelis vis-à-vis all Arabs, even [Arab] Israeli citizens – and particularly Palestinians from the [territories]."

The study states that wage levels for foreign workers average between 1/2 and 2/3 what a Palestinian would earn at the same job. In addition to being cheaper, migrant workers pose no security threat and do not have to pass through unpredictable checkpoints en route to work.

Udi Tzur, a construction manager from south Tel Aviv, emphasized the stark differences in his business between employing Palestinians and foreign workers from elsewhere, be they Asian or Eastern European. Palestinians inevitably spend their money in Israel and the territories, while immigrants from abroad send the vast majority of their income in the form of remittances to their countries of origin.
Tzur lamented the difficulty of obtaining work permits to employ cheap, foreign labor. Consequently, Tzur said that his firm had recommenced hiring Israelis after permits for his Chinese laborers had expired.

A non-profit resource for the omnipresent migrant workers who reside in Israel, Kav la'Oved pursues legal remedies for employer abuse and mistreatment. While the workers' countries of origin are diverse indeed, certain ethnic groups predominate in various sectors of the economy.

According to Kav La'Oved volunteer coordinator Anne Suciu, the government has issued 32,000 permits for agricultural work, predominantly for Thai workers.

Chinese and Romanian laborers largely fill the 32,000 construction slots that are available.

Many African migrant workers have found work in the food service and janitorial sectors.

Filipinos enjoy a significant monopoly in the 40,000 strong care-giving field. Of all the foreign workers, Filipino "metapletim" are especially omnipresent in contemporary Tel Aviv - as well as around the world.

Another 10,000 foreign workers are present in the industrial, service, and hospitality sectors.

Indians, Moldavians, Turks, and Nepalese make up most of the remainder of foreign workers who now reside in Israel. In sum, about 50% of the workers come from Asia, 45% from Eastern Europe, and 5% from Africa and Latin America.

These workers enjoy the status of being "permanently temporary," as part of a system in which Israel issues permits to employers, not workers. This arrangement serves to restrict foreign workers to specific labor markets and to minimize competition with Sabras.

Suciu is quick to point out the distinction between today's foreign workers - the vast majority of whom are here legally with government documentation - and the hordes of illegal workers who were deported in 2002 and 2003 in a series of major government operations.

Prior to these deportations, an estimated 13% of the Israeli workforce was composed of foreign workers, according to a study by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network.

IFHR, in conjunction with the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, reported that approximately 300,000 foreign workers lived in Israel in 2003 - 60 percent of them illegally. An estimated 150,000 were then deported by the Ministry of Immigration and Integration.

In general, many foreign workers start off with one-year permits and then become illegal as soon as their permits expire.

Caretaker Mary Gel, a recent arrival from the Philippines, extols the virtues of her temporary nation of residence. "I'm very adjusted to life in Israel," said Gel, who, like most other Filipinos currently living and working in Israel, intends to repatriate her country of origin after several years of sending remittances back to her family.

"I don't mind if Israel becomes less Jewish demographically, but I do believe that Israel should first focus on addressing poverty amongst Sabras," said Dita Daniel, a north Tel Aviv native. "The situation with poor immigrants is unfortunate. Yet, we should lift Israelis out of poverty before taking on so many impoverished workers."
A significant number of Israelis have employed an illegal worker at some point – either in housekeeping, home maintenance, or caretaking.

Anti and Abuse

In addition to concerns that migrant workers bring down the average wage level for Israelis, lingering unemployment has also prompted many Israelis to be skeptical of the presence of these workers.

Many rightwing Israelis oppose the presence of foreign workers due to the threat to native-born workers, while leftists often condemn rampant abuse both by the manpower companies that import foreign workers for a fee and by Israeli firms that employ them.

Deputy Governor of the Bank of Israel and renowned economist Zvi Eckstein formulated a controversial proposal that aims to minimize mistreatment of workers, root out corruption in labor recruitment, and ultimately phase out foreign workers in the very long term.

Smuggling and human trafficking are also two major concerns associated with migrant workers. The American designation of Israel as a top human trafficking transit point and destination looms on the political horizon.


Kav La’Oved’s Suciu elaborates on Israel's current attempts to limit the number of foreign workers admitted. She cites the fear on the part of many native-born Israelis that the foreign workers will overstay their welcome and attempt to raise their families in a country where educational and job opportunities are superior to those in their countries of birth.

"The main fear is that Israel will be invaded by non-Jews,” said Suciu, who cites the tremendous difficulty of naturalization for non-Jewish persons. She also argues that foreign workers are seen as a mere temporary solution to a dearth of native-born laborers willing to perform various types of unskilled labor.

In February 2007, Israeli Employment Service Director General Esther Dominisini told the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers that the 200,000 unemployed Israelis could replace the country's foreign workers. She said that the government's gradual phase-out would begin with the construction and industry sectors.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

MDA and the Red Crystal

For 57 years, Israel’s Magen David Adom (MDA) was not a member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Due to explicit non-recognition by the international community, the lone national aid society with a Jewish symbol faced a thorough rejection of its red Star of David as a valid international first aid emblem.

Since 1930, the Magen David Adom has provided domestic emergency medical assistance, mobile intensive care units, disaster relief, and blood bank service. Yet, the MDA was not recognized under the Geneva Conventions until June 22, 2006. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) was admitted on the same day.

MDA and Jews worldwide rejoiced when the Red Crystal was formally sanctioned as the third emblem on January 14, 2007, ensuring MDA’s international integration.

Officially, concerns about symbol proliferation had been predominant amongst many member relief societies, as there was originally supposed to be only one symbol for the entire movement.

Many Arab and Muslim IFRC members had also objected to MDA's admission due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and due to the fact that the PRCS had also not yet been admitted to the IFRC.

According to the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the three official emblems function as "symbols of assistance for the victims of armed conflicts and natural disasters." Thus, any of the three can be used as a protective symbol in conflict zones or as an identifying medical assistance marker.

According to ICRC’s Jerusalem spokesperson Bernard Barrett, “International humanitarian law specifies the use, size, purpose and placing of the emblems, what respect for the emblems entails, and the penalties for misuse."

The Red Cross symbol was created in 1863 as the reverse of the Swiss flag and was not intended to bear religious significance for the relief society during neutral, humanitarian missions. The symbol's recognizability from afar was crucial so that persons, vehicles, or buildings bearing the symbol would not be targeted during wartime.

The Ottomans were the first to employ the Red Crescent, which was officially adopted in 1929, after Muslim nations refused to use a cross emblem that evoked negative memories of the Crusaders.

Red Crystal’s Saving Grace

The formal addition of the Red Crystal to the Geneva Convention mandates that all countries recognize it as equivalent to the other two official emblems. Israel and Eritrea were the first nations to declare their intention to employ the emblem on aid missions.

While Israel made the decision in order to overcome objections to the red Star of David, Eritrea intended to brandish the new neutral icon because of its mixed population of Christians and Muslims.

Israeli international aid missions are slated to use the new logo as early as this summer, according to David Abadi, MDA's international coordinator. Joint training missions with the Sri Lankan and Georgian Red Cross Societies will be the first opportunity for use of the Red Crystal - with the red Star of David inside.

"We've created a way to solve some of the problems we've had in the past,” said Tore Svenning, the Cyprus-based IFRC representative in Israel. “In the future, if similar cases appear, we will have a tool to deal with them."

In large part due to a prolonged campaign by the United States to promote the inclusion of MDA in the movement, the MDA is poised to enter a new era. Having overcome its pariah status, the MDA hope to advertise “the opportunity to use the Crystal along with any other logo inside," according to Abadi.
"One of the greatest accomplishments of the original Red Cross was creating one symbol. However, this broke down," said Abadi.

MDA supporters had long alleged that the exclusion of MDA was evidence of an anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist campaign.

"Adoption of a new sign comes with the correction of a deep injustice," said Olivier Durr, Geneva-based head of the Unit for ICRC Policy.

“This new symbol is the most realistic way for MDA to become a member of the IFRC, but merely to use a symbol is not enough,” countered Nouris al-Khatib, President of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. “MDA must abide by all of the other conventions, with respect to the occupied territories and to the geographic dominion of the PRCS.”

Al-Khatib stated, “Yet, our membership in the IFRC is a symbol of nationhood - just as Israel’s membership is.”

Practical and Symbolic Use

“The adoption of the Red Crystal reaffirms the determination of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to consolidate its universality and thereby to enhance its strength and credibility," according to a January 2007 joint statement by the ICRC and IFRC. The Movement is composed of the ICRC, IFRC, and all of the national aid societies.

The MDA has been expanding ties to the ICRC in recent years, according to Bruce Biber, head of the Division for Cooperation and Coordination within the Movement. "But now, the MDA is at the same level of recognition and is officially one of us."
Biber added, "We welcome and encourage MDA to develop and encourage ties with other national societies. With one of the best emergency response capabilities, MDA has a lot to share. This is a historic chance." Biber hopes that as MDA becomes more active internationally, the Red Crystal will become “more widely known and appreciated."

So far, eighty countries have signed and fourteen have ratified the updated Geneva Convention protocols. While none of the signatories thus far are Arab nations, Biber hopes that “as more countries sign, there will be more of a push for Arab countries to ratify.”

Long-term Changes

"The Red Crystal increases the number of options we have. We could use this emblem in any context where the cross or crescent would be problematic," said Durr, who mentioned the possibility of using the Crystal during Muslim-Christian sectarian violence in African nations.

Biber said, "Israel is the first to adopt the Crystal, and we hope it won't be the last. We consider Israel as a test case for the very long term."

PRCS President al-Khatib agreed: “This is my favorite solution. We are all better off with just one emblem. Yet, it’s not easy to implement. This is not likely to have a serious impact for at least fifty years.”

“We are planning a mega-campaign to popularize this symbol and to afford it the same international status as the Cross and the Crescent,” said Jean-Christophe Sandoz, field coordinator for the ICRC in Jerusalem.

Victory for MDA

This "third protocol emblem" of the ICRC is hailed as a truly universal emblem - free of ethnic, religious, or political connotation. On abroad missions, the MDA can use the red square frame tilted at a 45 degree angle alone or can incorporate it with the red Star of David, depending on the situation in the host country.

MDA is still permitted to use the red Star as its sole emblem for indicative purposes within Israel. However, MDA plans to place the crystal alongside the Jewish star on ambulances as early as 2008, according to David Abadi, MDA's international coordinator.

Abadi’s office has already obtained flags, workshirts, and vests with the new combination emblem - but is still waiting on patches and other necessary supplies.

“However, according to international humanitarian law, countries still must give their consent in order for a national society to provide aid,” reiterated Erab al-Fuqaha, spokesperson for the PRCS.

Therefore, countries may still reject MDA’s disaster relief teams.

"Regardless, this is a compromise idea that's good for everybody, and no one is fighting it," Abadi said. "At the field level, it takes time to be recognized. For this symbol to be seen as the equal of the others, it could take 5, 10, 20 years. We've got patience."

“Yet, personally, I wish that this could be the sole emblem for all first aid societies," Abadi added.

"We hope that the other societies within the Movement will become full partners with MDA, opening doors for all," said Barrett, the ICRC spokesperson. He added, "Everyone was happy to bring in MDA and the PCRS at the same time."

PRCS President al-Khatib concluded, “In general, people must cooperate to save life. Yet, at the end of the day, it’s in the hands of politicians to ensure adhesion to humanitarian doctrines.”

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Highly Healthy Hebrews

Ruffling his distinctive beard and directing a regal, pacific gaze towards the growing crowd of Shavuot revelers, Sar Elyashuv ben Yehuda made a dignified proclamation, “Our people have arrived at another season of development.”

As the multitudes of multihued Black Hebrews congregated in the Village of Peace town square, their spiritual aura and robust, communal disposition were manifest.

"This Shavuot celebration is a true expression of thanks for the bountiful harvest and for the ability to sustain ourselves in this land. Our brothers and sisters come out to represent for Yah on the most festive holiday of the year," said Yafah bat Gabriel, a community spokesperson.

On the 40th Shavuot since their triumphant exodus from the United Statues in 1967, the Black Hebrews had ample cause to rejoice. With a vibrant community of about 2000 proud souls mostly residing in the north Negev town of Dimona, the group celebrated stunningly good health and longevity.

As compared with the dreadful health statistics of African-Americans living in the United States, the Black Hebrews have largely avoided the dominant Western medical scourges: cancer, heart attack, diabetes, and stroke. According to a study conducted by a group of American researchers in 1998, elevated blood pressure is about 1/5 and obesity about 1/6 that of the average rate for African-Americans. Moreover, a minute number of hospital calls originate in their section of Dimona.

“We are not a religion but a way of life,” said Hecumliel Ha-Kohen, one of fourteen priests in the community, which is formally called the African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem, often shortened to Hebrew Israelites.

"The movement's collective consciousness is rooted in the essence of the Hebrew Bible. We’ve seen observable, positive consequences of following these traditions,” said Hecumliel.

“Generally, we are asserting the power of village life over the temptations of modern urban life," said Ahmadiyah ben Yehuda, a community doctor. "As a light unto the nations and unto Israel, we say 'no' to the things that seek to destroy life," said Ahmadiyah. "So-called normal diseases just don't exist here."

The movement was founded by former Chicago steelworker Ben Ammi ben Israel, and many Black Hebrews view their 78 year-old leader as the messiah.

The culture mixes ancient Hebraic with holistic, pan-African traditions. The group's unique fusion of Jewish and African-American influences emerged in the context of several other similar movements that sprouted in the United States beginning in the late 19th Century.

Black Hebrews consider themselves the descendants of ancient Israelites who traveled southwestwards through Africa after the destruction of the Second Temple. Having returned to what they view as the Northeast African homeland, the Black Hebrews are now divinely focused on honing bodily awareness and fitness.

Having instituted community-wide veganism in 1977, the group's health record is evidence of the power of environment and diet, over genetic predisposition, in determining overall health.

"Vegan nutritional values are rooted in the biblical emphasis on consuming plant matter," said Ahmadiyah. "There is a huge difference in health between our members who have always eaten vegan and those who consumed other foods prior to joining our community. The few serious health problems that we see occur with our folks who have not always adhered to this lifestyle."

He added, "Regardless, we don't know funerals – neither due to ill health nor due to criminal causes."

Ahmadiyah recounted the story of a young member of the community who ratted out his younger sibling for having drunk liquid during a meal. The community takes its dietary restrictions seriously, and the members' exceptional health is evidence of the success of extensive communal health regulations.

The community has four weeks a year in which sugar consumption is prohibited. In addition, four "live food" weeks are set aside for the exclusive consumption of uncooked foods.

Community members also fast for the entirety of the Sabbath. Moreover, the community observes a number of salt-free and transfat-free days throughout the year.

Caffeine and marijuana consumption are forbidden. The only alcohol imbibed is the wine cultivated by the group.

A 78 year-old member of the community recently completed the Tiberias marathon in 5.5 hours, an improvement of one hour over his time two years prior.

"Our community is 100% health literate," said Ahmadiyah. "Therefore, we don't consider it miraculous to live to be very old."

The Holy Council is the community's spiritual body responsible for ensuring adhesion to the seven pillars of faith – which also encompass dietary rules and progressive environmental policies. “Our neighbors in Dimona can see our lack of accumulated bottles, bags and boxes in our trash heaps,” said Sar Elyashuv.

The community receives about 400 visitors per month, many of whom are interested in learning more about the group's exceptional health literacy.

"We have begun exporting this model of communal health maintenance and disease prevention to a few African societies," said Nasik Imanuel ben Yehuda, who is International Projects Director for the African Hebrew Development Agency (AHDA) - the community’s NGO. "Dimona has never lost a mother in childbirth, due to our humanistic emphasis on good health, advocacy, and maternal care," he added.

Frequent exercise, high water consumption, and internal cleansing are the integral aspects of the Regenerative Health and Nutrition Program in Ghana, which is coordinated with both the Ghanaian Ministry of Health and Mashav, the international development wing of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. AHDA is also coordinating an irrigation project in Kenya.

“Their combination of modern and traditional medical practice has taught us many new things,” said Ghanaian Health Ministry spokesperson Esi Arhin. "This African model has been redeveloped scientifically and highly effectively in the context of the Hebrew Israelite experience," she added.

“We hope to give the world a better understanding of Israel. Many people in other countries just see the Intifada and the checkpoints. But, we want to demonstrate a highly positive face of Israel, especially with regards to African countries,” said Nasik Imanuel. “Many Ghanaian folks are now saying: ‘To next year in Dimona.’"

Alas, despite years of peripheral existence, the community is gradually becoming more Israeli. After having contributed musically to life on IDF bases across Israel for many years, the community began enlisting its members in the IDF in 2004 – just months after the group was granted permanent residency status in 2003 by the Ministry of the Interior. Currently, about 120 of its young people are in the IDF.

Moreover, community leaders expect that some members will begin to receive Israeli citizenship by 2008. Those who have served in the IDF and those who lack citizenship in any nation are likely to be the first to gain Israeli citizenship.

“The army has really helped assimilate me into broader Israeli society,” said Dimona native Ben Edwards ben Israel, who has worked in intelligence translation, military police, and new recruit training.

The community is bilingual in varying degrees. Most young people attend Hebrew-language community schools. Black American English smattered with Hebrew phrases is the most common form of communication.

Besides Dimona, Arad, and Mizpeh Ramon, the group also has a significant presence in Chicago, Atlanta, Ghana, South Africa, and a number of other locales.

Since 2006, the group has been recognized as urban Kibbutz Shomrei Ha-shalom - as part of the national Kibbutz Movement. Its economic prosperity is based on the production of organic soy products, natural fiber clothes, and popular music. The community also operates restaurants in Dimona, Tel Aviv, Accra, Washington D.C., and Melbourne, among other places.
"We manufacture about 85% of the clothing we wear, and our goal is to dramatically increase our food production from the current level of 15% to complete self-sufficiency," said Ahmadiyah.

Having escaped from the racism and poverty of the United States, the community is still battling for its material wellbeing in Israel. Most community members currently reside in cramped, substandard former Dimona absorption center housing.

The community is poised to fulfill its dream of complete collectivization of its spiritually-oriented kibbutz when the financing is completed for 282 new housing units in the Mamshit neighborhood of Dimona.

"Because of our unique way of life, it will be much easier to function as Kibbutz Shomrei Ha-shalom when everyone is living in the same area," said Yafah. "It is also inevitable that this will make us more and more established as Israelis."

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