We’ve been hearing a lot about racism and intolerance toward Sudanese and Ethiopian immigrants in Israel recently. Does this artist experience racism? Maybe, but that’s not what he wants to rap about:
This music video for the song “Israel We Go Hard” is based off of Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn We Go Hard.” The video sets snapshots of daily Israeli life to a rap beat, interspersed with the artist break-dancing and rapping about his love for the country. Watching this video, you’d likely guess that this guy is a Christian Zionist or an African immigrant to Israel. But you’d be wrong. Ben-Shahar (“Morning Star”) Blackwell was born and raised in Israel.
Blackwell loves “growing up in a country that honors and keeps the Sabbath… and honor god’s day” because he is a member of the African Hebrew Israelites, and keeps the Sabbath too. Members of his community believe they are descended from the ancient Israelites who fled to Africa and were later taken to America as slaves. In 1969 they came to southern Israel on the heels of a prophecy to establish the Kingdom of God in what they believe is “the land of their origin.” There are now roughly 2,000 of them living communal, vegan lifestyles in what Blackwell repeatedly describes as “the land of milk and honey.”
As the community describes itself on its website, “Our life is… founded on the laws, commandments and prophecies of the Holy One of Israel…” They see themselves as a part of an ancient tradition with customs that were “either handed down to us from generation to generation or that have evolved as we undergo a process of redemption—the recuperation from the effects of slavery and nearly having lost total knowledge of our identity and heritage.” Their story is a modern exodus from slavery, though it did not take them forty years to reach the Holy Land.
They celebrate “the Sabbath and Holy Days, (Passover, Shavuout, Memorial Blowing of the Trumpets, Yom Kippur and Succoth)” but their rituals are unmediated by hundreds of years of Rabbinic tradition. They do Yom Kippur “as outlined in the Old Testament.” They call Rosh HaShana (the Jewish New Year) the “Memorial Blowing of the Trumpets,” and do not consider it a New Year at all.
They keep some things that are recognizable to mainstream Jews today—“the circumcision of our male children eight days after birth… and, the maintenance of the laws of purification for women relative to their monthly cycle.” But then, “in accordance with the prophetic return of the Children of Israel,” they gather in mid-May to “commemorate the historic exodus of the vanguard group which left the shores of America in May 1967.” It’s not the Judaism we know, but it’s not entirely removed, either.
What is most striking about all of this is that, even though Blackwell does not hail from mainstream Israeli society, his motivation for making “Israel We Go Hard” is quintessentially Israeli: He wants to show the positive aspects of Israel, “not what the media does in our country.” When he visited the US for the first time, in 2010, he asked his grandmother if she would visit him in Israel; she answered “I ain’t coming over there, there’s war there.” But to Blackwell, Israel is a “paradise,” and he lives an ordinary teenage life. Like many Israelis, he resents the hysterical way the region is portrayed to the world.
Ben-Shahar Blackwell does not consider himself a Jew, “I am a Hebrew,” he said. Yet on his Facebook page he calls Israel “our country,” and when I asked him whether he had served in the army, not knowing he was nineteen years old, he answered “not yet.” He is, and feels, as much a citizen of Israel as any Jew. Blackwell’s attitude toward Israel shows that Israel’s friction with Sudanese and Eritrean populations isn’t rooted in racism, necessarily, but in a kind of standard, anti-immigrant sentiment—after all, Israel, like most countries, has historically had trouble with immigrants of all colors. Such xenophobia is problematic in its own right, but before we accuse Israelis of outright racism, we should check back with Ben-Shahar Blackwell in a year—when he’s in uniform.