Continuing my Woo in My Food series, today we will take a closer look at a restaurant chain called Soul Vegetarian. If you have ever eaten there, as I have, then you know they make one of the best vegan mac & “cheeses” around. This plant-based¹ soul food chain, owned and operated by members of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, spans from Chicago, to Atlanta, to Tel Aviv. But who exactly are the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem? To begin we will have a cursory look at the roots of African Isrealism.
African Isrealism encompasses a group of similar beliefs that hold that Africans are descendents of the ancient Israelites of biblical fame. African Isrealites claim that after the expulsion of the ancient Israelites from Jerusalem that they settled in various places throughout Africa including the west coast and subsequently arrived in the US as part of the slave trade where their descendents make up a large percentage of the African American population today.
The central idea in the US of Africans being descendents from ancient Israelites goes back the the mid-eighteenth century. Many slaves in the American South identified their enslavement with the biblical narrative of the ancient Israelites toil in Egypt² but in time some began to identify directly as Israelites themselves. Black congregations that focused increasingly on the Old Testament and ideas of Israelite heritage popped-up in the late 1800′s thru the early 1900′s. But most surviving African Israelite groups can be tracked back to the 1960′s (or slightly later) at the height of the civil right movement and black nationalism.
The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, founded by former Chicago resident Ben Carter, were one such group. Carter, born in 1939, grew up on Chicago’s South Side during a troubled period of the nations history. In his early adult years Carter worked hard and was determined to grab a piece of the American pie for himself, saying, “I had a good job, figured in a couple years I would have a new car, maybe in a decade have my own home and pay for it until I died.” But one day a co-worker posed a question that would change his life, “Do you know that our people are descendants of the biblical Israelites?”
After further discussion and study Carter was convinced and became a zealous convert. He was eager to evangelize his new found faith, preaching on the street and forming discussion groups in his home. Carter soon took on a new name, he was to be known as Ben Ammi Ben Israel (Son of my people, Son of Israel). While the organization that Carter/Ammi formed shares many traditions and holy days with mainstream Judaism, it often departs radically on many fronts. Adherents of the faith are expected to maintain a plant-based diet, avoid intoxicants, and live according to strict gender norms. Polygny is allowed and is also practiced by a number of members. One survey found that about a third of African Israelite marriages were polygamist. Regular full body massages, colonics, and reflexology treatments are also encouraged, while pharmaceuticals and modern medical treatments are generally discouraged.
Soon Ammi had amassed a few hundred followers and in 1966 claimed that a voice told him “that the time had come for Africans in America, the descendants of the Biblical Israelites, to return to the land of our forefathers.” But like their forefathers, this journey would not be a direct one. In late 1966 Ammi and his followers arrived in Liberia, a west African nation founded by freed slaves. At first they found life in the small African nation hard and many left for the US but a number persevered. These surviving members spent this time building the community and strengthening their skills for the arduous task ahead. In 1969 a small group of African Israelite followers were finally granted access to Israel, where they settled in Dimona (& later Arad & Mitzpe Ramon), with Ben Ammi and more adherents followed shortly after and they got down to the hard work of nation building.
The relationship between mainstream Judaism in Israel and the African Isrealite was been strained from the very beginning. Israeli Jews found the ancestry claims and unorthodox customs of the African Israelites hard to swallow. At first Israel denied the African Israelites work permits and granted only temporary visas. But, when their visas inevitably expired the African Israelites would not budge. A number were arrested and deported for working with out permits, but for the most part the government was hesitant to make any large or decisive moves against the community. Without the legal ability to work and economic conditions in the US being poor money was needed from somewhere. Investigators soon uncovered evidence of a white collar crime ring in the organization involving millions of dollars in check and credit card fraud and trafficking in stolen passports and fraudulent ID. Often these stolen or fraudulent identification documents, investigators charged, were used by members to aid in flight from prosecution. At one point up to 43 followers of Ammi were federal fugitives, many of whom have never surfaced. But at least one such story ended tragically when Bernard Bradley was found mysteriously shot dead in his Chicago apartment while awaiting sentencing for unlawful flight after having been deported back from Israel.
Over the years, however, the African Israelites gained greater acceptance through their contributions to Israeli society and across Africa with their charity organization The African Hebrew Development Agency. Eventually they were granted work permits and then permanent residency in 2003. Today the African Israelite community started by Ammi has grown to an estimated 3,000 in Israel with many thousands more living around the world, largley in the US. Ben Ammi is reported now to run the organization from his home in Jerusalem, with local leadership in various cities bearing the task of outreach and daily operations.
Recently in the US, Soul Vegetarian and it’s African Israelite founders became the subject of much controversy after a 2011 interview with The A.V. Club. In the interview, Soul Vegetarian co-founder Yohanna Brown nonchalantly described the belief system, “It’s a complete lifestyle with diet, positive thinking, and styles of dress. Women don’t wear men’s clothing, and men don’t wear women’s. If you look at present culture, you can see how breaking these guidelines has led to things like homosexuality.However, this was not the first time that Ammi’s group has spoken out against homosexuality. The leader of the Atlanta chapter, Prince Rahm, openly denounced gay marriage in a 2006 address , saying, “In the early 1970s, homosexuality was classified as a psychological disease. Those evil marketing geniuses now got us saying ‘gay’ cuz it sounds nicer.” He also warned that the AIDS crisis was a punishment from god, saying, “This is Deuteronomy 28* coming into effect.” And on the subject of accusations of child abuse one member, Abshalom Ben Shlomo, remarked, “We support the authority of the parents. Families are not democracies.”
Despite apologies and attempt to assure us otherwise, vegans and social justice advocates must understand that this organization’s anti-homosexual and patriarchal beliefs are not just the result of the personal prejudices of a few members, rather it is at the core of their religious dogma. This leaves many in an ethical conundrum, should we give our money to an organization that supports such things? Different people have drawn their own line on the issue. As for me, the statements they have made about homosexuality make me very uncomfortable. But not to fret, there is no need for anyone to miss out on their award-winning mac & “cheese”; it can be made at home quite easily.
1. Watch out for the honey!
2. Despite its continued belief by even many secular individuals, most historians seem to agree that the biblical narrative of thousands of Jewish slaves in Egypt is false.
The Prince and I by Benyamin Cohen
The Cult on Coventry by Kevin Hoffman
soul veg east on Vegans of Color