"He was a true gentleman, he will be greatly missed within the community and in the city of Dimona," said Bitton of the late spiritual leader who passed away at age 75 after reportedly being ill for a year. Bitton is planning on naming a new neighborhood in Dimona after the Black Hebrews leader.
Born in Chicago as Ben Carter, Ben-Israel's death occurred a year and a half after he finally received his Israeli citizenship.
"He was a leader of great stature, a Zionist through out every bone in his body, loved Israel and the country. I hope that with the help of the new interior minister we will be able to give every member of the community citizenship," said Bitton.
The community, which some have labeled a cult, was established in the underprivileged neighborhoods of Chicago as part of the Black Hebrews movement, and followed Ben-Israel to Israel during the '60s. Today the community has about 2,700 members, the majority of which live in Dimona.
The group initially received resistance from Israeli authorities – the community wished to become Israeli citizens according to the Jewish Law of Return. However, Ben-Israel and the rest of the members of his group received temporary residency in the 1990s and in 2003 they were given permanent residency.
Today, a new neighborhood dedicated to the African Hebrew Israelites community is being built in Dimona according to the principles of the community – which leads a vegan lifestyle – with one story ecological-friendly houses. Bitton also announced at the ceremony, which was attended by rabbis, diplomats, members of the community and high-ranking officials from southern Israel, that he would bring a draft resolution to the city council which would seek to name the new neighborhood after Ben-Israel.
"The Hebrews community is part of the range of Israel's cultural mosaic," said Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein. "Ben Ami was a man that endured a long path. I often heard in the past, as minister of absorption, of the all too slow process to become part of the community in Israel. The man does not leave us, his way and faith will stay alive in all of you and in those who will come after you."
Ben-Israel, a former Baptist, founded the community after a coworker enlightened him on the notion that he was a descendent of the biblical Israelites and in 1966, Ben-Israel claimed he had received a vision from the angel Gabriel.
In 1967, Ben-Israel gathered a couple hundred African American believers and led his followers, part of the Black Hebrews movement, to Liberia. After losing some of his followers, Ben-Israel sent families to Israel and then moved to Dimona with the rest of his followers in 1969.