In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Joan Borsten was a young, jet-setting correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and The Los Angeles Times, filing human interest stories from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Near East. She spent one memorable day in June 1979 traveling around Egypt in a black Mercedes with that country’s formidable first lady, Jehan Sadat. “I was the only one who didn’t have a family, so I was the one who was able to go back and forth [on assignments],” she remembers.
Borsten got her start covering minority communities in Israel for The Post, a decidedly less glamorous beat. That is why, in 1976, she found herself in the poor development town of Dimona interviewing Black Hebrews, as members of the African Hebrew Israelite community were known then. Her first article about them, headlined “Sect Problems,” appeared in December 1976, and in subsequent years she would contribute to two investigative series on the community. She also reported on the 1981 visit to Israel by American civil rights leaders who were concerned about the way the government was treating the status-less Hebrews. (At the conclusion of the trip Bayard Rustin, the head of the delegation, famously referred to the Hebrews’ late spiritual leader, Ben Ammi Ben Israel, as a dictator.)
Many of the articles Borsten wrote took a hard look at what was happening inside the Hebrew community. She documented cases of malnourished children and exposed the harsh disciplinary measures used to keep members in check, including beatings and public shamings. She interviewed defectors who accused Ben Ammi of manipulating them and Israelis who feared the cultish ways of the Hebrews and wanted them expelled from the country. As a result, her reports often drew the ire of community leaders. But she also took the Israeli government to task for mismanaging the situation. In my estimation she covered the community admirably, with seriousness and sensitivity at a time when many observers feared a repeat of the Jonestown tragedy.
Earlier this month I met with Borsten at her bright, art-filled home in Southern California and asked her about the experience of covering the Hebrews during one of the tenser periods of its existence in Israel. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation, as well as links to some of her strongest articles.
How did you get the assignment to cover the Black Hebrews?
When I began working at the Jerusalem Post in , I had to find a niche. Nobody was covering minorities on a regular basis —Druze, Israeli Arabs, Circassians. And somehow the Black Hebrews got put into that list. I went to Dimona [in October 1975] with a friend who is still living in Jerusalem, just expecting an ordinary story. And we spent some time there, and we said, ‘Holy Mary, what’s going on here?’
There were just so many surprises. They were living in a very cramped situation, and there were children all over. Eventually people started to talk to us and some said things that just sounded way out there. It was a few months after Jonestown, and some of the things that they told me sounded just like some of the things that came out of Jonestown. I think that they didn’t like the fact that we were asking questions that they didn’t want to answer. I went back and I told the editors that I thought this was a bigger story than they thought it was. In the end a team of us worked on the [series], which was very unusual for The Jerusalem Post.
What were your initial impressions of the community?
I felt it was a cult with a charismatic leader creating this world for them and that for a lot of them, however miserable their lives had been in Chicago, they were now in the middle of the desert and it was better than Chicago. They had something to believe in. They were organized. Ben Ammi had this whole mini-government running the show.
The women were very submissive and busy having children. I remember that there were concerns that the diet that they followed had caused malnutrition for some of the children. And I didn’t think it was about money. It wasn’t like they didn’t have enough money to buy chicken or fish. It was more about rules.
Did you know what Hebrew Israelites were?
No. I thought at the beginning that they were black Jews. The friend I went with to Dimona is from India, and we thought that these were descendants of slaves who’d been converted to Judaism, like the Cochinis.
At what point did you realize that they were not, in fact, black Jews?
Pretty much right away. I’d spent time with white Jews in Kochi, then known as Cochin, in India and in Israel with the black Cochini Jews who had become converts and made aliyah after Independence. It was just different. They knew that they were Jews and they didn’t have this whole back story. They’d been converted by the white Cochinis. It’s the same thing with the Bene Israel, who I met in Mumbai, then called Bombay. They were supposedly traders for King Solomon who shipwrecked off the coast of India. They knew that they were Jews and they practiced many Jewish traditions. The Black Hebrews had some traditions that sounded like Jewish traditions but were different. They’d done their own take on them.
What were your impressions of Ben Ammi?
He was very into himself and into his movement. He kind of fashioned their history to suit his own purposes. I remember that at the beginning it was pretty hard to follow him because they had their own “speak.” It was a language that was hard for you to penetrate as an outsider. You hear the same kind of stuff at a Baptist church in the Deep South, where you go, what does that mean?
In your May 1981 profile of Ben Ammi, he accuses The Post of publishing biased stories that “made us appear as if we’re very hostile to Israel, anti-Jewish, anti-white, anti-Judaism, and that’s not true.” What was your goal in your reporting?
We wanted to know who they really were. And [Post editors] Erwin [Frenkel] and Ari [Rath] stood behind us. We thought that we did our jobs as reporters. Sometimes, you don’t like what you read about yourself.
Also, part of the goal was to try to shake the [Interior] Ministry into doing something. Obviously we didn’t succeed. It took some years before they finally did something about this problem. But nothing in government happens fast.
How did others respond to your reporting?
The Post [editors] thought we did a really good job; they were very proud of the  series. I think that if we upset anybody, we upset the Interior Ministry. In those days The Jerusalem Post was the one paper you knew that leaders of foreign governments read because it was in English. We felt that the Interior Ministry had not handled the situation very well, and the Interior Ministry feared that people all over the world that were reading [The Post] now knew that they had handled it badly.
Why do you think the Israeli government handled the situation so poorly?
I don’t think the government knew what to do about it. It was just bizarre. It didn’t fit into any pattern. Israel was this tiny country in the ‘70s, very parochial. There were enough problems between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. When they brought the Yemenites, they knew they were Jews. There was polygamy, and sometimes the [Jewish Agency] would give somebody two apartments, one for this wife and another across the hall for that wife. The Falashas [Ethiopian Jews] had a lot of problems, but still [the government] could understand them. This, in my opinion, they couldn’t understand.
Sometimes you would see black Americans wearing kippot in the yeshivas in Jerusalem, but these were blacks from Chicago who had invented their own story. I don’t think [the government’s response] was anti-black. The Israelis did not want to upset black Americans, who were very pro-Israel. But Jonestown clarified things for everybody. Nobody in Israel knew what a cult was except in terms of charismatic rebbes in Mea Shearim and Brooklyn who had slavishly loyal followers. So this was sort of like a revelation.
Are you surprised to learn that the Black Hebrews have permanent residency now and are integrating slowly but surely into Israeli society?
I was very surprised to hear that the Israeli government had finally done something. If you had asked me [while I was covering the community], I would have said that that was probably the appropriate thing to do. I don’t think they could have sent them back to Chicago. The children especially would have really been in a foreign land.
Selected Jerusalem Post articles by Joan Borsten on the African Hebrew Israelites:
• Sect Problems, December 3, 1976—Borsten’s first article on the community, a review of their rocky seven years in Israel and their anticipation of the “end of days,” which leaders predicted would take place in 1977. Borsten concludes the piece by writing: “It seems that the Government is also waiting for September 22, 1977, hoping that the Black Hebrews will either do something so atrocious (but not harmful to the general population) that it will be easy to justify throwing them out, or that when the end of the world doesn’t come, Ben-Ami’s followers return to Chicago.”
• American Blacks, Jews intervene with Israel, January 21, 1979—Borsten’s contribution to the 1979 “Newsbeat” investigative series on the community. She examines how the media in Israel and abroad covered the Hebrews very differently, noting that “the local press dismissed Carter as a trouble-maker and a crackpot, but in the international media the preacher made headlines as the spokesman of a group of Black ‘Jews’ discriminated against by the ‘racist’ Israelis, ‘forced’ by the government to live 20 per flat, ‘banned’ from public schools and public health facilities.”
• Black Hebrew ‘messiah’ moderates his stance, October 12, 1980—A fascinating piece on the evolution of Ben Ammi’s public persona and rhetoric. “I’ve been with you for 11 years,” he tells Borsten. “I’ve learned something about you. I’m a little closer to you. I understand you better. And I’m not as extreme. I don’t want this roof to fall down.” (One quibble: Borsten refers to Ben Ammi as a “former Chicago truck-driver,” which is false. He worked as a metallurgist in Chicago, not as a truck driver—or a bus driver, as others reporters asserted.)
• Black Hebrews ‘duped’ Glass panel, October 14, 1980—When the Knesset committee tasked with studying the “problem” posed by the Hebrews’ presence in Israel released its report in June 1980, many Israelis and Americans, including defectors from the community, were disappointed with the findings. Borsten wrote about their reactions: “Everyone compliments the committee for its comprehensive analysis of the problem and its possible solutions, as well as its absolute condemnation of the government’s inept dealings with the community. And no one understands how the team, which spent 20 months at the taxpayer’s expense, probing ‘all’ aspects of the Black Hebrew problem—a probe that entailed a trip to the U.S.—virtually ignored charges that question the cult’s values, behaviour and control systems.”
• Rustin says leader of black cult is ‘dictator’, January 28, 1981—An interview with civil rights icon Bayard Rustin, who traveled to Israel with a delegation of black leaders to investigate the Hebrews’ situation. He did not hold back in his criticism of Ben Ammi, saying, “Carter is a dictator and dictators don’t have the same moral standards as democratic leaders.” The delegation took issue with this article, calling it “a seriously distorted view of our mission, findings and recommendations” in an unpublished letter to The Post, dated February 2 and signed by all of the members, including Rustin. The leaders seem to have been under the impression that this was the only coverage of their visit in The Post. In fact, Borsten wrote an article detailing their findings and recommendations that was published on January 29. In that pre-Internet era, they appear to have missed it.
• Meeting with the leader of the Black Hebrews, May 21, 1981—One of the best interviews ever conducted with Ben Ammi. He tells Borsten that Rustin’s comments about him were “very painful” to hear but, ever defiant, points out that “the messiah will not be an elected official or chosen by the people.” He also castigates the media for constantly portraying him and his followers in a negative light. “Try to give us a chance,” he says. “This is our life. After 12 years, what are we going to do? Everything we have is in Israel.”