Whitney Houston's in trouble, her friends fear, and this time it's not because of drugs.
Houston and husband Bobby Brown, along with their daughter Bobbi Kristina, have been spotted in Israel this week. They say they are there on a private visit to see a sect called the Black Hebrews, who live in the city of Dimona.
Some believe the Black Hebrews are not really Jewish. And they are not particularly welcome by Israel, which has tried at various times to expel them or limit their legal status. Some even consider them a dangerous cult, run since 1967 by a former Baptist from Chicago named Ben Ami, aka Ben Israel or Ben Carter, whose real name is Gerson Parker, a 62-year-old former metallurgist and self-appointed savior.
We'll call him Carter for the purposes of this column.
Houston flew on a commercial jet that may have been paid for by the Black Hebrews, who have been trying to enlist her and Brown in their cause for some time.
The connection began at Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March in 1995. At that rally, Farrakhan cited Carter, who was in the audience, as his "brother." Houston and Brown were in the same audience, and that is apparently when they met Carter and his group.
Carter at the time offered Houston and Brown a free junket to Dimona to see how the group lived. Instead, Houston's brother, Gary, and his wife, Pat, took the freebie. According to my sources, Whitney has since been pressured to make the trip. Adding to the pressure is the fact Brown's sister, known as Lele, is a Farrakhan supporter, who has also been lobbying the couple.
Carter's group, The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, or Black Hebrews, operates in the U.S. in several cities including Atlanta (where Houston and Brown live), Cleveland, Charleston, Tallahassee, St. Louis, Chicago, Washington (where they operate the Prince Asiel Center), Houston and the island of St. Croix. They are said to have millions of dollars in real estate assets.
In most of these locations they function out of a restaurant chain called the Soul Vegetarian. At the Atlanta restaurant last night, I was told on the phone that I should speak to one of the "saints" who run the place. The person who answered the phone said she was a member of "the Kingdom."
In fact, Gerson Parker, aka Ben Carter, managed to take 350 African Americans from Chicago in 1967 and bring them to Liberia. Two years later they emigrated to Israel, believing they were the "lost tribe" of Israel.
But the Black Hebrews are well known in Israel and elsewhere as black supremacists. They also believe in polygamy -- marriage to many women at once -- and are vegetarians. Members who do not follow their practices are punished.
Some in the group are also criminals.
In 1986, a group of Black Hebrews -- led by Carter's American disciple Warren Brown, aka Prince Asiel ("angel of healing") -- was found guilty by a federal jury in Washington, D.C., of operating an international crime ring that trafficked in millions of dollars worth of stolen airline tickets and used bogus credit cards and worthless checks to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. The convictions were overturned, and when prosecutors sought a retrial, Prince Asiel pleaded to a lesser charge.
In 1990, a U.S.-affiliated offshoot sect of Black Hebrews in Miami -- led by Yahweh Ben Yahweh, aka Hulon Mitchell Jr. -- was indicted for conspiring to commit murder and racketeering. Prosecutors said Yahweh directed followers to commit 14 murders, two attempted murders and the firebombing of a Delray Beach neighborhood. Several of the victims were decapitated with a machete and others had their ears cut off as proof of the slayings.
Mitchell was sentenced to 18 years in jail for racketeering. The murder charges produced a hung jury. Mitchell served 10 years and was released in 2001.
It was the aforementioned Prince Asiel who visited Whitney Houston at the Miraval Resort in Arizona a couple of years ago when she was trying to detoxify. The Prince -- Warren Brown -- presented her with a plan that the Black Hebrews could cure her of her addictions. Houston has admitted publicly to drug use.
What concerns Houston's friends now is that, according to several of them, no one knew why she was going to Israel after last weekend's Divas Duets show in Las Vegas. Employees of Houston's company, Nippy Inc., were said to be taken by surprise when they heard on the news she was in Israel and visiting the Black Hebrews.
"Her performance on Divas was terrible," says one insider. "And she knows it. That may have provoked her to make the trip. Maybe she was convinced they could help her."
Friends are worried Carter's group will use a vulnerable Houston for their own purposes. That idea seems to have validity since Houston and Brown were photographed with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon upon their arrival. Sharon, like most Israelis, shuns the Black Hebrews, considers them a cult and would never have agreed to be associated with the group.
Another question for Houston when she returns to the United States is how she will explain this new behavior. Raised a Baptist, Houston is considered a member of that church. Her mother, Cissy Houston, is a deacon at their family church in Newark, N.J.
Houston recently axed her longtime publicist, Nancy Seltzer, and her unofficial spokesperson, Houston's sister-in-law Patricia Houston, is also in Israel.