DIMONA, Israel – Israel has denied him citizenship since birth, dismissing his group as a bizarre cult, but all the same, Eddie Butler will represent the Jewish state this year in Europe's biggest song contest.
"I love the state of Israel," Butler said, "and I want to show every black and white person, here and abroad, what we can do."
For that he'll have an international TV audience when he sings "Ze Hazman" — This is the Time — Israel's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, a 37-nation pop jamboree being held in Athens May 18-20.
The Black Hebrews began arriving in Israel in 1969, following Ben Carter, a Chicago steelworker who renamed himself Ben Ammi Ben Israel (son of my people, son of Israel) and claimed to be God's representative on earth. The government, unsure where they fit into Israel's Law of Return that grants every Jew automatic citizenship, moved them into remote desert towns and left them on temporary visas without permission to work.
Now, after being marginalized for nearly four decades, things are finally changing for the community, thanks in large part to the music of people like Butler.
"A small community that had its origins in not being at all accepted as part of Israel, and now we're representing Israel!" exclaimed its spokeswoman, Yaffa Bat Gavriel. "And that's where we want to be. We want to show that we're here to do our part for this country."
Butler was born in a taxi that broke down on the road to a hospital in the Negev Desert 34 years ago. His parents had immigrated here three years earlier to help found the Kingdom of Yah. The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, as they call themselves, believe they are the lost tribe of Judah, exiled from the Holy Land by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago.
No scholar gives the idea any credence, "but to any group that does not have a history, this is a very attractive claim," says Rivka Gonen, former senior curator of ethnography at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
The first 39 arrivals were followed by nearly 600 more in the next two decades. Arriving on tourist visas, "the Black Hebrews had a very bumpy arrival here," said Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli who has written extensively on the group.
They refused to convert to Judaism, even though it would have entitled them to citizenship and the right to work. They considered themselves the true Jews of ancient Israel, and they followed a lifestyle they said was based on the Torah and Ben Israel's teachings, but without traditional Judaism's rabbinical interpretations.
Now a community of 2,500 people in Dimona and two other Negev towns, the Black Hebrews live a communal life, dress African-style and refuse birth control. Most of the men have more than one wife, and more than 1,000 babies have been born in the Black Hebrews' House of Life birthing center.
Butler's mother, Karaliah, a registered nurse back in the U.S., helped set up the center and is one of its midwives.
The newcomers started out living in plywood shacks, and some have since moved into permanent housing. Over time, they climbed out of poverty by producing textiles and developing a thriving health food industry. And meanwhile, music was earning them acceptance, says Butler's older brother, Avraham, who runs a tofu factory near Dimona.
It began with their choir, in which Butler sang as a youngster. They also formed two bands which entertained front-line Israeli soldiers in the 1970s.
Their albums and concerts also helped the community survive financially. "Back then, all the money that we made from our music, we put into a central fund for the community, because no one was getting work, and it was hard for us to earn money at that time," Avraham Butler said.
In 2003 they finally won permanent residency, and in two years they can apply for citizenship, but say they will only do so as a community, not as individuals.
Their young people can now enlist in the army, a rite of passage in Israeli society. More than 70 have already done so.
Eddie Butler has a Hebrew first name, Etan, lives in Tel Aviv and is studying to convert to traditional Judaism.
"Ze Hazman," the song that is taking him to Athens, is a pop ballad influenced by R&B, part English, part Hebrew.
This will be his second Eurovision appearance; he and a brother were part of a larger Israeli group at the 1999 contest. "But this is really what I've been waiting for," he says.
"This time, I'll be singing solo, and the stage is mine. This is my chance to do something for my country."