The life and legacy of southern-born Black Hebrew leader Prince Asiel Ben Israel was celebrated Friday with tributes from staunch supporters, loved ones and religious and civic leaders.
Ben Israel has been described as a beacon of strength in the African Hebrew Israelite community who led thousands to Israel, and a fierce and passionate advocate for black excellence, both in Chicago and abroad.
He died on August 21 at the age of 81 and is survived by an extensive family tree – three wives, 15 children and more than 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom attended the memorial service for three o’clock Friday at Trinity United Church of Christ.
Mourners gathered at the church to pray and remember their ‘beloved prince’, who gave more than 50 years of his life in service of his beliefs.
The Black Hebrews believe they are direct descendants of the Old Testament Israelites. The group also believes in eternal life, even after death – a theme that resonated throughout Ben Israel’s memorial service through prayers and sermons.
“I offer you my deepest condolences because we did not personally suffer loss, we collectively suffered it,” Yosef Ben Prince Asiel, Ben Israel’s son, said at the memorial. “We stand before you knowing that our father, our brother, our friend gave us everything he had. So we are at peace.
Yosef Asiel told the crowd his father taught him a key lesson about brotherhood and strength.
“As black men, we were taught to be envious of those who are tall. We were taught to be a little apprehensive…but my dad lived by the principle that strong men don’t fear strong men,” he said to thunderous applause.
Yosef Asiel said he plans to continue his father’s work in the community and urged his fellow Black Hebrews to join him.
“As we come to celebrate the life and legacy of such a great man, we must do so by continuing his work,” he said. “So we can’t leave here divided because our nation can’t survive with division.”
Several city leaders attended the memorial, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, U.S. Representative Danny K. Davis and U.S. Representative Bobby Rush. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan also joined the panel of guest speakers.
Ben Israel often acted as a consultant to political leaders and other figures, including the late Whitney Houston, in his later years.
“Prince touched so many lives and he found a way to mediate between the spiritual and the civic,” said Reverend Toni Luck, who officiated at the memorial.
Ben Israel left America in the 1960s, taking a group of 350 black Americans with him to Israel with the intention of creating a better life abroad.
Ben Israel was also sentenced to seven months in federal prison in 2015 for failing to register as a Zimbabwean agent.
Friends and loved ones took to the memorial pulpit to sing, pray and recount the adventures and travels of Ben Israel. His “capital S swagger” was ever present wherever his faith took him, Dr. Hermene Hartman, founder of the Chicago-based African-American newspaper N’DIGO, told the crowd.
He has traveled the world in his role as an international ambassador for the African Hebrew Israelite community.
In Chicago, he opened the Soul Vegetarian East restaurant, now called SoulVegCity, in Chatham.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot praised the charismatic leader and called him a “freedom fighter”.
“Chicago has long been home to black genius and talent, and Prince is truly proof of that,” Lightfoot said. “He was not sorry for the beauty and greatness of black people. He flatly rejected every story that portrayed any of us as less than what we are.