June 1, 2003

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon greets Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem last week.Pop singer Whitney Houston, who Rolling Stone magazine dubbed “one of the greatest voices of the 20th century,” spent last week on a high-profile tour of Jewish and Christian holy sites in Israel with her daughter and husband, singer Bobby Brown.

Houston spent the week touring every corner of the country, including a visit with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem. Sharon welcomed the singer to his home, saying: “You are most welcome here. This is your first visit here, we believe the first of many to come.”

Standing on Sharon’s patio, clad in a festive red-and-white ethnic ensemble, Houston told Sharon that “I’ve never felt like this in any other country. I feel at home, I feel wonderful.”

Houston said that she had come to Israel both for a “spiritual retreat” and to gather inspiration for a Christmas album she plans on recording soon. Her husband, Brown told reporters in Israel that the couple would return to the country in September, in order to film a program for the HBO cable network to be aired on Christmas eve. In addition to meeting with Sharon, Brown met with Tourism Minister Benny Elon.

The main purpose of the couples’ trip was to visit to the Hebrew Israelite community, known as the Black Hebrews in the southern town of Dimona. The community of 2,000 African-Americans, whose members have converted to Judaism, has lived in Dimona since the early 1970s. They are controversial because of their practice of polygamy, and Israel has hesitated to give them permanent resident status. Nonetheless, over the decades, many community members have integrated into Israeli society, and their musical performances are particularly popular.

Houston was greeted by the community upon her arrival in Eilat, where she began her trip. She then headed north to Dimona itself to see where they live. According to the community’s spokespeople, Ben Ami Carter, the leader of the community, proposed the idea of hosting the singer Whitney Houston in the Negev.

Houston’s mother, the veteran soul singer, Cissy Houston, as well as Whitney’s godmother, Aretha Franklin, are friends of community member Asiel Ben Yisrael from his earlier days in Chicago. Ben Yisrael has been working on this visit for over two years and met in the United States with mutual friends of his and the singer’s family.

About a month ago, Houston’s personal manager came to Israel and stayed with Hebrew Israelites in Dimona. She remained in the south for two weeks and felt that “Israel is a safe place” and recommended that Whitney and her family visit.

“You have to understand, black-skinned people always dream of visiting the Holy Land,” says Yeda’a Bat Yisrael told the newspaper Ha’aretz. “We’re Jews and she’s Christian, but the holiness of Israel is common to different religions. Whitney came to Israel on a journey of spiritual purification and to visit the holy sites and we’re glad that she’s coming with her children. It’s important they see the places they’ve read about over the years.”

Bat Yisrael said that she hoped the Houston visit would encourage other Americans to visit Israel as well.
“She is loving it,” reported Patricia Houston, the singer’s spokeswoman and sister-in-law. “She is a spiritual woman and wanted to come here and touch the land.”

Before leaving the country, Houston told reporters that she was going to build a house in Dimona, as she planned on visiting Israel frequently in the future. Meeting with Dimona Mayor Gabi Laloush, Houston said they would go back to the U.S. and encourage Americans to visit Israel.

Houston’s career peaked in the 1990’s when she produced hit after hit and starred in the successful movie, The Bodyguard. She has sold more than 120 albums over the course of her career. But recently, her name has become associated with controversy in recent years, with stories of physical abuse, other violent incidents involving Brown, who has been arrested repeatedly and stories of drug use, fueled by cancelled high-profile appearances and rumors of ill health when she made public appearances looking dangerously thin. Last year in a television interview, she admitted to drug use, but insisted that she was never addicted.

In the meantime, her singing career is far from over. Her last album, Just Whitney, which came out in November 2002, has sold 11 million copies.

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