"Israelites" is a song written by Desmond Dekker and Leslie Kong that became a hit for Dekker's group, Desmond Dekker & The Aces, reaching the top of the charts in numerous countries in 1969. Although few could understand all the lyrics, the single was the first UK reggae number one and among the first to reach the US top ten (peaking at number 9). It combined the Rastafarian religion with rude boy concerns, to make what has been described as a "timeless masterpiece that knew no boundaries".
Originally issued in Jamaica as "Poor Me Israelites", it remains the best known Jamaican reggae hit to reach the United States Hot 100's top 10, and was written almost two years after Dekker first made his mark with the rude boy song, "007 (Shanty Town)". Dekker composed the song after overhearing an argument: "I was walking in the park, eating popcorn. I heard a couple arguing about money. She was saying she needs money and he was saying the work he was doing was not giving him enough. I related to those things and began to sing a little song: 'You get up in the morning and you're slaving for bread.' By the time I got home, it was complete." The title has been the source of speculation, but most settle on the Rastafarian Movement's association with the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In the 1960s, Jamaican Rastafarians were largely marginalized as "cultish" and ostracized from the larger society, including by the more conservative Christian church in Kingston. Destitute ("slaving for bread") and unkempt ("Shirt them a-tear up, trousers is gone"), some Rastafarians were tempted to a life of crime ("I don't want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde"). The song is a lament of this condition.
The vocal melody is syncopated and is centred on the tone of B flat. The chords of the guitar accompaniment are played on the offbeat and move through the tonic chord [B flat], the subdominant [E flat], the dominant [F], and the occasional [D flat], viz, [B flat] - [E flat] - [F] - [B flat] - [D flat]. It was one of the first reggae songs to become an international hit, despite Dekker's strong Jamaican accent which made his lyrics difficult to understand for audiences.
Despite "Israelites" being recorded and released in 1968, the Uni 45 discography shows its cataloguing in 1969. In June 1969 it reached the Top Ten in the United States, peaking at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. It hit number one in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Jamaica, South Africa, Canada, Sweden and West Germany.