For Myrtle Washington, lawyer and one-time seminarian, it was to be a chance to "see some of the things I'd read about -- Beersheba, the Wailing Wall -- things that mean something to me spiritually."

For Peola Spurlock, a clinical psychologist, it was the lure of the Holy Land.

Donald Fuller had the time, and a little money, and thought he might as well join Washington, whom he's been dating.

And so it was that these three and two others -- the Rev. Charles Kenyatta of New York and Gregory Ward of Connecticut -- flew off to Israel in late August.

But instead of a pleasant sojourn in a biblical storybook land, they spent a long summer's night of "harassment and humiliation" before being put on the next available flight home.

The only explanation they can come up with -- in the absence of any official one -- is race. All five are black.

According to Myrtle Washington, she and Fuller were the only ones who knew each other prior to their meeting at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Their flight and hotel arrangements had been made through a travel agency.

"We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv at something like 8:50 p.m. on Aug. 30," she recalled. "As we approached the gateway to customs, Rev. Kenyatta, who was leading the way, was immediately stopped and told to report to the police office."

The others continued in line, and Fuller, who had spotted a shorter line, got his visa stamped and was waiting for the others.

"They were just about to stamp our passports when the same woman who had stopped Rev. Kenyatta came over and took our passports, including Fuller's," Washington said. "We tried to find out what the problem was, and at first this woman told us that she had checked with the hotel where we were supposed to be staying and learned that we had no reservations.

"When we asked if we could call the hotel, she checked again and this time she said our reservations were only for two days.

"Again I asked if we could call the hotel. She said no. Then I asked if we could call the American Embassy. Again the answer was no." (That refusal appears to be a violation of established international practice.)

Washington said the five black Americans were told to bring their baggage, which was then thoroughly searched.

"In fact, all of us were searched pretty well," Washington said. "Rev. Kenyatta was strip-searched."

Although the search apparently produced nothing out of the ordinary, the group was still not permitted to clear customs. They were told to wait until a superior officer reported for duty, at 5 o'clock the next morning.

"We just sat there all night," Washington said. "Finally, about 7 a.m., the superior they were apparently waiting for showed up. He conferred with the others, then went over and talked to Rev. Kenyatta.

"Then he told us to get our bags, took us over to the British Airways gate, checked us in. Then he told us we could make a phone call if we wanted to, but of course by then they had taken our tickets and it all seemed senseless."

The five were then escorted aboard the plane for London and listened while the British Airways steward was told not to return their passports until they were airborne.

Since then, they have been trying -- without success -- to get some official explanation from U.S. and Israeli officials. They would also like a formal apology and the return of the $1,200 apiece in wasted round-trip airline tickets.

A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington said the incident is being investigated. "It has already been established that they were not mistreated or harassed," he said. "They were, however, denied entry."

He said the airport authorities may have believed the group had some connection with "the illegal presence in Israel of the sect known as the Black Hebrews."

He didn't suggest on what evidence.