Over the last few months of 2019, there were several anti-Semitic attacks in the United States. Two of them, occurring in December last year, were perpetrated by assailants described by the authorities as having links to the black Hebrew Israelites. The latter, designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) does not have a history of violence, but has become more apocalyptic in its rhetoric in recent years.
If you are asking yourself who the black Hebrew Israelites are, you are not alone. Let’s get some details first, and unpack these issues.
It is undeniable that anti-Semitic attacks have increased under the Trump administration. The latter has directly contributed to the rise of anti-Semitic hate crimes, platforming a range of anti-Semitic themes and providing political cover for white nationalist groups. The attacks on Jewish communities in December last year fit into an overall pattern of hate crimes.
The attack on the Hasidic Jewish community during Hanukkah in late December last year was carried out by Grafton Thomas, an African American man said to be linked – at least interested in – the black supremacist theology of the Hebrew Israelite church. Earlier in December, two assailants attacked the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in Jersey City, New Jersey. In that fatal incident, the New Jersey authorities have stated that the killers expressed interest in the black Hebrew Israelite movement.
The majority of anti-Semitic killings have been perpetrated by white supremacist groups – and while African American organisations have trafficked in anti-Semitism, black American attacks against Jews are exceptionally rare. These recent murders have thrown the spotlight on the Hebrew Israelite theology. This focus is to be welcomed, but the speed of the media in highlighting black anti-Semitism stands in stark contrast to the decades it took for the US ruling class to admit the lethal threat of white nationalist domestic terrorism.
The black Hebrew Israelites, a theological movement that dates back to the nineteenth century has splintered into different sects, factions and detachments – but all of them share a basic set of beliefs. Black Hebrew Israelism dates back to the days of emancipated slaves and Reconstruction after the civil war.
The various churches that belong to the Hebrew Israelite tradition regard the black population as the literal descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. In their worldview, it is the blacks who are the original chosen people – the Israelites. Today’s Jewish population, they contend, are mere imposters, falsely claiming that they are the Hebrews of the Bible.
While the roots of Black Hebrew Israelism are nonracist, they have adopted anti-Semitic rhetoric, denouncing the Jewish people as usurpers of the ‘chosen people’ mantle, engaging in worldwide financial conspiracies to enrich their own people at the expense of others. Their adherents have been non-violent, however, there are sects within the overall church that have encouraged confrontations with persons from non-African American backgrounds.
With the dispersion of ten out of the twelve ancient tribes of Israel after the Assyrian conquest, the black Hebrew Israelites contend that their mission is to regain their biblically-sanctioned rightful place as the descendants of the dispersed Hebrews. Drawing up a tortuous, bizarre theological ancestry from the purportedly lost ten tribes of Israel, the black Hebrew Israelites promote a theme of an oppressed people returning to their promised land.
The myth of the ten lost tribes of Israel, familiar to Western audiences through their knowledge of the Bible, has long provided fertile grounds for the growth of increasingly bizarre, pseudoarchaeological theologies that underpin many Christian-like cults until today. The Mormons, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), have incorporated into its theological doctrines a story of descent from the mythical lost tribes of Israel.
Certain Mormon doctrines hold that the indigenous Americans are the literal descendants of those scattered lost tribes. That sounds unusual to those of us on the outside of the Mormon church, however, the English-speaking world is not unfamiliar with such doctrines. Anglo-Israelism, sometimes called British Israelism, is the pseudoarchaeological contention that today’s people in Britain are the genetic descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.
The black Hebrew Israelites are a minority group, but they have shown a willingness to commit acts of politically motivated violence. This move away from their traditional nonviolence takes place within the toxic ecosystem of white American racism – an ecosystem fed by the Trump administration and its supporters. The Hasidic Jewish community has faced growing expressions of intolerance and hate as it has moved out of New York and into the suburbs.
As the ultra-Orthodox Jews have moved into Monsey, Rockland County – the scene of the Hanukkah attack – local authorities have passed zoning laws preventing the construction of ‘new places of worship’, such as synagogues. Republican party legislators and their supporters in the area have spoken of a ‘Jewish takeover’ of the county, undermining the ‘American way of life’. Such rhetoric has entirely foreseeable consequences.
Perhaps what makes the black Hebrew Israelites so outrageous for the white power structures is that they see a reflection of themselves. An oppressed group, such as African Americans, will search for a sense of belonging and cultural fixation in a system in which they are lost.
While conducting this search for meaning, and looking for a way to explain their suffering, they have adopted the doctrines of their white American oppressors. The black Hebrew Israelites are a reflection, in their own way, of the religiously-informed political outlook upon which the white American state is founded.