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From New York City to the Negev Desert: Who Are the Black Hebrew Israelites?

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avatar by Chaim Lax

Opinion

Brooklyn Nets shooting guard Kyrie Irving. Photo: Reuters/ Marty Jean-Louis

In October 2022, famed American rapper Kanye West (also known as “Ye”) stirred up controversy when he tweeted that he was going to go “Deathcon [sic] 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE” and that he could not be considered antisemitic since “black people are actually Jew [sic] also.”

Then, a month later, star basketball player Kyrie Irving came under fire for tweeting a link to a film, “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake up Black America!”

This film and the book series that it is based on were revealed to contain a number of antisemitic tropes, including the claim that Jews have a plan for world domination, that Jews stole the identity of African-Americans, and that Jews control the media.

In response to the uproar, Irving reportedly said, “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from.”

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In both instances, West and Irving were seemingly referencing the ideology of the Black Hebrew Israelites (BHI), a small US-based religious movement that serves as an umbrella for a multitude of organizations who share the same core tenets but whose particular beliefs and practices range from the moderate to the extreme.

In this piece, we will take a look at the basic beliefs of the Black Hebrew Israelite Movement, examine its historical evolution over the past 150 years, and analyze the role that it currently plays in mainstream American culture.

Who Are the Black Hebrew Israelites?

At their core, the Black Hebrew Israelites (also sometimes referred to as “Black Jews”) believe that Black Americans are the true descendants of the Israelites who were exiled from the Promised Land. According to some, Latin Americans and Native Americans are also descended from the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

According to the Black Hebrew Israelite view of history, members of the Twelve Tribes of Israel were initially expelled from the Holy Land to Africa and then forcibly taken across the Atlantic as slaves to North America.

It is important to note that this movement does not include African-American members of traditional Jewish denominations, Ethiopian Jews, or African groups who claim Jewish ancestry (such as the Igbo people of Nigeria).

Within the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, Jewish symbols, rituals and holidays are used to varying degrees. The only holidays that are celebrated are those found in the Bible, such as Passover and Yom Kippur.

As mentioned earlier, there are a wide variety of sects within the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. Some of these sects seek to foster ties with the mainstream Jewish community, while others espouse racial superiority, antisemitism, and hatred of white people.

As the Anti-Defamation League notes, “Extremist sects represent a vocal subsection of the larger Black Hebrew Israelite movement. Just as not all Black Hebrew Israelite adherents are extremist, not all extremist sects preach the same level of hatred. The most active extremist sects have hardened their messages after decades of operation.”

It should be noted that there are thought to be approximately 1.6 million members of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement in the United States (with another 7.8 million people who agree with the movement’s core tenets). Of this number, the membership in the extreme sects is relatively minimal.

To understand why some Black Hebrew Israelites maintain moderate beliefs while others subscribe to an extremist and hate-filled ideology, one must first understand the history of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement within the United States. Scholars tend to divide this history into four waves, and each wave carries with it a distinct characteristic that influences the makeup of the Black Hebrew Israelite Movement today.

The Birth of a Movement: 1886-1900

While some point to Gabriel Prosser, an African-American slave who led a revolt in 1800, as the first person to preach the Black Hebrew Israelite ideology, scholars generally agree that the Black Hebrew Israelite movement in the United States can be traced back to two preachers who established the first BHI congregations at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.

The first preacher, F.S. Cherry, founded the Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth of All Nations in 1886 in Tennessee (it would later move to Philadelphia). Cherry preached that the Black community in the United States was descended from the Twelve Tribes of Israel, while also teaching that God hates white people because they are evil and frauds.

In 1896, William Saunders Crowdy, a former slave, established the Church of God and Saints of Christ after he claimed to receive divine visions that proved that Black Americans were descended from the ten lost Tribes of Israel. Crowdy took passages from the Old Testament in order to bring them closer to the teachings of the New Testament. As opposed to F.S. Cherry, William Crowdy never integrated hate or racial supremacy into his religious teachings.

Thus, as can be seen from the above, even in the nascent days of the BHI movement, there were denominations that espoused a moderate ideology while others adopted a more extreme and bigoted belief system.

The second wave of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement was defined by those who sought to follow the “philosophies of mainstream Judaism more closely.”

This wave was exemplified by Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who founded the Commandment Keepers congregation in Harlem in 1919.

Originally designated a church, the Commandment Keepers soon became identified as a synagogue. In line with traditional Black Hebrew Israelite philosophy, Matthew preached that Black Americans were the original Israelites but had lost touch with their roots through the centuries of slavery and introduction of Christianity by their slaveholders.

Matthew also taught that white Jews were the result of intermarriage between the Black Israelites and the children of Esau, the Biblical Jacob’s brother, or were descended from Khazars who had converted to Judaism in the eighth or ninth century. In an effort to reacquaint his followers with their Jewish roots, Matthew instituted a version of kosher dietary laws and denied the divinity of the New Testament.

Commandment Keepers services were modeled after those held in traditional synagogues, with separate seating for men and women, public readings of the Torah on the Sabbath (which was observed on Saturday), and the use of a traditional Hebrew prayer book. Matthew also founded the Israelite Rabbinical Academy, for the training of future rabbis.

As noted by the Anti-Defamation League, even though he was rebuffed by the mainstream Jewish community (he twice attempted to join the New York Board of Rabbis), Matthew never incorporated antisemitic teachings into his philosophy and “advocated for kindness between his followers and white Jews.”

For many years, the Commandment Keepers, with its focus on traditional Judaism, was the “dominant mainstream black Jewish organization” in the United States.

From Jews to Israelites: The Third Wave

The third wave of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement began in the 1960s and 1970s, as a response to the civil rights movement and the subsequent Black Power movement.

The third wave is defined as a period when BHI denominations emerged that were more patriarchal, more militant, and more extreme.

The third wave is also when the movement began to self-identify as “Black Israelites” instead of “Black Jews.”

Initially, the third wave continued in the footsteps of the second wave by adopting Jewish traditions and learning Jewish texts.

However, as the third wave continued, new BHI denominations began to emerge that were influenced by Black separatism and the militancy that colored 1960s America.

One of the most prominent Black Hebrew Israelite denominations that emerged during this period was the Israeli School of Universal Practical Knowledge (commonly known as “One West”).

Founded in the late 1960s by Eber Ben Yomin (also known as Abba Bivens), a former member of the Commandment Keepers, One West espouses the belief that white Jews stole the identity of Black, Latin, and Native Americans (who are the true Jews) and that the mainstream Jewish community is responsible for all the challenges that face these communities.

One West also adopted the tactics of confrontational street preaching and wearing colorful garments, emulating the clothing that they believe that the original Israelites wore thousands of years ago.

Some of the most radical, militant and bigoted Black Hebrew Israelite sects to emerge in the past 40 years are offshoots of One West.

These groups include Israel United in Christ, the Israelite school of Universal Practical Knowledge, the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, the Sicarii, House of Israel, True Nation Israelite Congregation, and Israelite Saints of Christ.

Of all these groups, Israel United in Christ (IUIC) is one of the most vocal and public. They are also one of the most militant and bigoted. They are known for street-preaching, rallying (including on behalf of Kyrie Irving), and marching.

In its writings and speeches, IUIC has made a wide variety of antisemitic statements, including that Jews are demons, that “everything they [Jewish people] do is about lying” and that Jewish people are responsible for a “Holocaust” that Black people have been experiencing since the 1400s.

The Black Hebrew Israelites in the State of Israel

One of the sects that emerged during the third wave was the Original African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem.

This sect was founded by Ben Ammi Ben Israel, a Chicago-born man who claimed that he had received a vision in 1966 that he was to return the African-American descendants of the ancient Israelites to the Promised Land.

By 1967, Ben Israel had persuaded 400 people to leave the United States with him for the Promised Land. After a brief sojourn in Liberia, that was seen as a means of purging the negative influence of captivity, this group arrived in Israel in 1969.

When they arrived in Israel, the group was given temporary visas and housing in the southern Israeli development town of Dimona.

Soon after the initial group’s arrival in the country, the Israeli government noticed that more members were arriving and illegally staying in the country (since it was determined that they were not Jewish, they were not eligible to become citizens under the Law of Return).

The State of Israel’s attempt to bar more members of the African Hebrew Israelite Nation from moving to the country led to a protracted conflict between the state and the sect.

During this nasty fight, which lasted 13 years, members of the sect took part in a public campaign against the State of Israel, which included calls for a halt to American aid to Israel and a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses.

In 1990, the Israeli government and the African Hebrew Israelites came to an agreement whereby members of the sect would be granted permanent residency.

In 2004, the first member of the African Hebrew Israelites enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and by 2006, 100 members were serving in the Israeli military. In 2009, the first member of the sect gained Israeli citizenship.

There are currently between 3,000 to 5,000 members of the African Hebrew Israelites living in Israel, the majority of whom are in the southern towns of Dimona, Arad and Mitzpe Ramon.

The African Hebrew Israelites place a strong emphasis on healthy living. They follow a vegan diet and highly limit their intake of sugar and salt. In addition, members are forbidden from smoking, taking drugs, or drinking alcohol (aside from naturally fermented wines). The African Hebrew Israelites also follow a strict exercise schedule.

Until 1990, members of the African Hebrew Israelite community practiced polygamy due to its existence in the Biblical tradition and because there were many more women than men in the first years of the community.

Aside from the Biblical holidays, the African Hebrew Israelite community also holds a special festive celebration every May, New World Passover, which commemorates their exodus from the United States in 1967.

The Black Hebrew Israelite Movement in the Age of the Internet

With the rise of the Internet and the subsequent popularity of social media, the Black Hebrew Israelite movement has a new avenue through which to spread its teachings.

In particular, the extremist BHI groups who traditionally rely on street preaching and public rallies, are able to use the Internet to spread their hateful ideology through social media sites, videos, and books.

For example, Israel United in Christ (one of the most publicly active groups) operates accounts on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and is able to reach out to interested individuals who may not have otherwise been exposed to their ideology.

The reach of IUIC’s teachings can be seen from their main YouTube channel: There are 126,000 subscribers and a total of 29.4 million video views.

It should be noted that while the extremist BHI sects have the benefit of increased exposure through the Internet, they are still only a vocal minority within the larger Black Hebrew Israelite movement.

The most prominent moderate leader of the Black Hebrew Israelites in the United States today is Capers Funnye, a Chicago-based rabbi who has tried to align the BHI movement with mainstream Judaism. Aside from converting to Conservative Judaism (which some BHI members oppose since it seems to contradict their core ideology) and becoming a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, Funnye leads a congregation that only subscribes to the Torah, rejects extremism, and supports the State of Israel.

Thus, much like during the first and second waves of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, the most popular leaders of the movement are moderate and open, but a small minority with a loud voice continues to preach hate, racial superiority, and extremism.

Violence in the Name of Ideology

Since the third wave of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, a number of people influenced by the extremist BHI sects have committed violence in the name of their ideology. These violent incidents include:

  • In 1974, a Black Hebrew Israelite opened fire in a church, killing Alberta King, the mother of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • In the 1980s, members of the Nation of Yahweh killed 14 people, including those who were white and had left the sect.
  • In October 2019, Elijah Israel, a self-identified BHI member, assaulted two people at a Miami synagogue while calling them “fake Jews.”
  • In December 2019, David Anderson and Francine Graham, two BHI members who held extremist beliefs, killed a police officer and then opened fire on a Jewish supermarket (killing three) in Jersey City, New Jersey.
  • In December 2019, a BHI extremist attacked a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York. One of his victims, a 72-year-old rabbi, died from his wounds three months later.

The Celebrities Who Follow the Black Hebrew Israelite Movement

One of the ways that the public has become acquainted with the Black Hebrew Israelite movement is through celebrities who publicly spread the movement’s ideology (both moderate and extreme).

Aside from Kanye West and Kyrie Irving, other celebrities who have publicly invoked the ideology of the Black Hebrew Israelites are Nick Cannon, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Kendrick Lamar.

In 2020, comedian Nick Cannon was forced to apologize after he hosted a podcast with rapper Professor Griff, where they claimed that Jews control the media and that the Rothschilds controlled the economy. After spewing these classic antisemitic tropes, Cannon and Griff claimed that they could not be considered antisemitic as they were the true Semitic people, a “birthright” that the Jewish community had stolen from the Black community.

During the recent uproar over the tweets by Kanye West and Kyrie Irving, former professional basketball player Amar’e Stoudemire, who had followed the BHI movement for 20 years and converted to Orthodox Judaism in 2020, came to the defense of the Black Hebrew Israelites, which he referred to as “a holy nation” while also condemning antisemitism within the movement.

For Kendrick Lamar, his espousal of BHI ideology came in his 2017 song “YAH.” when he raps that “I’m an Israelite, don’t call me black no mo’/ That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo’.” Lamar had been introduced to the movement by a cousin who was involved with the Israel United in Christ sect.

As the Internet and social media make it easier for all Black Hebrew Israelite sects to spread their beliefs to the wider world, it is incumbent upon celebrities involved with the movement to ensure that they are not encouraging the spread of the movement’s most extreme and hateful rhetoric, especially when such ideas have been shown to have violent consequences.

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

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