Elijah Kahlenberg

Christian Zionists and Black Hebrew Israelites: Untold shared roots

As a Jew raised in Texas, seeing videos of Black Hebrew Israelites praising Hitler and condemning contemporary Jews as ‘fakes’ does not reflect my experiences with African American communities. While one cannot ignore such radical sects of the Black Hebrew Israelite (BHI) movement, the African American community I grew up with overwhelmingly viewed Jews as natural allies. In the words of a grade school friend, “[BHI] is a New York and Brooklyn thing, down here [the South] we [Jews and Blacks] have never had the luxury to be on opposing teams.”

I grew up in San Antonio. My backyard is Cornerstone Church, a megachurch run by Pastor John Hagee, arguably the most famous Evangelist known for making Israel-activism intertwined with his Christianity. Unsurprisingly, those who possessed the greatest mix of fascination and animosity with my identity were not African Americans but white Evangelicals. These individuals likewise became the face of Christian Zionism – a Christian theological belief touting the necessity of Jews to return to the land of Israel to trigger Jesus’ return. It hence seems blasphemous to utter two unassociated groups — Black Hebrew Israelites and Christian Zionists — in the same breath; however, by diving into both movements’ fanatical roots, we surprisingly find a common antecedent: British Israelism.

British Israelism is the belief that Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and other Germanic peoples are the direct descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Before you laugh, this ideology was cultivated before genetics/anthropology really took shape. To properly explain how this ideology arose, one must return to 15th century Europe, specifically to the invention of the printing press, which allowed for mass proliferation of history’s most popular book, the Bible. Not only could masses now easily access the Bible, but with the Protestant Reformation only a few decades later, Catholic middlemen were no longer needed to theologize biblical concepts.

These variables concocted a perfect storm following England’s adoption of Protestantism. The people of the British Isles, now with unparalleled and unhindered access to Scripture, began to question their origins. In their Protestant eyes, their ancestors — Anglos, Saxons, and Celtic peoples — were pagan barbarians, the same groups regarded as heathens in the Bible. This sacrilegious reality pushed many Brits to search elsewhere for their roots, and who better rectifies this catastrophe than the lost tribes of Israel. Scholars point to an extensive adoption of a British-Israelite origin story from elites to peasants. Stuart King James believed himself to be the “king of Israel,” while works like the Ten Lost Tribes by Counsellor le Loyer promoted this myth among literate Englishmen.

With supposed British descent from the Ten Lost Tribes, an implicit notion arose that Brits, alongside Jews (descendants of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin), would generate an ingathering of the exiles back to Israel. This conception is arguably the earliest iteration of Christian Zionism. Unsurprisingly, a uniquely British fascination with Ottoman Palestine developed. In 1805, the British Palestine Association was founded to “scientifically” analyze the geography and natural histories of land. The editors of one of its reports specifically noted that their mission studied “all the countries on either side of the river Jordan, inhabited by the Tribes of Israel” to chart such “ancestral” lands.

British Israelism, however, would soon clash with another fashionable phenomenon: racial antisemitism. By claiming descent from Israel’s lost tribes, would that not make Brits racially synonymous with the repugnant Jew? Antisemitism always existed in the British Israelite movement’s religious spheres, since Jews, although hailing from Israelites, rejected Jesus’ divinity. As the West’s focus shifted increasingly to racial superiority, however, the new movement of Identity Christianity was born. The term was coined by Howard Rand, one of the movements’ founders. Rand was raised in a British Israelite household, and by the 1920s, he had begun to contest the Jews’ descent from Judah/Benjamin. He claimed instead that they were interlopers from Esau/Canaanites, which allowed him to promote Aryans/Anglos as the “true Israelites.” The movement eventually relied on other theories (the Khazar theory or Cain’s serpent seed theory) to explain Jewish origins, and these denials of the biblical approach to Jewish origins became ideological bedrocks in certain BHI sects.

The Christian Identity movement was popular from 1930-1970, and it found favor with the Ku Klux Klan, as well as various alt-right politicians. How then did such ideological constructs penetrate Black religious spheres? Black Americans had long had an affinity for the biblical Israelites: from the First Great Awakening, stories of the Israelites’ liberation from bondage strongly influenced sects of black society to adopt an Israelite-origin myth. An ex-slave, William Saunders Crowdy, even had “divine revelations” that blacks were the true Israelites.

The BHI movement turned rotten when it, like many other Black nationalist groups, became influenced by white supremacist ideologies. Black nationalism is typically found in large northeastern areas where black-Jewish tension was previously present. Louis Farrakhan, Elijah Muhammad, and other black supremacist figures used that tension to scapegoat Jews for exploiting black communities. It should be no surprise that the Nation of Islam invited George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, to multiple rallies. Indeed, it was in these joint extremist spaces that white supremacists, already influenced by antisemitic Jewish origin myths promulgated by the Christian Identity movement, conveyed such beliefs to black nationalists.

Thus, any Jew on social media can be called a product of “the synagogue of Satan,” a New Testament phrase commonly misquoted among BHIs and Christian Identitarians alike to recount Jewish origins. We may laugh at 16th century Brits for believing they were of Israelite descent; however, British Israelism has had undeniable influence over religious radicals, both black and white. While some may expect these extremist communities to be diametrically opposed to one-another, they are indisputably parallel.

About the Author
Elijah Demetrios Kahlenberg is a student/researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and the founder and president of Atidna International, a joint Arab/Palestinian and Jewish/Israeli campus-based peace initiative. Elijah analyzes historical issues pertinent to Arab/Palestinian-Jewish/Israeli peace/reconciliation, the Israeli settler movement, Palestinian history, Jewish interfaith relations, and Jewish history in the Eastern Mediterranean.
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