No, Hebrew Israelites are not a threat

Hebrew Israelites reading from the Torah at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY, August 17, 2019. (Courtesy of blackjews.org)
Hebrew Israelites reading from the Torah at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY, August 17, 2019. (Courtesy of blackjews.org)

Hebrew Israelites have been in the news a lot this year.

In January, a group called House of Israel provoked a confrontation between Catholic high school students from Kentucky and Native American activists at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. You probably saw the viral video.

Then, in September, another group called the Church of Yahawashi sparked outrage after they went to a Jewish neighborhood of London and harassed Haredi Jews who were walking home from synagogue on Shabbat. According to the local Jewish newspaper, the street preachers called the Jews names like “Amalekites and Edomites,” “devils,” and “abominations” and invoked the gas chambers. “Never before in my life have I felt so terrified by a group of people,” wrote community member Lily Smythe.

In Israel, Hebrew Israelites made headlines for more positive reasons. Ketreyah Fouch, one of the many talented singers from the African Hebrew Israelite community, nearly won a national contest to represent Israel at Eurovision, the international song competition that was held in Tel Aviv in May. And the former NBA player Amar’e Stoudemire, who was baptized in a Messianic Hebrew Israelite church in Chicago, received Israeli citizenship after playing for Hapoel Jerusalem for two seasons. (Stoudemire has said he’s converting to Orthodox Judaism.)

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As these examples of recent media coverage demonstrate, Hebrew Israelites—people of color who identify as descendants of the Biblical Israelites but are not recognized as Jews—are a very diverse bunch. Yet in the wake of the London incident, some commentators have argued that they pose a threat to the Jewish people.

In a Times of Israel blog post, Masimba Musodza made shocking generalizations about members of today’s Hebrew Israelite groups, calling them “some of the most misguided, most unhinged members of society” and “a bunch of crazed fanatics dressed up like extras for the video for 2 Pac’s ‘California Love’ who deliberately preach anti-Semitism in an area where many Jews live.” He also wrote that Hebrew Israelites are filled with “hatred of Jews and other people.” In a follow-up post earlier this month, Musodza apologized for lumping all Hebrew Israelites together but doubled down on his contention that the movement includes “dangerous hate groups.”

Musodza’s alarmist posts struck a nerve with me because I have researched the Hebrew Israelite movement for over a decade, published numerous journalistic and academic articles about the African Hebrew Israelite community in Israel, and count many Hebrew Israelites around the world as friends. I empathize with my fellow Jews who endured that anti-Semitic harangue in London; no Jews should have to fear for their safety in their own community. But the Hebrew Israelites I know do not hate Jews, and it is wrong to vilify an entire spiritual movement based on the actions of its fringe elements. Moreover, to suggest that Hebrew Israelites represent a threat to Jews distracts from the real threat posed by legitimately dangerous anti-Semites, like the white nationalist responsible for the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year and the far-right extremist who tried to attack a synagogue in Halle, Germany last month.

Below I will correct several misconceptions about Hebrew Israelites that Musodza and others have been perpetuating.

The Hebrew Israelite movement is not homogenous, and most Hebrew Israelites do not engage in anti-Semitic activities.

There are hundreds of Hebrew Israelite groups, or camps, in the United States, the Caribbrean, Africa, and many other places around the world. These camps often have their own theology, ritual practices, and leadership structures. The only shared beliefs across the movement are that people of color are genealogical descendants of the ancient Israelites, who were dark-skinned like them, and that the Bible is their history book.

Some Hebrew Israelites worship Jesus; others do not. Some distance themselves from mainstream Jewish communities; others enjoy good relations with their Jewish neighbors. Some condemn Israel as a racist state. Meanwhile, the 3,000-strong African Hebrew Israelites have lived in Israel for 50 years, and their youth serve in the Israel Defense Forces. (I have written about this community’s struggle for Israeli citizenship, which I believe they deserve.)

Soldiers from the African Hebrew Israelite community are honored during a community celebration in Dimona, Israel, May 2008. (Andrew Esensten)

Yes, there are those within the movement who hold a particular grudge against Jews. They claim we appropriated their identity and culture. To them, we are imposters and they are the real children of Israel. A handful of Hebrew Israelite camps appear on a list of black nationalist hate groups compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). These camps are the loudest—both on street corners and online—and attract the most media attention. But they appear to represent only a small percentage of the Hebrew Israelite population in the United States, which a recent study estimated to be 4 percent of African Americans, or about 1.6 million people.

Hebrew Israelite street preachers do not specifically target Jews.

Most Hebrew Israelite camps do not proselytize on the street, but those who do tend to be equal-opportunity provocateurs. Just ask the former president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who found himself debating members of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK) in D.C. in March. (When I tweeted about this encounter in August, Grímsson replied: “On the street corners of big cities one can often hear the fringe voices; #democracy in action!”)

It is unclear if ISUPK and other camps that engage in street proselytizing are genuinely trying to attract new followers or if they are simply engaging in a kind of performance art, insulting passersby for the amusement of their online followers. (The preachers almost always film themselves, and there are numerous videos of these interactions online.) But what is clear is that they do not specifically target Jews with their message. They target all the people they believe have violated God’s laws, including white people, gay people, Christians—and practically everyone else.

Many traditional Hebrew Israelite communities disapprove of the beliefs and tactics of more radical offshoots.

After the London incident, I called up my friend Rabbi Capers Funnye, the spiritual leader of an established Hebrew Israelite congregation in Chicago, and asked him what he thought about Church of Yahawashi. He did not mince words: “They are engaging in hate-mongering, and that should never come out of any religious movement.”

Rabbi Capers Funnye, right, with Ethiopian elder Semu Kebede at Congregation Beth Elohim, August 17, 2019. (Courtesy of blackjews.org)

Rabbi Funnye serves as chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis and is part of a Hebrew Israelite tradition that dates back to the early 20th century and Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew. Rabbi Funnye acknowledged that he is not in a position to decide who can self-identify as a Hebrew Israelite; the term has become more fluid in recent decades, as members of other ethnic groups, including Latinos and Native Americans, have joined the movement. However, he said the street preachers in London and elsewhere—many of whom belong to offshoots of a radical camp called One West—are not representative of Hebrew Israelites as a whole.

“A distinction must be drawn between, let us call them, Hebrew Israelite newcomers, and Hebrew Israelites like me and the members of my community,” he told me. “We believe in the humanity of all people, and we do not disparage any group.”

Every Shabbat, Rabbi Funnye welcomes Jews into his synagogue, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, on Chicago’s South Side. I’ve attended his spirited services; no one was dressed like a music video extra or spoke ill of the Jewish people.

Hebrew Israelites do not promote violence.

They may speak loudly and profanely. They may preach bigotry couched as salvation. They may march in the streets and project a militant image à la the Black Panthers. But this is not the same as promoting or committing violence. As Princeton religion professor Judith Weisenfeld told the Detroit Free Press after the Lincoln Memorial fracas: Hebrew Israelites “have no power to do much” beyond “orally assault[ing] people in their proselytizing.”

Heidi Beirich of the SPLC echoed that sentiment, telling the New York Times: “These are really fringe movements, and they’re also very different than white nationalist groups that have access to power.” She added that Hebrew Israelites do not have a history of violence.

According to my research, all of the known acts of violence involving Hebrew Israelites were committed by rogue members against non-Jews. The most recent example is the sad case of Joy Morgan, a university student who belonged to a London branch of Israel United in Christ and who was murdered by a fellow member last year. Another member of Israel United in Christ in Indiana shot a transgender woman in 2016. (IUIC leaders have condemned both attacks, writing in a statement on their website: “IUIC will not support murderers, kidnappers, rapists or any other vile acts inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ.”) Followers of Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the notorious leader of the Nation of Yahweh in Miami, murdered defectors from the group and several random white people in the 1980s. And in June 1974, a Hebrew Israelite who thought he was the Biblical Jacob shot and killed the mother of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He told his lawyer that he intended to kill Dr. King’s father, also a Christian minister, for spreading a “false religion.”

I mention these cases not to magnify their importance but to demonstrate how rare they are, and how Jews were not the targets of the attacks.

In an era of renewed anti-Semitism, we must remain vigilant against all those who exhibit hostility toward us Jews. But we should not exaggerate threats, either. Instead, when we encounter Hebrew Israelite zealots in public, we should know that they do not speak for all Hebrew Israelites. And we should try to do what everyone in New York City does: ignore them.

For those who want to explore the Hebrew Israelite movement in greater depth, I have collected many articles, books, videos, and other materials on my website.

About the Author
Andrew Esensten is an American freelance journalist and researcher based in California. He previously lived in Israel and was a staff writer at Haaretz English Edition. He holds a BA from Harvard University in African American Studies and an MA from Tel Aviv University in Middle East and North African History. He is writing a book about the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, more commonly known as the Black Hebrews of Dimona.
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