November 23, 2022 - 7:00am

Most people probably haven’t heard of the Black Hebrew Israelites. Those who have encountered them in American cities likely remember them as nothing more than street preachers in tacky garments, incoherently ranting on street corners.

But in recent years they have been gaining notoriety. During the viral standoff at the Lincoln Memorial with the Covington Catholic students, the confrontation started with Black Hebrew Israelites hurling insults at the students, calling them a bunch of incest babies” and “dirty ass little crackers. In December 2019, a gunman who adhered to an extreme version of Black Hebrew ideology shot up a Kosher supermarket in New Jersey.

Now, more people have become aware of them because of the recent anti-Semitism of Kyrie Irving (this week Black Hebrew Israelites marched in support of the basketball player) and Kanye West, who repeated some of the talking points commonly uttered in Black Hebrew Israelite circles. Namely, that black people are the ‘real’ descendants of the ancient Israelites, not Jews.

Black Hebrew Israelism is an ideology which holds that all the original Jews of the Bible were black and that Zion is located in Ethiopia. When the kingdom of Israel fell the Israelites were scattered across the African continent and then later selectively targeted by enemy African tribes, who captured and sold them to European slave traders.

Jews, then, for Black Hebrew Israelites, are frauds. They are white interlopers who have stolen and distorted an ‘African religion’, wrongfully claiming it as their own. Frank Cherry, one of the founders of Black Israelite groups in the early 20th century, professed that Jesus would return to start a race war where blacks would win over white people to institute divine justice.

It should be noted that most Black Hebrew Israelites, while very reactionary — even hateful — aren’t violent. Like other black nationalists, they preach communal self-empowerment and a ‘return’ to traditional values. There is, however, an extremist fringe that is more bellicose and which actively promulgates the worst anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

The propaganda film Irving linked to, Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America, for instance, is laced with all sorts of anti-Semitic tropes: Holocaust denial, claims that Jews are Luciferians, and that the Atlantic Slave Trade was a Jewish racket.

Black Hebrew Israelites are obviously a racist cult. Their creed is as wacky and crackpot as Scientology; their historical revisionism is based on Afrocentric myth. Yet, it is concerning to see how their mantra that ‘black people are the real Jews’ has permeated into some sectors of African-American consciousness, given that big-time celebrities like West, Irving, and DeSean Jackson and Nick Cannon before them, have amplified some of these views to their fanbase, and figures who still carry water for them.

It is also interesting to note that — alongside this blatant anti-Semitism — is a kind of ‘Jew envy’. Envy has long been part of anti-Semitism, but with black nationalists the envy isn’t simply of the supposed power or wealth of Jews as with traditional anti-Semitism. Rather, it pertains to their ethnic solidarity and adamantine communal consciousness, as well as their entrepreneurial success and cerebral accomplishments. That is despite being a small minority, which they believe black people should emulate.

When interviewed by Piers Morgan, Kanye explained his own envy of several aspects of Jewish culture:

I’m envious of how they don’t abort their children…I’m envious of how they don’t shoot each other in the streets and then rap about it. I’m envious of how their families stay together. I’m envious that they turn their phones off on Friday nights and the family comes together. I’m envious of how they do business together. And I want that for the darker Jews, I want that for black people. We need that.
- Kanye West

If an envy of Jews exists among black nationalists, it’s almost expected that some of them would make the jump to appropriate Jewish mythology and culture with a tendentious Afrocentric agenda, in order to endow the black Americans they see as ‘rootless’ and ‘deprived of history’ with communal ‘greatness’. The idea of black ‘chosenness’ has been around since the late 19th century, when among America’s recently emancipated slaves the notion that they were really God’s chosen people was ignited.

This is why it still retains a cache into the present day among some black people. But chasing ‘chosenness’ in this way will always be elusive and lead only to the toxic swamp of racial animus that at its worst, as the 2019 New Jersey shooting showed, can be lethal.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.