by Ralph Leonard
Wednesday, 23
November 2022
Explainer
07:00

The dangerous rise of Black Hebrew Israelites

Celebrities are repeating the group's anti-Semitic tropes
by Ralph Leonard
Black Hebrew Israelites march in support of Kyrie Irving outside the Barclays Center

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.


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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.

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Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
15 days ago

This is all reminiscent of the mythology that built around Ethiopian independence and Haile Selassie, around how they were the true Zionists, all the way to Marley singing about the ‘Zion Train’ 50 years ago. Crapology, it seems, has a long tail.

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
15 days ago

Black Hebrew Israelism looks like a new version of British Israel theory – the equally mad belief that the white, Anglo-Saxon people of northern Europe are the ‘lost’ 10 tribes of Israel. There’s nothing (entirely) new under the sun….

Simon Ruda
Simon Ruda
15 days ago
Reply to  Graeme Kemp

O

Last edited 15 days ago by Simon Ruda
Jacqueline Burns
Jacqueline Burns
15 days ago

I think you ignore the fact that African countries & their people (even those who do not live in & may not have even visitited Africa) have, to a large extent, taken on the Muslim faith, amongst whom the appropriation of Jewish history & culture for themselves is rife.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
15 days ago

Judaism is the earliest, and the most fundamental source, of the three religions of Abraham; Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Your reference to “appropriation” is misleading.

Trevor B
Trevor B
14 days ago

You seem to have misunderstood to the opposite of what Jacqueline meant. Therefore an entirely appropriate reference to ‘appropriation’ (unless you think Islam and Christianity’s ‘Jewish roots’ entitle them – religions or people – to claim ‘Jewish history & culture for themselves’ is appropriate – which is surely a fairly stupid suggestion?)

Emre S
Emre S
14 days ago
Reply to  Trevor B

I’m guessing, at this point, you’re not a Muslim?

George Marshall
George Marshall
15 days ago

Is it possible/plausible to theorise about the existence of economic and political trade offs between the interests of some Jewish and Black demographic cohorts in America?
As an obvious example: in terms of average income there is a not insignificant discrepancy.
Now, reducing that inequity to racial factors apropos of nothing wouldn’t be rational, and of course it makes no sense to judge only those two particular minority groups against each other in isolation.
On the other hand, it’s also not impossible that such inequity could in part be sustained by unconscious in-group preferences, or systemic factors that discretely favour certain cultures, in ways which wouldn’t be basically fair to every observer. Not certain, but possible.
I’m not saying these systemic biases absolutely exist, or alleging any kind of conspiracy in the traditional sense. I think allegations of systemic bias are, as a rule, fundamentally impossible to prove empirically. It’s a type of argument familiar to the worst excesses of postmodern progressivism, and there’s no shortage of epistemological problems with that kind of guiding philosophy.
However, it’s notable that to comment on economic trade offs between different demographics is an extremely touchy subject, for reasons that aren’t always strictly related to economic fairness. It is hard to keep the topic on money, where symbolic cultural identifications are so tightly interwoven with economic issues.
So the question that rhetoric such as that coming from the Black Hebrew Iraelites raises to me is: why prefer inflammatory symbolic prejudicial language over sustained economic critique?
I think there might be some features of our economic and political system that prevent lucid articulation of the nature of economic trade offs between ethnic groups – especially minority groups. It’s a conflict generating topic, and the system doesn’t want to inflame further racial strife. It’s bad for business.
If that were true, you might end up with inexpressible festering economic resentments, that only ever come out in the form of basically racist accusations.
You mention Black envy over Jewish “Chosenness”. The sense of the word “Chosen” here could be interpreted in two senses: divinely selected, or systemically advantaged.
Any explanations of the aforementioned wealth inequity don’t actually need to be racial or predominantly cultural in ultimate origin. They could be class based. The perception that they might be, however, is dangerous to ignore on the part of a group that has historically been violently targeted in not dissimilar societal circumstances.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
15 days ago

This piece is informative and accurate in many ways but still manages to repeat an accusation from the woke media….
“the recent anti-Semitism of Kyrie Irving”
I don’t believe he is guilty of this. Perhaps in the confusion of data this wasn’t properly confirmed?

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
14 days ago

Thanks Ralph for a great piece. Much under-reported because many are in fear of these people. Far more dominant in urban America than most people realise. Most of the negative commenters here have had no direct experience, and no idea. Every culture has its fascists.

Paula Adams
Paula Adams
15 days ago

Bottom line: All people living now came from Noah’s line. Noah descended from Adam. We are all one people. And this tribal fighting is all from Satan. Jesus came to save all people. He is the King of Kings.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
15 days ago
Reply to  Paula Adams

I have to assume this post was meant ironically. If not my only comment is “oh dear!”

Emre S
Emre S
15 days ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

Have you seen that movie “Life of Pi”? Not sure if you’re one, but I find it curious that when those who oppose the idea of a God or religion do it on the grounds that holy books aren’t accurate scientific descriptions of the universe. It feels like they’d happily be faithful believers had prophets been thrown a calculus or physics book on their head from the sky. Leaving alone that it’s logically impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God (let alone any theory of physics, or even consistency of maths itself for that matter), this lack of understanding that religion is a matter of faith, alongside an insistence of scientific rigour from ancient texts has always amused me.

Last edited 15 days ago by Emre Emre
Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
14 days ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

If Paula is a denizen of the US then its quite likely that a lot of “Oh dears” are required.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
15 days ago

Having just now had to pay for this medium, this is precisely the sort of laughable tripe that will have me cancel this subscription.. having been lulled into Unheard being free- I am sick of all this black/ muslim/ racist/ LGBGBT / eco obsession moron sheep lemming bullshit.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
15 days ago

Stick with it – some articles are good and some are a waste of space. Best not to spend too much time reading the ones on topics you are not interested in.
At least Unherd is providing a platform for views that are otherwise not heard 🙂 Its your choice which views you want to read.
I often find articles descending in ‘the left says this and the right says that’ in a way that’s uninteresting – and I’ve learned to move on to the next article … and sometimes its a few days between the good ones – but its worth the wait.

Alison Tyler
Alison Tyler
14 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Wise

Me too. But I comment as I choose. I am, as an aged person, continually astonished by how angry people get on this platform. There really is not much new under the sun its the amplification levels that have changed.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
14 days ago

Nick – you’ve surely been here long enough to note that much (most?) of the exchange of views/ideas/information comes from us (the floor) rather from the lecturn.

D Walsh
D Walsh
15 days ago

Its sad to see conflict between Jews and American Blacks, the two peoples have such a long history, in most cases their ancestors arrived in the new World on the same boats

Emre S
Emre S
15 days ago

But chasing ‘chosenness’ in this way will always be elusive

Given the founding of America was itself a puritan effort that lies at the root of American exceptionalism (and arguably one of the reasons for their history of racism), it’s not very surprising others are picking up on that.

Alison Tyler
Alison Tyler
14 days ago
Reply to  Emre S

All are chosen. All are created to be of equal value, all are needed to complee the image of God in creation. What a wonderfully rich tapestry.

steve nola
steve nola
14 days ago

What a poorly written article. But also we must keep in mind that both sides of this coins involves people arguing over who is the “chosen” people of an invisible, magical, mystery man living in the sky.