The Black Hebrew Israelites have been in the news in recent months. The movement, which espouses the idea that African Americans are the genuine descendants of biblical Jews and not Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, has existed for over a century. Only in October did the world take notice, however. First, the king of hip hop, Kanye West, posted Israelite memes on his Twitter account on October 9. Then on October 27, NBA legend Kyrie Irving posted a link to a movie, Hebrews to Negroes, which broadly disseminates the Israelite theology. Finally, on November 21, the day Irving came back from his suspension, hundreds of Israelites demonstrated outside the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, chanting, “We are the real Jews.”
“We are the real Jews.”Hundreds of Black Hebrew Israelites
As one of the few Jews to debate some of the most vocal Israelite leaders and spokesmen, I think I have a perspective that should be heard.
The Black Hebrew Israelites number close to one and a half million African Americans and are divided into several subgroups. Many black rap stars, such as Derek Lamar, and professional athletes, such as NBA legend Horace Grant, have joined its ranks. In virtually every large American city, one can often see and hear Israelites “spreading the truth’’ while subjecting white pedestrians, especially Jews, to verbal abuse.
The core set of BHI beliefs is shockingly facile.
The foundational claim is that Jews were exiled to West Africa after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE (despite there being not a shred of evidence to support this claim). In West Africa, at some point, the Jews abandoned the laws of the Torah, and somehow their identity was stolen by the ancestors of today’s Jews. (No one seems to know when or how that happened.)
Because they no longer maintained their identity or kept the laws of the Torah, these supposed Jews were cursed by God, and their progeny were sold to whites during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade as presaged by Deuteronomy 28:68. Finally, today’s African Americans are cursed by God, until a critical mass wake up to being Jews and start following the laws of the Torah – at which point “Jesus the Messiah” will return, and then the “true Jews” will control the world, and all white people, labeled “Edomites,’’ will become their slaves.
As for today’s Jews? They are referred to as “Amalek,’’ and the Israelites have made it clear what the Bible holds in store for Amalek. Some of the BHI groups assert that Hispanics and Native Americans are also of Israelite lineage, and thus will also be redeemed in the End of Days.
My first debate, in 2020, was with “Deacon Sicarii” and “Guerrilla Hebrew” – as they call themselves. They are two rock stars of the BHI movement. The debate was put up on YouTube, and then later taken down, two separate times. It was seen by a combined total of close to 100,000 people when it was accessible. In this debate, I asked for historical or archaeological proof of any of the Israelite claims. Not surprisingly, none was given. I asked the two leaders if they realized that most Jews were exiled from Judea only after the Bar Kochba Revolt, ending in 135 CE, with most of the Jewish exiles moving up to the Galilee. They had not even heard of the Bar Kochba Revolt.
When I asked them why African American DNA points to a West African origin, whereas Jewish DNA, (Askenazi, Sephardi, and Yemenite) point to a Middle Eastern origin, their response was that DNA tests are not to be trusted. How come there are virtually no Hebrew words in any of the West African dialects, whereas in Yiddish and Ladino there are many Hebrew words, written in Hebrew letters? Additionally, how does an identity, language, religion all get stolen by outsiders but not passed on by elders to the next generation? No answers were forthcoming.
One of the intriguing things that I have discovered is that for all their talk of keeping the commandments and thus bringing forth the redemptive age, there is virtually no discussion of the laws of the Bible in any of the BHI online classes or videos. In that aforementioned first debate, Deacon said there were 613 commandments; but when asked to identify some of them, he only mentioned the eradication of Amalek. The dearth of discussion about how to keep the laws of the Bible is revelatory in terms of their insincerity with regard to the stated aims of the BHI.
The component most emphasized in our debate, and any BHI video I have ever seen, is the supposed Jewish identity of African Americans and the visceral, palpable hatred of “them which say they are Jews – and are not. They are the synagogue of Satan!’’
This is a quote from Revelation 2:9, and its recitation is the climax of most BHI videos, sometimes accompanied by ecstatic shouts from supporters. Thus the two central pillars of BHI are the theft of the identity of today’s Jews and antisemitism. What has been painful for me about the discussion surrounding Kanye and Kyrie is that while there has been condemnation of their blatant antisemitism, no one seems to care about their identity theft of today’s Jews. Countless commentators have denounced the Hebrews to Negroes film because it denies the Holocaust. But what about the film’s advocacy of identity theft of today’s Jews?
That leaves BHI’s second central pillar – antisemitism. An uncomfortable truth that is rarely spoken or written of is that while antisemitism is generally on the fringes among American whites, among African Americans it is far more mainstream. Many surveys, including one by YouGov in 2020, attest to this reality. Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, has spent at least 40 years popularizing the demonization of Jews among African Americans. Sadly, the African American leadership has never actively protested against Farrakhan’s scapegoating of the Jews, and the growth of BHI is one of the results.
There are actually many commonalities between the Nation of Islam and the Black Hebrew Israelites. Followers of both wear distinctive clothing: bow ties and sport jackets among NOI followers, and purple shirts with golden fringes among many of the BHI believers. Spokesmen of both movements begin their presentations with similar mantras, praising and thanking Allah on the one hand or the Most High in the case of BHI. Both movements focus on black unity, as well as strong masculine role models. And the members often organize themselves with a certain military ambiance.
The NOI makes little attempt to propagate true Islam but rather black power. The same can be said of the BHI and its superficial embrace of Judaism. Moreover, both movements have essentially canonized antisemitic texts. With NOI, it is The Secret Relationship of Blacks and Jews, which lays the blame for black slavery on Jews. (African American professor Henry Louis Gates, formerly of Harvard, revealed this to be a complete lie in a 1992 article in the New York Times.) With BHI, it is either the book Hebrews to Negroes or From Babylon to Timbuktu, both of which assert that Jews stole their identity from African Americans. The scapegoating of Jews for all the problems that plague African American society is absolutely central to both movements.
Although it beggars belief that close to a million and a half people buy into the BHI ideology, they do. Two Jews were certainly murdered by BHI members in Jersey City in 2019, and later that year another Jew was murdered in Monsey by a man inspired by BHI incitement. In addition, thousands of Jews have been verbally assaulted throughout the US. Yet almost nothing has been written on this topic in either the Jewish or non-Jewish press.
What is to be done? One thing is to institute educational programs, among Jewish youth and Jewish adults, that clearly explain the DNA, linguistic, historical, and archaeological evidence that authenticates their Jewish identity. In many videos I have seen, BHI activists challenge Jews on the street to prove their Jewishness. These pedestrians are bewildered and tongue tied. It is because they don’t know the facts.
Secondly, no more breast-beating among Jews, like that of Jon Stewart recently on Steven Colbert’s talk show. Stewart indirectly blamed fellow Jews for the state of Black-Jewish relations. From my experience, this kind of self-blame actually inflames antisemitism.
Finally, security should be beefed up specifically in ultra-Orthodox communities because their members are easily identified and because their neighborhoods are often adjacent to neighborhoods where BHI predominates.
The Jewish call “Never again!” was the lesson taught to me as a result of the Holocaust. For me that means never again should Jews turn their heads away from antisemitism. Never again should Jews blame themselves for antisemitism. Never again should Jews sit passively by when antisemitism rears its ugly head. Never again! ■
The writer, who was born in the US and made aliyah in 1989, is a high school educator and part-time tour guide. He lives with his wife and children in Beersheba.