(JTA) — In 1892, an Oklahoma preacher born into slavery received a series of divine revelations that compelled him to launch a new church and, with it, a new religious movement in the United States: Black Israelism, better known as the Black Hebrew Israelite movement.
More than a century later, the movement’s central tenet — that African Americans are the genealogical descendants of the ancient Israelites — has repeatedly found its way into popular culture through the expressions of non-Jewish African-American entertainers and athletes such as Kendrick Lamar, Kodak Black, Nick Cannon and DeSean Jackson. In some cases, these figures have also trafficked in antisemitic tropes about Jewish mendacity and manipulation.
Last week, Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, invoked Hebrew Israelite doctrine when he described a friend as “a Jew just like all so called black people” in an Instagram post. (The friend, fashion designer Jean Touitou, was born in Tunisia to Jewish parents; he is not Black.) A couple of days later, Instagram locked Ye’s account after he posted a text exchange with Sean “Diddy” Combs in which he suggested Combs was controlled by Jews. So Ye, who identifies as a Christian, turned to Twitter to announce to his 31 million followers that he would soon go “death con 3” on the Jews, adding, “The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew…” Twitter removed the tweet for violating its rules.
Much of the outcry over Ye’s posts centered on his use of the phrase “death con 3” and a reference to a shadowy Jewish “agenda.” But some also flagged his pronouncements about Black people being the real Jews as offensive, especially to actual Black Jews.
On Tuesday, Vice published portions of an interview Ye gave to Tucker Carlson that were edited out of the broadcast. In them, Ye repeats his claim, though in a more convoluted way: “When I say Jew, I mean the 12 lost tribes of Judah, the blood of Christ, who the people known as the race Black really are.” (The tribe of Judah was one of the 12 tribes of Israel.)
Where did this claim come from, and is it inherently antisemitic? As someone who has reported extensively on the African Hebrew Israelite community in Israel and the context from which it developed, I can offer some essential background.
In the late 19th century, two former slaves turned preachers — Bishop William Saunders Crowdy of Oklahoma and Bishop William Christian of Arkansas — received the same message from God: the Biblical Israelites were Black and African Americans are the true children of Israel. The message was revolutionary, as it subverted earlier theories about the fate of the “lost tribes” of Israel. (Anglo-Israelism, for example, posited that British people descended from the Israelites.) This idea also served to counter a prevailing and racist notion that Black people belonged to an inferior race of people.
“The idea that African slavery in the Americas was not a mark of shame but instead a mark of distinction as God’s chosen people appealed to some African Americans, who appreciated the way the doctrine gave them pride and dignity in the context of Jim Crow segregation that sought to subordinate and humiliate them at every turn,” historian Jacob Dorman writes in “Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions.”
Crowdy and Christian traveled widely, preaching a form of what scholar James Landing, in his book “Black Judaism: Story of an American Movement, called “Judaic Christianity.” Both prophets were influenced by the Pentecostal Holiness movement and Freemasonry, and they emphasized strict adherence to the Ten Commandments and abstention from alcohol. In an attempt to foster racial harmony, they required white and Black worshippers to ceremonially wash each other’s feet. Such unorthodox teachings often got Crowdy and Christian into trouble; Crowdy was said to have been jailed 22 times while touring the Southwest.
Owing to their strong identification with the ancient Israelites, Crowdy and his followers adopted many Hebraic practices, including Sabbath observance on Saturday rather than on Sunday, Passover celebration and the use of Hebrew. Due to their limited contact with mainstream Jews, they performed rituals based on their own interpretation of the bible, resulting in distinct ceremonies. On Passover, for example, they smeared blood on their doors as the ancient Israelites did to spare the lives of their first-born sons from the angel of death.
Eventually, in Chicago, Crowdy earned the nickname “Black Elijah,” and his followers were referred to as “Black Jews.” Crowdy incorporated the Church of God and Saints of Christ in Kansas in 1896; the church still operates today in the United States and Jamaica.
In the decades following Crowdy’s 1908 death, a succession of Black spiritual leaders took up his project. Many used the honorific “rabbi” and introduced their own doctrinal innovations.
Among them were Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford, a Barbadian musician who founded a synagogue in Harlem before moving to Ethiopia in 1930; Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who was ordained by Ford and founded the Commandment Keepers congregation in 1919 (significantly, Matthew saw white Jews as being instrumental in helping Black people “return” to Judaism); Eber ben Yomin (aka Abba Bivens), who broke from the Commandment Keepers to start his own camp, known as One West, in the 1960s; Ben Ammi Ben Israel, the spiritual leader of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, an Israel-based community with roots in Chicago; and Rabbi Capers Funnye, the current chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis who is an integral part of Chicago’s broader Jewish community.
While all of these communities fall under the Hebrew Israelite umbrella, their beliefs and attitudes toward Jews and Israel are far from homogenous.
For example, some groups consider Latin Americans and Native Americans to be descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel in addition to Black people, while others do not. Some worship Jesus as the (Black) messiah, while others consider him to be a divinely inspired prophet. Meanwhile, the more radical Hebrew Israelite groups, many of them offshoots of Abba Bivens’ One West, transformed the notion that Blacks enjoyed special status granted by God into one about Black superiority over other races. Members of such groups, notably the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, often preach on street corners using disparaging language about whites, Jews and LGBTQ people.
Perhaps the only shared belief across the communities is the one about Israelite ancestry.
After the 2019 attack on a kosher grocery store in Jersey City by gunmen who attended a One West-offshoot church in Harlem, the term “Black Hebrew Israelites” seemingly became synonymous with violent Black antisemitism. Indeed, a segment of the movement, primarily connected to Bivens and One West, is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-hate watchdog. But as a whole, the Hebrew Israelite spiritual movement is peaceful, according to a recent report published by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, which notes that “the predominant threat today is from individuals loosely affiliated with or inspired by the movement rather than by groups, organizations, or institutions.”
There is debate about whether it is antisemitic simply to posit that African Americans represent the true children of Israel, implying as it does that non-Black Jews are lying or unaware of their real identity and history.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe they, too, come from Israelite tribes, but they do not regularly face accusations of cultural (or historical) appropriation or antisemitism. Further complicating the matter is the fact that virulently antisemitic figures such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan have coopted Hebrew Israelite teachings to denigrate the Jewish people.
Bruce Haynes, author of “The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America,” is among those who find the Hebrew Israelite belief less antisemitic than ahistorical. “I’m not sure I’d call it antisemitism,” Haynes told the Associated Press in 2020 after Nick Cannon made inflammatory remarks on a podcast, including that Black people are “the true Hebrews” and therefore cannot be antisemitic — an idea that Ye echoed in his recent tweet.
“It’s not a good reading of history, but I wouldn’t call it antisemitism,” Haynes added. “On the other hand, some of those groups that call Jews impostors certainly cross the line.”
Thus, an idea introduced in the late 19th century by preachers seeking to promote African American uplift and racial justice became, over time, a rhetorical weapon used against Jews by Black people who are distrustful of them. Whether one finds the idea hateful or silly, it certainly rubs many Jews the wrong way. “JEWS ARE THE REAL JEWS,” tweeted author and educator Ben M. Freeman.