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How Black Hebrew Israelites got it wrong

How Black Hebrew Israelites got it wrong

Members of the Jewish community pass by near the scene of a mass shooting at the JC Kosher Supermarket on December 11, 2019, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Six people, including a Jersey City police officer and three civilians were killed in a deadly, hours-long gun battle between two armed suspects and police on Tuesday in a standoff and shootout in a Jewish market that appears to have been targeted, according to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. | Rick Loomis/Getty Images

The strange revelation that the two shooters at the kosher deli in Jersey City were part of a group called the Black Hebrew Israelites have many wondering who these people are and why they hate the Jews.

The Black Hebrew Israelites are one of several fringe American subcultures that promote a race-based nationalist identity. At the heart of the movement’s philosophy is the claim that they are the true Jews, and “white Jews” are imposters because they do not ethnically resemble the physical characteristics consistent the pre-diaspora Hebrews.

Ultimately, this conclusion fails to hold water when compared to any accredited historical analysis of the global Jewish ethnic community over time. While the struggle to understand the authenticity of the modern Jewish ethnic diaspora remains reasonable, claims of fraudulent identity do not.

In a recent national survey commissioned by the Philos Project on attitudes of African Americans toward Israel and the Jewish people, over 20% of respondents self-identified as, or agreed with, the core teachings of the Black Hebrew Israelites. This surprisingly high number does not, however, represent the millions of African Americans who reject anti-Semitism and fondly remember the history of black-Jewish unity.

"All of my life I have cherished the relationship the African American community has enjoyed with the Jewish American community," says Rev. Horace Sheffield III, CEO of the Detroit Association of Black Organizations, "whether it was because of their acts of defiance against restrictive covenants in Detroit by selling their homes to us, or as witnessed by their commitment to the Civil Rights Movement and sacrifice of substance and life to insure its success."

Black-Jewish relations culminated during the civil rights movement when the two groups shared common cause in the struggle for racial equality. Both were denied full access to American society for generations solely because of their ethnicity. I am reminded of signs that read, "No niggers, no Jews, no dogs."

Following the success of the civil rights movement, the strong bond between the two communities has frayed over issues like affirmative action and socioeconomic disparity. Some African Americans see Jews as beneficiaries of white privilege despite their minority status. And of course there is always controversial topic of Israel.

In her recent documentary, "Hello Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea," Chelsea Handler rightly talks of the privilege that she enjoys as a white Jew, but she naively fails to see that white supremacists throw her in the same basket as us colored folks. During the Charlottesville incident, white bigots chanted, “The Jews will not replace us.” Irrational hatred has been the common feature of white supremacist tirades on both blacks and Jews. What makes the Jersey City attacks so tragic is that the Black Hebrew Israelites have adopted the anti-Semitic ideology of the white supremacist they hate.

Jews have long been the greatest ally of the African American community. During the civil rights movement, Jews put up 70% of the funding and made up 50% of the pro bono attorneys. They have partnered with our institutions, and stood with us on critical policy issues like criminal justice reform and voting rights.

"I'm appalled at the agony visited upon their community and the bigotry that was responsible for it," says Sheffield. "I repudiate such violence and offer my prayers and support for the Jewish community in this moment of peril."

Another Detroit activist, the Rev. Dr. Deedee Coleman, said, "If the growing trend of anti-Semitism has reached its peak — if we have ever needed a call for unity between the African American and Jewish communities, we need it now. We know from our history that we can do more together in the fight for peace than we can do alone. I lift my voice in prayer for the families that were affected by this horrible act. We must teach our children the victories of our past, and lead with moral courage and clarity today. We must condemn the voices of anti-Semitism in our community and country."

A house divided cannot stand. Neither can a country. Now is the time to stand with our Jewish friends. We must denounce all forms of antisemitism as racism, because they are.

Kristina King is the African American Affairs director at The Philos Project. (