Black-Jewish relations, particularly in the USA, have been in the media more than usual recently. The focus of many reports has been the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, which has informed many of the incidents under scrutiny. The current round kicked off when rapper, producer, and billionaire entrepreneur Ye (Kanye West) made comments on at least two separate occasions claiming that African Americans were descended from Ancient Israelites, and hence Jews. Ye’s comments followed other incidents (including his White Lives Matter shirts) considered anti-Black by some, but in response to criticism his antisemitic statements have only strengthened – indulging in ancient tropes such as Jewish conspiracy and financial power, and even expressing love for Hitler and Nazis. Shortly after Ye’s initial statements, another Black celebrity – Basketball player Kyrie Irving – tweeted a link to a film called Hebrews 2 Negroes. This film, for sale and to stream on Amazon, is only one iteration of the by now well-known claim that African Americans are the authentic descendants of the Israelites, having been replaced by white European converts after their expulsion from the Holy Land by the Roman Empire. The film is littered with defunct logic, semi-literate history, conspiracy theories, assertive guesswork, and antisemitic tropes.
For those familiar with the BHI movement, none of this was surprising. It has steadily been gaining traction over the last thirty years, apparently now replacing Islam as the urban Black religio-political doctrine of choice. The history of the movement has been told already, and the diversity of it is huge – from para-rabbinic congregations to radical street preaching hecklers who berate Jews, women and even other Black people. One of the core motifs of the more radical groups is the racial polarity of Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons Esau and Jacob. Based on the biblical descriptions of them as red and hairy and smooth-skinned respectively, Hebrew Israelites argue that Jacob, ancestor of the Israelites, was Black while Esau and his progeny, Israel’s mortal enemy the Edomites, were the first Caucasians. This latter group includes those – believed by many Hebrew Israelites as well as white antisemites to be descended from the Turkic Khazars - who produced the Ashkenazi Jews now inhabiting Israel.
The connections with white supremacist antisemites do not end with the Khazar myth. Since the Kanye-Kyrie incidents brought BHI into the global spotlight, there has been a noticeable uptick in anti-Jewish rhetoric by some radical groups. These have included assertions of Jewish control of the media, particularly of the music industry, suggestions of the ritual sacrifice of Black celebrities and their families by this elite, and assertions of Jewish control of the transatlantic slave trade. The latter was first made famous when Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam published The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews (1991), a pseudo-scholarship book made up of selected decontextualised quotes from Jewish academics which were combined to give the impression that Jews financed and dominated the trade in African slaves. Despite being rigorously debunked by several scholars, the claim was picked up by neo-Nazis such as David Duke, who incorporated it into their “Great Replacement” theory that Jews had designed the slave trade as the first stage of a centuries-long plan to destroy western civilisation, now being followed up by George Soros-funded mass immigration and politically destabilising protest movements such as BLM. The Hebrew Israelites do not share this aspect, although it is notable that some have begun to absorb ideas directly from modern white antisemitism: quotes from Henry Ford and even fake quotes from Hitler populate videos such as Hebrew 2 Negroes as they attempt to demonstrate the demonic nature and intentions of the particular Edomites who enslaved and stole the identity of the “true Israelites”. Very often this is accompanied with an appeal to Rev. 2:9’s description of “those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Bizarrely, many consumers of this material protest that there is nothing antisemitic to be found in it, challenging others to inform them of any such content. Ye himself indulged in the classic faux-defence, stating that he could not be antisemitic as “Black people are actually Jew also”.
Two years ago when Nick Cannon, in conversation with ex-Public Enemy member Professor Griff, made near identical claims on-air that “we are the true Hebrews,” and Jews were controlling the media and using allegations of antisemitism to prevent this from being discussed, he was similarly censured. However, Cannon demonstrated an impressive willingness to engage with members of the Jewish community who reached out to him, and to learn about Judaism and the nature and history of antisemitism. Ye unfortunately has doubled down on his claims, appearing to believe that the public condemnations are a manifestation both of Jewish power and wickedness, and of God’s wish to humble him. He has not expressed any further Hebrew Israelite ideas, but that has not prevented Hebrew Israelites using the ensuing events to publicise their cause and to protest the machinations of global Jewry. In November one group with international reach called up hundreds of members to demonstrate outside of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, putatively in support of Kyrie.
Deepening the web of links between radical Black groups and white supremacists, in the days following Kanye’s claims the Goyim Defense League were filmed with banners over an LA motorway proclaiming “Kanye is right about the Jews”. Since then, it seems that connections have further been made, and in a worrying development it is neo-Nazi style antisemitism which now explicitly links some Black and white American radicals, and this has been shown to be part of a deliberate white supremacist ploy of divide and conquer.
How long this coalition will last is unpredictable. But whether they succeed in pushing many Jews out of America or not, the white supremacists will turn on their new Black allies eventually.
Michael Miller is a scholar working in Jewish Studies and Black Judaism/Hebrew Israelites. He has published several articles on Hebrew Israelites, and his monograph on Ben Ammi, leader of one community, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2023.