Recent months have seen an increasing media visibility for a movement which has existed for more than a century, but previously was little talked about. Commonly known as Black Hebrew Israelites (BHI), or simply Hebrew Israelites, this broad grouping consists of many different sects, all of which hold the common belief that the African diaspora descended from those taken as slaves are descendants of the biblical Israelites.
Ideas about the origins of the Hebrew Israelite movement are still being untangled by scholars; most do not believe that there is any historical link to the Israelites (although the complexities of history and migration offer several paths for such to still be a possibility). My own take on this can be read in my recent article in Religion Compass.
Much of the increase in visibility has centred around the most hardline elements. Members of one group (The House of Israel) were involved in the January 2019 standoff between high school students and a Native American elder in Covington which caused headlines and social media outcry.
The shooter who killed three Jews and police officer in New Jersey at the end of last year also had an interest in BHI thought (though he does not seem to have been a member of any group) – see a report in the New York Times.
Such events have led the Southern Poverty Law Center to designate some Hebrew Israelite groups as hate groups.
One of the most radical groups is the One West Camp; based in Harlem originally, they have fragmented recently (the House of Israel are one offshoot). Since the non-appearance of the black Christ who their leader predicted to return in 2000 to destroy or enslave whites (the descendants of Esau), an increasing radicalism and apocalyptic fervour has taken hold among some groups – they eagerly await their own version of the end times when they will be lifted to the their righteous place and the deserving will be punished.
Hebrew Israelite groups have also appeared in the UK – The Church of Yahawashi is a London-based group which are influenced by One West and are prolix in their hate and discussion of the violence they will soon deal to whites, Jews, women, homosexuals, and anyone else who summons their disfavour (see report from Hope not Hate). Last year the Jewish Chronicle reported that the group publicly abused Jews in Stamford Hill as “devils” and “abominations”. A video also surfaced of one unidentified man harassing a young orthodox Jewish family on the London Underground. He was reading New Testament passages referring to the “synagogue of Satan” as part of his argument that Jews had “stolen my heritage” and were to soon become slaves themselves (he was distracted by a Muslim woman who has been roundly commended). See a personal report published on the Forward website.
For One West, whites and Jews (Jews are whites who have fiendishly stolen the true identity of Israel, according to their worldview) are characterized as Edom, descendants of Jacob’s ousted brother Esau, while all non-caucasoid people are identified with one of the twelve tribes of Israel (African Americans are Judah).
The false claim that Jews were responsible for the slave trade has been around since at least 1991, when the Nation of Islam published The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, a polemical misreading of actual scholarship which has since become quite influential. In fact its trace can be seen even in the white supremacist “Replacement Theory”, a longstanding antisemitic canard regarding miscegenation which in its modern version proposes Jewish initiation of the slave trade as one part of a plot to destabilise Christian civilization via multiculturalism and ultimately replace white communities with non-whites (recent versions include Jewish billionaire George Soros’ humanitarian efforts as part of the plot) – see a recent report in The Guardian. Interestingly the Nation of Islam seem to have emerged from the same milieu as the Hebrew Israelites; indeed, they too claim the Israelites were black, and there has been ongoing interchange between the two movements of Black Judaism and Black Islam that emerged as African American responses to slavery, the loss of identity, and the enormous sufferings heaped upon them in the Americas; see Jacob Dorman’s Chosen People.
As mentioned, this is the most radical fringe of the movement. Recent estimates of Hebrew Israelites in the USA stand at 5% of black Americans - 1.5 million – and the large majority are not the hate-preachers who grab the most attention. (See recent research published by LifeWay Christian Resources.) Rabbi Capers Funnye is a case in point, as leader of a Hebrew Israelite congregation and head of the Israelite Board of Rabbis, he underwent conversion to rabbinic Judaism and now maintains one foot in each camp (or, some might prefer to say, he is helping create a space which unites the two).
If this so far has made rather bleak reading, I will now introduce an important counterpoint. One of the most significant Hebrew Israelite groups are the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (AHIJ). This community left America in 1967, when their leader Ben Ammi (1939-2014) had a vision instructing him to take his people back to the Promised Land. They have lived there ever since and number some 4,000, with large satellite communities around the globe. Although relations were not always amicable between the AHIJ and the Israeli state, they are now a well-liked and integrated part of the society. The political vicissitudes were reflected in corollary hardening and softening of their own attitudes towards Israel, and at times towards the Jewish people. However, the last three decades have witnessed a concerted effort to build peace, including using their unique perspective in mediating between black and Jewish communities in the USA. Now, their children routinely perform military service, and fellow Israelis are referred to as brothers and sisters; the Jewish people is referred to as “a speckled bird” made up of people from many different backgrounds and appearances. (I have a chapter on the history of these relations in a volume, Jewish Perspectives on the Stranger edited by Catherine Bartlett due to be published soon by Brill.)
Ben Ammi has been the constant guiding light for the community; his outlook bears no small degree of influence from his Hebrew Israelite predecessors, but he is the most sophisticated and powerful thinker the movement has produced, not to mention its most successful. Aspects that he adopts from the common pool of Hebrew Israelite theology include: the interpretation of predictions of a second enslavement in Deut. 28 as referring to American slavery; a particularly immanent theology; a concern with diet and health; a culturally conservative outlook; and an apocalyptic paradigm. (On Ben Ammi’s apocalyptic thought, see my entry in the forthcoming Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements .) But where contemporaries mentioned above resort to talk of revenge for the indignities of slavery and colonialism, and of coming suffering for all outside of the covenant, Ben Ammi’s own trials as he led his community through two years in the Liberian desert, then two decades of struggle within Israel and their interactions with other new Israelis from around the world, have significantly matured his (and their) thought. The AHIJ see themselves as the vanguard of a new way of life, a positive approach to living which includes strong family and communal bonds, ecological awareness, veganism, a holistic spirituality which guides every moment of their lives, and a keen universalism which talks of love for the entire human family. A crucial part of this is Ben Ammi’s interpretation of slavery as not solely a manifestation of European evil – he claims that while an evil spirit took hold of Europeans in the last 2000 years, the reason for this was ultimately because Israel forsook their responsibility to keep the covenant and serve as a light to the gentiles; slavery, he argued, was God’s punishment for Israel breaking His laws, Europeans were only his rod of correction. Now, having found the Law once again the Israelites must take their responsibility to the whole world seriously and lead everyone out of the pit of sin that they currently inhabit. In AHIJ teaching, the end result of this will be a return to the Garden of Eden and an overcoming of Adam and Eve’s sin that cursed humanity with death; the New Adamic civilization will be immortal, as we were intended to be. The beginnings of this new world are evident in the community in Israel which terms itself the Kingdom of Yah, a place (they claim often) free of the many diseases of the modern world, of crime, sexual immorality, disrespect, and drug use. The community has even outlawed tobacco as part of its commitment to health and wellbeing. Everyone must exercise three times a week and frequent periods of eating without salt, sugar, margarine, or cooked food are part of the regime.
Overall, Ben Ammi and the AHIJ present a rare agenda of hope in troubled times: while they acknowledge that the world is not in good shape, they are committed to finding practical solutions and believe that the current period of strife is already ending, and being replaced by a kinder, more wholesome vision of humanity. You can read my own research on some fundamental aspects of Ben Ammi’s thought and theology here.
Michael Miller is Research Fellow at the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nurnberg.