Currently the news is swarming with the story of some white students, a Native American man, and some Black Hebrew Israelites (which has already been discussed in depth over on Think Liberty) at the Lincoln Memorial. One of the biggest questions that has been presented to me, being that I am Jewish, is what are Black Hebrew Israelites? Are they really Jewish or not?
The short answer is most of those identifying themselves as Black Israelites or Black Hebrews have zero provable links to Judaism. Whether it be the required matrilineal connection via the mother in Judaism or their knowledge of Judaism being to a level they are recognized by a Beit Dein (Religious Court in Judaism overseen by a panel of Rabbis), they do not meet the requirements. Instead, these Black Hebrews often state they are descendants of the Nation of Israel. When I personally have asked for evidence of these lineages, I usually am not given any credible evidence, whereas I know at least several Jews I have met through my time living in Israel and elsewhere, that can actually map through a family tree all the way back to Aharon who was Moshe Rabbeinu’s (Moses Our Teacher’s) brother, and some more were at least capable of tracing their roots to the second temple period.
Now I do want to state that the Black Hebrew Israelites I am speaking of are absolutely not connected in any sort of way to Beta Y’Israel aka Ethiopian Jews (from Ethiopia or Israel) which have a legitimate Jewish claim and proof. Nor are we discussing the Lemba people in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique, or Malawi who are currently in a heated debate whether they are Jewish or not.
My interactions with the Black Hebrew Israelites have been mixed although heavily leaning towards negativity. I remember when growing up in the Central Ohio Jewish Community that we have had a few altercations with individuals claiming to be Black Israelites. However, I always try to round myself out by trying to interact and learn from people with opposing views and here’s what I’ve learned.
Their history so far as I have been able to tell (because it seems to be a bit conflicting depending on who I asked) began in the USA in the late 1800s. But from what I have gathered, there was a man named Frank Cherry claimed to have a vision through which God had told him to present the message that African Americans are the true descendants of the biblical Hebrews according to the book Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism. This eventually became the foundation for the Church of the Living God, The Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations in Chattanooga, Tennessee circa 1886. A William S. Crowdy, around the era of lynching and Jim Crow, also received this same revelation as Frank Cherry around the same time. Shortly after this revelation, Crowdy founded the Church of God and Saints of Christ in 1896 in the state of Kansas.
This church made the claim that the Ten Lost Tribes of Y’Israel were the ancestors of black people. Crowdy traveled around the USA spreading this message and as would be expected when you try to say anything positive about black people during the time, was routinely mistreated by locals. Despite Crowdy preaching that Jesus was black apparently, his earlier converts were white. Both Cherry and Crowdy laid the initial beginnings for the Black Hebrew Israelite movement.
So where is it the Black Hebrew Israelites come up with the claim they are descendants of the lost tribe? Well, it has to do with the very well known story of our persecution as well as exiling of my people throughout history. I mean, let’s not forget even Ulysses S. Grant kicked all Jews out of his military district during the Civil War. Well, their source they claim is in the Jerusalem Talmud, which stated some of the tribes had scattered into Africa.
In addition to this, the Sepher Eldar was the first reference to make mention of a group in Ethiopia called Falashas, who also claimed to have been Jewish in heritage. According to the Ethiopian Royal Chronicles, they trace their royal line to the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba who gave birth to Ethiopia’s first emperor, Menelik. It is solely for this reason that Black Hebrew Israelites make the flimsy claim to be biologically descendant from the ancient Hebrews.
What’s interesting when I was researching for this article was that this same group apparently had led to the creation of Rastafarianism. I knew at some point marijuana would be mentioned as this is a libertarian site after all. Apparently in 1930 a group of Black Hebrews attempted and failed to establish a settlement in Ethiopia hoping to attract other African Americans. It failed in Ethiopia but had set the groundwork for the importation of this religion to Jamaica. Dorman explains, “The Black Israelite colonization of Ethiopia had failed but, all was not lost. The Black Israelite engagement with Ethiopia proved critical to the formation of Rastafarianism, which lives today as Jamaica’s most visible artistic culture.” ( Dorman, Chosen People, 113.)
The current Black Hebrew Israelites began as a group in Chicago in 1967, under the leadership of Ben Ammi Ben Israel, an African American whose birth name was Ben Carter. Ben Israel appointed 30 disciples and in 1967 moved the group to Liberia before embarking for their final destination. The majority of Black Hebrew Israelites live in Dimona, Israel and there is a long history between the Israeli Government and the BHI fighting for their rights to be identified as Jewish, so as to be able to get automatic Israeli citizenship per Israeli law that is entitled to all Jews.
They differ from most of Judaism as they permit polygamy (most sects in Judaism do not allow it, and even in my Sephardi traditions which do allow it they require you to be married to your current wife for ten years and have been attempting and failed to conceive a child in those ten years), and they also forbid birth control. The leaders decide who will marry and whether marriage annulments will be permitted. BHI also are vegans, avoiding the consumption of meat, dairy, eggs, and even in many cases sugar. Members adopt Hebrew names to replace names they believe could be derived from slavery.
I have personally run into the Black Hebrew Israelites all across the USA where they are especially vulgar, whereas in Israel they tend to be a bit more reserved. In my personal opinion having dealt with their derogatory and insulting statements not to mention their overt racism, which was fully on display in the kerfuffle at the Lincoln Memorial, the Black Hebrew Israelites are merely no better than Louis Farrakhan’s Anti-Semitic and White Hating Nation of Islam.
We in the Jewish community have had issues with these guys for years. They claim they are the “real Jews” and then denigrate us and everyone else, I have personally witnessed this outside of my own Synagogue during services several times. It’s really another branch of Black Supremacist movements trying to prove how they have been wronged and such, whilst trying to combine Jewish Oppression with Black Oppression and use that as a way to hate the white man. While it was sad and shocking to see the whole event unfold, when it comes to BHI, this is nothing new. They love to intimidate and get people to see them as the victim when they themselves are the ones who are the ones that are really trying to oppress others.
You can read more from Alon Ganon on Think Liberty here.