Black Hebrew Israelites are in the news after a January 18 video showed members of an unidentified sect interacting with students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
White Catholic teenagers and a Native American have received the lion’s share of publicity from Friday’s confrontation by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
But a third group participated as well.
Indeed, the third group started the whole thing.
Social media has blown up with the dispute between MAGA hat-wearing teens, in town for the pro-life March for Life, and Nathan Phillips, in town for the Indigenous Peoples March the same day.
Social media rushed to judgment about the motives of both sides, and missed badly, as we know now.
I’m impressed that no violence took place. Dancing, drum music, stares, chants, vulgar words and invading of personal space all did occur. But no one from any of the groups crossed the line into physical violence.
If anything positive happened there, it’s probably that.
But who is the third group in this scenario, the one in the background, apparently, but the ones who taunted both the Native Americans and then the young Catholic students?
They call themselves Black Hebrew Israelites.
The “Israelites” were quoting Bible passages claiming that they are the true descendants of Israel. On a nearly two-hour video that has gone viral, they said Native Americans don’t know God. They told the students when they first arrived on the scene that white people are not descendants of Israel and therefore are not God’s chosen people – only people of color are. At that point, the students walked away, if only temporarily.
In the words of the New York Times:
Interviews and additional video footage suggest that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs — against a national backdrop of political tension — set the stage for the viral moment. Early video excerpts from the encounter obscured the larger context, inflaming outrage.
Leading up to the encounter on Friday, a rally for Native Americans and other Indigenous people was wrapping up. Dozens of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who had been in Washington for the anti-abortion March for Life rally, were standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, many of them white and wearing apparel bearing the slogan of President Trump.
There were also black men who identified themselves as Hebrew Israelites, preaching their beliefs and shouting racially combative comments at the Native Americans and the students, according to witnesses and video on social media.
In a statement on Sunday, Nick Sandmann, the boy in the initial video, argued that the Hebrew Israelites instigated the incident and that his classmates “wanted to drown out the hateful comments that were being shouted at us.”
The Black Hebrew Israelites, meanwhile, have said that they are being used as a scapegoat for the students’ behavior.
Vox offered this on the background of the group:
The Black Hebrew Israelites are an offshoot of a broader religious movement scholars often call Black Israelism, which dates back to slavery and Reconstruction, if not earlier.
Writing for the Washington Post, journalist Sam Kestenbaum explains that Black Israelism is “a complex American religious movement” whose various sects are loosely bound by a belief that “African Americans are the literal descendants of the Israelites of the Bible and have been severed from their true heritage.”
The Black Hebrew Israelites
The Gospel Coalition lists nine attributes of the group:
- Black Hebrew Israelites (also called African Hebrew Israelites, Black Jews, Black Hebrews, Black Israelites, or Hebrew Israelites) is an umbrella term for various religious sects and congregations that believe that people of color, usually African Americans, are descendants of a lost tribe of ancient Israelites.
- From the 17th to 20th century, African-Americans’ identification with Judaism was informed, as Edith Bruder and Tudor Parfitt say, “by the social and political orientations of black people in the United States and was often embedded in response to discrimination.” But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, certain African Americans began not only to identify spiritually with the ancient Israelites but also to claim they were their direct physical descendants. This led to the creation of several factions of Black Hebrew Israelites (hereafter BHIs) that spread across America, and later to Africa and Israel.
- BHI groups do not align themselves with Judaism. Instead, as Jacob S. Dorman explains, they “creatively manipulate traditions and ideas gleaned from a wide range of sources: Holiness/Pentecostal Christianity, the British Anglo-Israelite movement, Freemasonry, Mind Power, Theosophy, Judaism, the occult, and African American Christianity’s deep association with the Hebrews of the Old Testament.”
- BHI groups tend to define an Israelite as a descendant of the biblical patriarch Jacob, a “Hebrew Israelite” as the modern descendants of the ancient Israelites, and a Jew as a person who practices the religion of Judaism. Many BHI groups do not consider Jews to be true descendants of “Hebrew Israelites.” However, they also do not consider all people of color to be part of the “lost tribe” either. As one BHI website explains, “Israel is just one black nation that exist among many. The Egyptians, Canaanites, Ethiopians, babyloians etc [sic] were black skinned but they were not Israelites. . . . To say all black skinned people are Israelites is like saying all Asians are Chinese, or All Europeans are French.” BHIs also believe that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was prophesied in Deuteronomy 28:68(rapper Kendrick Lamar makes reference to this belief in his lyric, “And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed”), which accounts for why so many “Hebrew Israelites” are found in America.
- While there are some common beliefs shared by BHIs, the groups themselves vary widely in their connection to Judaism and Christianity. In a 1973 article for Christianity Today, historian James Tinney suggestedthe classification of the organizations into three groups:
- Black Jews, who maintain a Christological perspective and adopt Jewish rituals.
- Black Hebrews, who are more traditional in their practice of Judaism.
- Black Israelites, who are most nationalistic and furthest from traditional Judaism.
- Many BHI organizations around today sprang up in the late 19th century and early part of the 20th century or are offshoots of those original groups.
- Many BHIs who include elements of Christianity affirm the King James Version (1611) of the Bible as their only rule of faith and practice, D.A. Horton says. Some groups accept some books of the New Covenant (New Testament), yet many reject Paul’s writings on the idea they were used often by white masters during the American slavery years, Horton adds.
- Most, if not all, BHI groups deny the Trinity and the deity of Christ. As one BHI congregation explains, “We believe that there is a distinction between God and Jesus of Nazareth. In particular, we believe that God is THESupreme Being in the universe and that Jesus was merely a human being; a noteworthy prophet (see St. Matthew 21:11), but a human being nonetheless.” [emphasis in original]
- The public interaction with BHI groups usually occurs in large cities, where more radical members often stand on streets and sidewalks, debating and berating passers-by.
Did we learn anything?
Three very diverse groups clashed at the Lincoln Memorial, but because all three profess to be peaceful, they restrained themselves from violence. Social media overlooked this, too.
Perhaps the lack of violence is the second-greatest lesson from the confrontation. Yes, we were far too quick to judge, especially the Catholic teens. We weren’t fair to Nathan Phillips. And we’ve virtually ignored the third group.
All three groups have a right to exist – indeed, to thrive – in this country. Discussion leads to truth. Perhaps we can agree to disagree on some issues.
I saw where President Trump invited the Catholic teens to the White House. He should have invited the other two groups to the White House as well.
Trump is the president of all three groups, whether he realizes it or not. (I don’t think he does.)
Trump is the president of all three groups, whether each group realizes it or not. (I don’t think they all do.)
Did we as a nation learn anything this week?