Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving apologized Sunday before returning to the Barclays Center after an eight-game suspension for promoting a film about Black Hebrew Israelite ideology filled with antisemitic tropes. Irving, who had declined to denounce antisemitism before his suspension, said he meant no harm and, in hindsight, should have handled the backlash differently.
“I just want to offer my deep apologies to all those who were impacted over these last few weeks,” he told journalists after a practice. “All races and cultures, I feel like we all feel the impact and I don’t stand for anything close to hate speech or antisemitism or anything that is anti-going against the human race.”
Despite attempts by the Nets and Irving to move forward from the ordeal, outside of the Barclays Center a group of Black Hebrew Israelites came out to support Irving wearing shirts emblazoned with “Israel United in Christ” and chanting “We are the real Jews.” Just who are the Black Hebrew Israelites? What do they believe? And why are some of those beliefs problematic?
Not a Religion, but a Philosophy
According to Jacob Dorman, author of Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions, the term “Black Hebrew Israelite” does not describe a religion, but a philosophy of history that says ancient Israelites were Black and contemporary Black people are their descendants. “You can be a Black Hebrew Israelite and be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Rastafarian,” Dorman said.
Not All Black Jews Are Black Hebrew Israelites
Yes, some Black Hebrew Israelites can be Jewish. But most Black Jews don’t consider themselves Black Hebrew Israelites.
Dorman said in some cases, descendants of Hebrew Israelites, whose parents or grandparents embraced the movement in the 1920s, gravitated toward Judaism fifty or sixty years later and converted – or reverted as they prefer to say. They make up a more inclusive generation of the movement.
The International Israelite Board of Rabbis is one of a few Black Jewish movements now under the Hebrew Israelite umbrella, all of which believe they are Jews of African descent.
Dov Wilker, Director of Black-Jewish Relations for American Jewish Committee (AJC), said it’s important not to generalize when it comes to Hebrew Israelites. Radical Hebrew Israelites are groups under the Israelite umbrella that cite antisemitic conspiracy theories to explain the slave trade and preach misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and antisemitism. But not all Hebrew Israelites are Black and not all are radical.
Hebrew Israelite History in Four Waves
Dorman said the Black Hebrew Israelite movement has evolved in waves since its nineteenth century beginnings. In 1896, former slave and Christian preacher William Saunders Crowdy established the Church of God and Saints in Christ, inspired by a prophecy that Black people were the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Crowdy never converted to Judaism. Instead, he appropriated teachings from the Hebrew Bible to become closer to the teachings of Jesus.
In the 1920s, another wave took hold when Wentworth Arthur Matthew, founded the Commandment Keepers of the Living God, which he preached was a restoration of the Jewish tradition. Matthew taught that Black Americans were direct descendants of the Israelites of the Torah but had lost touch with their birthright because of the transatlantic slave trade and the introduction of Christianity by slaveholders. He urged Black people to return to their Jewish roots and founded the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in New York City to train and ordain rabbis.
In the 1960s and 70s, a few predominately Black religious movements, including the Moorish Science Temple and Nation of Islam, energized by the Black Power movement adopted Hebrew Israelite philosophy. Inspired by the parallels between the Black and Jewish experiences and a strong alliance during the Civil Rights era, many Black people also felt drawn to Jewish traditions. As Black people moved into majority Jewish neighborhoods such as Crown Heights in New York and Chicago’s West Side, teachers, tutors, Torahs, and temples were easily accessible. But as populations shifted and white flight left behind majority Black neighborhoods, some of these traditions, though outwardly Judaic, focused more on Black nationalism.
“Part of the Black Power movement was a radical redefinition of self – people saying we don’t want to be called colored, Negro, or African,” Dorman said. “There still was conventional Black Judaism, calling themselves Jews, and practicing Judaism. But a younger generation gravitated toward the term Israelite and started to create new forms of ‘Israeliteism’ no longer modeled on Judaism.”
Numerous spinoffs of Hebrew Israelite congregations developed – some of which evolved into groups that still exist today. (See below)
Dorman said the latest wave of Black Hebrew Israelite teachings has spread on the Internet by way of social media, YouTube videos, and books and films available on platforms such as Amazon. “That’s the era that we’re in now where we’re seeing Kanye [West] and Kyrie [Irving] and others adopting Israelite ideas without necessarily having a connection to an Israelite group,” Dorman said. “Kanye and Kyrie are just repeating Israelite teachings.”
Over the years, numerous Hebrew Israelite splinter groups have emerged and gained notoriety. One such group was the African Hebrew Israelites of Dimona, Israel, a group led by Ben-Ami Carter (later known as Ben Ami Ben-Israel). In 1966, Ben-Israel saw a vision in which the angel Gabriel told him that Israel was the Promised Land.
As race riots swept the country, Ben-Israel led thousands of followers, first to Liberia, then to Israel’s Negev desert, where they declared themselves the ”true” Jews, denounced the Israelis as ”trustees” of the land, and vowed to replace them with thousands of Black people returning to the Promised Land – a doctrine and agenda that understandably did not sit right with the Israeli government or Israelis.
When the Israeli government discovered that the group’s population was growing exponentially by overstaying tourist visas, it began to bar entry and discuss whether members of the community qualified for citizenship under the Law of Return. This spurred the Black Hebrew Israelites to wage an antisemitic propaganda war in 1977. In American publications, they accused Jews of “money-grabbing,” stealing money intended for Black people, and controlling the economy. A picture of then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin published in the Black Hebrews’ own journal was captioned: ”Menachem Begin – the spirit of Hitler.”
Black Hebrews also urged Americans to halt all aid to Israel and boycott Jewish-owned businesses and Jewish political candidates. They called on Black churches to sever ties with Israel and discontinue trips to the Holy Land.
In partnership with American Black organizations and other Jewish advocacy groups, AJC quelled Ben-Israel’s antisemitic campaign while Israel worked out a solution. Today, the Black Hebrew Israelites of Dimona live in Israel as citizens and run Neve Shalom (Village of Peace), which has grown into one of the largest and most successful urban kibbutzim in Israel.
Radical Hebrew Israelites and Fake Jews
Another splinter group has been One West, named for the address of its original headquarters, One West 125th Street in New York City. One West preaches that Black Americans, Latin Americans, and Native Americans are descended from the Twelve Tribes of Israel and that white Jews are “not the real Jews.”
Best known for dressing in elaborate costumes and preaching on street corners, One West and their progeny also have carved out a significant presence on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where they post sermons rife with misinformation and conspiracy theories that scapegoat Jews for challenges that face the community.
Now Amazon has become a platform. Hebrew To Negroes: Wake Up Black America!, the three-hour film promoted by Irving, became a bestseller. Both perpetuate many of the Radical Hebrew Israelite claims, such as blaming Jews for the transatlantic slave trade, accusing Jews of falsifying Holocaust history and hijacking the Israelite identity by claiming they’re Jews when they’re actually Khazars, a people once existing as a nation in the Caucasus and southeastern Russia who adopted Judaism.
The film also cites antisemitic propaganda such as Henry Ford’s “The International Jew” and includes fake quotes from Adolf Hitler as proof that Jews seek world domination: “The Jews will blackmail America. They will extort America, their plan for world domination won’t work if the Negroes know who they are.”
Radical Hebrew Israelites often refer to Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews as “Fake Jews” or “Edomites,” a derogatory term for white people, all of whom the Radical Hebrew Israelites believe are the descendants of the Biblical character Esau, or of the devil.
Such rhetoric can have deadly consequences. On December 10, 2019, a man and a woman reportedly affiliated with a radical sect of the Hebrew Israelites killed a police officer, then stormed a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey, killing the owner, an employee, and a customer.
Semites vs. Antisemites
Prior to his suspension, and perhaps leading to it, Kyrie Irving did not unequivocally denounce antisemitism. Instead, he replied to questions about whether he holds antisemitic beliefs: “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from.”
Similarly, the rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, dismissed accusations that he was antisemitic under the same premise. “The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew”
There is no race or people who are “semites.” There are only Semitic languages. The word antisemitism was lifted from the field of linguistics by an antisemite in the late 19th century to give intellectual weight to the idea of hating Jews as a race (which they aren’t) as opposed to a religious, ethnic, and cultural group. The Nazis embraced this pseudo-scientific racial classification.
In recent years, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has advocated removing the hyphen from the word antisemitism to avoid diminishing the word’s actual meaning, which is Jew-hatred. But references to “the Semitic race” keep surfacing.
In a 2020 episode of comedian Nick Cannon’s podcast “Cannon’s Class,” the host and his guest, rapper Professor Griff, accused Jews of stealing the birthright of Black people, who they claimed are the true Semitic people. Cannon and Griff also perpetuated the tropes that Jews control the media, and the Rothschild family controls the economy, then denied that what they were saying was antisemitic.
“You can’t be antisemitic when we are the Semitic people,” Cannon said. “When we are the same people who you, who they want to be, that’s our birthright.” Cannon later apologized and committed to a process of study that he shared with his audience, including book reports on Bari Weiss’s How to Fight Anti-Semitism and Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Understanding, appeared on Cannon’s podcast and Cannon appeared with Marans on AJC Advocacy Anywhere.
“Another part of the teachings is that Black people have been lied to,” Dorman said. “Everything you know about history is wrong and needs to be replaced with this Black Hebrew Israelite doctrine. Of course, the biggest lie they’ve been told is that Black people are not even human—racism. They’re answering racism with another story: Black people are central to the Bible and all of Judeo-Christian history. Most of them don’t think that’s antisemitic, they think it’s historically accurate.”
Kanye West, Kyrie Irving, and the literature handed out at the Barclays Center on Sunday echoed this myth of the Semitic people. The irony? In doing so, they repackaged turn-of-the-century European racism, more commonly called antisemitism.
“We need to raise awareness about how the Jewish community is affected by these beliefs,” said Holly Huffnagle, AJC’s U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism. “After all, antisemitism is not just a threat against Jews–it is a threat to our democracy, our liberty, our values, our freedoms, and we must not allow any minority to be discriminated against to elevate another group.”