Black Hebrew Israelites in the Spotlight

The journalist Sam Kestenbaum on the history of the religious tradition embraced by Kyrie Irving and Kanye West.

Mari Cohen
December 1, 2022

Members of the Hebrew Israelite group Israel United in Christ march at the Capitol in June 2022.

Allison Bailey/NurPhoto via AP

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On Sunday November 20th, as the Brooklyn Nets played the Memphis Grizzlies at home at Barclays Center, a swarm of protestors circled the arena, clad in identical bright purple sweatshirts. As they stood in regimented columns, they chanted something that sounded like, “We are the real Jews! We’ve got good news!” They were members of Israel United in Christ (IUIC), one of an array of groups associated with the Black American religious movement of Hebrew Israelites. They’d surrounded Barclays to protest the Nets’ suspension of star player Kyrie Irving, who had drawn condemnation for tweeting a link to a movie produced by a Hebrew Israelite entrepreneur that perpetuated Holocaust denial and framed modern Jews as imposters.

Irving’s post, and the subsequent weakness of his apology, came on the heels of statements by the rapper Kanye West, who now goes by Ye, that have cast a spotlight on Hebrew Israelism, a religious movement that sees Black people as the true descendants of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. Some Hebrew Israelite groups believe Christ is the messiah, while others reject the New Testament. Some have pursued relationships with mainstream Jewish communities and even encouraged their members’ halachic conversions. Other Hebrew Israelite groups regard Jewish communities as imposters and perpetuate traditional antisemitic conspiracies. Those groups, which are called “One Westers” after the Harlem ministry where they originated, are often the most visible. Known for their agitational street corner preaching, they have earned a designation as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Despite their success at organizing superstars like Irving and West and their impressive showing at the Barclays protest, Hebrew Israelites are relatively small in number overall: A 2019 survey by an evangelical research firm found that 4% of Black Americans identified as Hebrew Israelites (though an additional 19% expressed agreement with their “core beliefs”). Yet the One Westers deploy a sophisticated digital organizing strategy to proliferate their incendiary message. And while they typically preach nonviolence, in 2019, a man named David Anderson, who had espoused Hebrew Israelite rhetoric on Facebook, and his girlfriend shot and killed three people at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, NJ.

To understand the Hebrew Israelite movement, I interviewed Sam Kestenbaum, a reporter covering religion in America who has extensively reported on Hebrew Israelism. Kestenbaum and I spoke about the historical origins of the movement, the relationship between the Jewish community and Hebrew Israelites, and why its provocative wing is currently having a cultural moment. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mari Cohen: What are the basics of Hebrew Israelite theology?

Sam Kestenbaum: Hebrew Israelism is a Black American religious movement that emerged in the late 19th century, a time when there was a lot of speculation about the current identity and whereabouts of the biblical Israelites. We see other examples, like Mormonism, which involves theological speculation about who the Israelites are, and Anglo Israelites, who identify British people as the true Jews.

The innovation of a number of religious leaders that we would now call Hebrew Israelites was to say the true Jews of the Bible are Black people in America. In some ways it flipped the racial discourse that spoke about Blackness as a curse—the curse of Ham. [Some Christians in the American South argued that Black people were the descendants of Noah’s son Ham, whom he cursed to servitude, in order to justify slavery.] These figures were saying, “No, in fact, we are the main characters of this book.” And that remains the throughline of the movement. If there’s one thing that unifies all these disparate groups that would call themselves Hebrew Israelites, it is a genealogical, racial identification with the People of the Book.

MC: Some Hebrew Israelite groups traffic in antisemitic provocations—like saying that Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Sephardi Jews are actually imposters stealing the legacy of the Israelites. What are those groups like?

SK: The street corner Hebrews, or the Times Square Hebrews, as many people would know them, are a whole constellation of groups that come out of this 1960s–’70s school known as One West, after a street address in Harlem. These Black Hebrews were early and eager adopters of new media styles. Since the ’80s and ’90s they have done a lot of local television, filming their street ministries, and filming the reaction from passersby. They would dress in really ornate colorful garb to attract the most attention: biker-type outfits with lots of leather, almost medieval looking. Over time, each splinter group would develop different color schemes and styles, so you can recognize them from afar. One Westers were more public than other groups; their street corner theology was much more visible to people. They have made good promotional use of controversy, and antisemitism is both core to their Isrealism and a useful provocation to generate attention.

The antisemitism is run-of-the-mill antisemitism, not particularly innovative in its contours or claims. The scriptures that it relies upon are the same ones you see used by many American antisemites, the same verses [Nation of Islam leader] Louis Farrakhan uses from Revalation 2:9: “I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” It’s not out of line with types of religious antisemitism that have long been a part of Christianity.

It’s an open question whether the claim to be an Israelite is itself an antisemitic claim. This could be seen as a form of supersessionism—like claims that Christian denominations have made over the years [to argue that they have supplanted Jews as God’s true chosen people]. Black Israelites relationships with Jews have varied widely — from hostility to indifference to some collaboration.

MC: What have some of the efforts at collaboration between the traditional Jewish community and Hebrew Israelites looked like?

SK: In the 1960s and ’70s, there were efforts by liberal Jewish groups in New York—one of the main ones was called Hatzaad Harishon—to bring Black Israelite groups into the Jewish communal fold. There’s a good book about this by Janice Fernheimer. It was primarily white Jews leading this effort, with some collaboration with rabbinical-type Black Israelite groups whose practice is very close to Conservadox style worship, and which comes out of the tradition of a group called the Commandment Keepers.

Ultimately, there are a lot of reasons that the project was not fruitful. But of crucial import was the push that was made for these Black Hebrew groups to formally convert to Judaism, thereby undermining their central claim of being ethnically Jews. For those groups that want some collaboration with American Jews, the question of conversion has remained a major sticking point. Some Hebrew Israelites do convert. Amar’e Stoudemire, the basketball player, has said his mother, who came out of the church, taught him about their Hebrew roots; he later got involved with Hebrew Israelism and helped produce a film about Hebrew Israelites in Dimona, Israel. He also decided to go through a halachic conversion to Judaism, and now holds those two things at once: the cultural identity of being a Black Israelite, as well as commitments and practices that come with being Jewish.

MC: Speaking of basketball players and Hebrew Israelism, let’s talk about Kyrie Irving. Where does that film he shared, Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up, Black America, come from?

SK: The film came out in 2018 and was produced by this man named Ronald Dalton, Jr., a filmmaker and author. Dalton is more of an independent actor without much connection to any institutional stream of Black Israelism. It’s kind of surprising to see the Dalton film get this much attention, since it was released by a kind of middling entrepreneur who is not a major leader in this network. I only know what I’ve read about the film, but it seems to espouse fairly boilerplate Israelite teaching: It furthers the claim that Blacks in the Americas were Hebrews who were exiled from their land and taken to slavery, and positions Jews as usurpers of that identity. Even the fabricated Hitler quotes [the film reports Hitler having said that white Jews were planning to blackmail America because America had stolen Black people—the “true Jews”] aren’t totally out of left field.

MC: So how did a celebrity like Irving get involved in Hebrew Israelism? What about Kanye West?

SK: I want to back up a little bit to mention Kendrick Lamar’s encounter with Hebrew Israelism, because I think it’s a useful comparison. There are Black Israelite themes woven throughout his 2017 album DAMN, including the line “I’m an Israelite don’t call me Black no more,” and snippets of someone preaching Israelite doctrine. This voice belonged to Kendrick Lamar’s cousin and I helped establish in my reporting at the time that he was a member of a group called Israel United in Christ, a One West offshoot based in Mount Vernon, New York that does outreach all over the country. When asked about Hebrew Israelism in an interview, Kendrick said he was speaking from the perspective of somebody else as part of a storytelling technique, but also said, depending on how you look at the movement’s theology, he thinks there’s some truth to it. So he was evasive. But prior to getting into Black Israelism, Kendrick had tried out lots of different American religious offerings, be they forms of Christianity or more esoteric conspiracy theories about a Mayan doomsday, so he was a seeker, operating in what I would call a milieu of occult knowledge.

I think something very similar is happening with Kyrie, who’s long been an explorer of outré ideas. He was into Flat Earth theories for some time; he refused to take the Covid-19 vaccine, likely for conspiratorial reasons. I think it’s useful to think about his engagement with Hebrew Israelism within the context of his other esoteric interests that lie outside the bounds of respectability, where part of their appeal is precisely that they are not mainstream and are going to elicit a response. We know less with Kyrie about who’s in his circles and who he’s talking to on a day-to-day basis; it seems like he found Dalton’s film through an Amazon search for “Yahweh.” That’s an important piece, too: A lot of people are encountering these ideas via web searches and social media. One Westers are savvy students of digital media and put a tremendous amount of effort in getting clips up on Instagram. YouTube, Tik Tok.

As for Kanye, for those who have been watching, he’s previously had off the cuff tweets about tribes of Israel and similar things. It doesn’t necessarily signal that he’s about to sign a tithing card to any organization, but does suggest that this stuff crosses his feed. I don’t know of any one movie or book that he has picked up and been influenced by; it seems to be a more ambient encounter. But I think Kanye’s and Kyrie’s public explorations of ideas about Black people being the true Jews illustrate that Black Hebrew Israelite ideas are currently in wide circulation and on offer in the religious marketplace in a way that is, if not wholly new, at least more visible than it was.

MC: How are Hebrew Israelite groups reacting to Kanye and Kyrie sharing these ideas?

SK: They’re getting a positive reaction from IUIC, the prominent public One West-affiliated group that helped introduce Kendrick Lamar to some of these ideas via his cousin and that marched on the Barclays Center to protest Kyrie’s suspension. They dress in all purple, and for a number of years they’ve been going to major cities, holding these street spectacles, filming them—often in slick ways with drones or other techniques—and then chopping those up and putting them on social media. So these guys have immediately incorporated Kanye and Kendrick into their social media promotions, including into memes and videos and their regular Instagram or YouTube lectures. For them, any sort of backlash brings evidence of the veracity of their claims and the power of the work of the movement. They see backlash as evidence that those in power want to silence the truth, that they don’t want Black people to wake up to their true identity.

It’s also been a point of frustration for segments of this community that are not affiliated with One West—the Chicago-based Israelite rabbi Capers Funnye, for instance—that have been at pains over the years to differentiate themselves from the more provocative quarters of the movement and are seeking more communal collaboration with mainstream Jewish groups.

MC: Why do you think these ideas are more visible now?

SK: I think the outré is of perennial interest, and Jews also seem to be a topic of perennial fascination, and derision. But we’re coming out of the pandemic and this is happening in the context of a lively discussion about media disinformation, conspiracy theories, and the bounds of public speech, as well as a climate of political violence. Someone like Kyrie had already been a provocateur. But this context is one reason the stakes feel different now.

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.