Getting to Know the Hebrew Israelites

How the “problem of the color line” spawned today’s black nationalist religious practices.

“The problem of the twentieth century is the color line.” This is the poignant refrain in W. E. B. DuBois’ classic sociological analysis of the United States of America, simply titled, The Souls of Black Folk. Writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, I’m not sure if Dr. DuBois would have imagined that his prophetic challenge was also a chilling prediction for the twenty-first century.

The “color line” problem garnered headline attention earlier this year after a complex racialized incident at the nation’s capital. The incident was initially reported as a confrontation between a Native American elder, Nathan Phillips, and MAGA-cap wearing high school students from the Covington Catholic High school in Kentucky. As the details emerged, it was revealed that the elder had positioned himself as a barrier of peace between the young Trump supporters and a small group of men who identified as Hebrew Israelites.

In the aftermath, journalists rushed to define the Hebrew Israelites to the public. Unfortunately, most have presented a simplistic explanation that tends to view the various groups through a uniform lens. However, while the term “Hebrew Israelites” can be utilized to describe black people who claim genealogical affinity to the biblical Israelites, it should not be used as a catchall category for a specific religious orientation. From an organizational perspective, black people who identify with Israel can be divided into two general categories.

“Traditional” Congregations

The first category includes those groups that are organized along commonly identifiable religious structures. The oldest appears to be Frank Cherry’s Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations. Purportedly established in 1886, this Chattanooga, Tennessee based collective eventually moved to Philadelphia and apparently dissipated after Cherry’s death in 1963.[i]

Then there is The Church of God and Saints of Christ. Founded in 1896 in Lawrence, Kansas by William Saunders Crowdy, this self-identified “Judaic Christian” denomination currently has churches in North America, Africa and the Caribbean.[ii]

The third “traditional” congregation was founded in Harlem, New York, by Wentworth Arthur Matthew in 1919. Known as The Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, members claim direct lineage to the ancient Israelites and follow a pattern of worship similar to Jewish synagogues. Their sanctuaries are mostly in New York and New Jersey.[iii]

Missionary Movements

The second category of Hebrew Israelites includes movements that are more mission-minded. Their task is to call black people back to their original faith. The first emerged in 1966 at the Abeta Hebrew Israel Cultural Center in Chicago. The leader, who assumed the name, Ben Ami Ben Israel, claimed to have received a vision from the angel Gabriel commanding him to lead the black Children of Israel to the land of promise. By 1970, he and forty-eight families had settled in Israel after a brief stay in Liberia. The Israeli government granted them residency in 1990 and they currently reside in the city of Dimona.[i]

The second movement also encouraged repatriation to Israel, but established its headquarters in Miami, Florida. Founded in 1979 by Yahweh ben Yahweh, The Nation of Yahweh was a philosophical counterpart to The Nation of Islam. The city of Miami publicly commended them for their community service and business initiatives. Following Ben Yahweh’s death, the organizational headquarters was moved to Texas.[ii]

The final “movement” is comprised of several loosely related groups that are collectively referred to as “One West.”[iii] This movement was founded in the late 1960s by Ebner ben Yomin who had been a member of Matthew’s aforementioned Commandment Keepers congregation. Adopting the name Israeli School of Universal Practical Knowledge, the leaders taught that Christ would return in the year 2000. One prominent group operates under the revised name Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, and another embraces the militant label, Sicarii. Collectively, these teach that all non-European people who reside in the Americas are the true descendants of Israel and see it as their duty to recruit them to the faith.

The Real People of God

While each of these groups has distinct doctrines, people are attracted to them for some of the same reasons. Although an estimated 79% of African Americans identify as Christian, there are some who feel that conventional Christianity has been used as a tool of white supremacy. Most who reject Christianity for racial reasons align themselves with one of the two major black Islamic movements. However, a smaller number have found a home in one of the groups that fall under the Hebrew Israelite banner.

Looking for Liberation

Interestingly, like the Nation of Islam, Hebrew Israelites have not totally severed themselves from the teachings of the Bible but have appropriated its teachings for the sociological empowerment of black people. Jesus plays a central role in their theology and many of their doctrines are based on creative interpretations of New Testament passages. Young people, especially, probably view the movement as a branch of Christianity that has been liberated from imperial oppression.

As long as the dominant narrative in Christianity parrots the Eurocentric distortions that shift the biblical world from the African continent to Europe, black nationalist movements like the Hebrew Israelites will continue to attract African-Americans who are on a quest for a spiritual identity that resonates with their history and culture. If it is to remain relevant, the black church has a responsibility to lead the effort to recover the African roots of scripture.

[i] For an informative documentary on this movement, see Nicholas Philipides and Ben Schuder, directors, Village of Peace (Affinity Vision Entertainment, 2014). Available on Amazon Prime.

[ii] For a critical assessment of Yahweh ben Yahweh and his movement, see Sydney P. Freedberg, Brother Love: Murder, Money and a Messiah (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1994).

[iii] Their name is derived from One West 125th Street in Harlem, New York.

[i] For a brief orientation to Cherry’s group, see Anthony B. Pinn, “Church of the Living God, Pillar of Truth for All Nations,” pp. 166-169 in Anthony B. Pinn, ed., African American Religious Cultures (Santa Barnbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009).

[ii] For a comprehensive study see Elly M. Wynia, The Church of God and Saints of Christ: The Rise of Black Jews (New York, NY: Garland Publishing, 1994).

[iii] See Janice W. Fernheimer, “The Commandment Keepers of Harlem,” pp. 169-174 in Anthony B. Pinn, ed., African American Religious Cultures (Santa Barnbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009).

Jerusalem: A Prophetic Challenge

Exactly seventy years before the opening of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem, President Harry Truman was among the first heads of state to recognize the newly established state of Israel. Sanctioned by a vote by the United Nations in 1947, this new nation was to be a sanctuary, of sorts, for mostly European Jews who were seeking refuge from centuries of government sanctioned persecution in their European homelands.

Jerusalem, Israel – view of the Mosque. Jewish worshipers pray at the Wailing Wall, Friday evening starting Shabbat in the sunset, Old City of Jerusalem.

The historical record provides a morbid picture of Christendom’s England, France, Portugal, Spain, Poland and Russia carrying out terrible atrocities against their Jewish neighbors. This seemingly coordinated genocidal quest culminated with Adolph Hitler’s dreaded Holocaust that claimed an estimated six million Jewish lives!

Forgetting “Never Forget”

Gripped by global guilt, the Europeans that controlled the United Nations thought they were righting a wrong when they voted to carve out more than fifty-percent of the land of Palestine and gift it to the mostly immigrant Jewish population. They were totally oblivious to the fact that the creation of this new “state” would mean that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would be immediately colonized and disenfranchised. This callous insensibility was undoubtedly based on the fact that the very governments that sanctioned the partition of Palestine were themselves colonizers over nations and islands in Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Caribbean.

When the newly created “Jewish” Palestine became “Israel” in 1948, the “Israelis” officially aligned to the colonial quest of their European counterparts. Sanctioned, equipped, protected and trained by their former oppressors, this new “nation” fashioned a society after Jim Crow America and Apartheid South Africa—a society in which the Palestinians were the “negros.” While screaming “Never Forget” to their western compatriots whose shameful inaction had almost led to Jewish extermination, these survivors of the cruel concentration camps had themselves “forgotten” what it meant to be victimized.

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Ignoring—and sometimes embracing—the overtly racist concept of a “Jewish” state, American Evangelicals have been firm in their support of the State of Israel. As far as they are concerned, God had masterminded the 1947 vote in the United Nations. They are steadfast in their conviction that the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob personally commandeered the return of His dispersed people to their ancestral homeland in fulfillment of select biblical prophecies. Evangelicals throughout North America proudly profess their love for the so-called “Holy Land” and its people.

A Triple Irony

Ironically, Evangelical “support” for Israel is not as pure as it appears. As far as they are concerned, the “return” of Jews to Palestine is a necessary chapter in their prophetic book. As a number of Evangelical influenced apocalyptic movies have recently demonstrated, the next chapter in the scenario features the catastrophic Battle of Armageddon that will take place in that very region and end in the deaths of many of the very Jews they now claim to love! In no uncertain terms, their support of Israel is based on theological selfishness. Unless the Jews maintain political control of Israel, they reason, Jesus cannot execute the secret rapture that leads to the Millennium.

The bigger irony lies in the fact that the Evangelical scenario is eerily similar to the same Islamic Salafi apocalyptic interpretation that has inspired ISIS and Al Qaeda. They too expect a final battle in the region when the Mahdi (the “rightly guided” Caliph) is confronted by the Dajaal (false Christ) and the forces of Gog and Magog. The disastrous war can only end when Jesus the Christ, the Son of Mary intervenes and defeats the forces of evil.

The irony behind the Evangelical and Jihadi extremist support is trumped by the irony behind Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s speech at the Embassy opening. The entire world watched as the jubilant Zionist leader lauded praise on President Donald Trump for his defiant violation of international law. Bolstered by words from the prophet Zechariah, Netanyahu interpreted Trump’s rogue decision as an undeniable fulfillment of prophecy.

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Even as he delivered his speech with the intonations of a Baptist preacher, Netanyahu was undoubtedly aware that the Christian ministers who accompanied him on the dais embraced a completely different interpretation of the events that day. He was well aware that both John Hagee and Robert Jeffress viewed this as the beginning of the end for the Jewish state. However, his eschatology tells a different story. His vision of the future sees the appearance of a Messiah who would establish the global supremacy of Israel. In his mind, this is a sophisticated game of chess, and Trump was the essential piece on the board that had placed the Evangelicals in check mate and had consequentially immobilized the Salafi jihadists.

Not A Game

The opening of the Embassy in Jerusalem may seem like an apocalyptic chess game to those Christians, Jews and Muslims who view themselves as the exclusive beneficiaries of Divine favor. However, real people are being seriously harmed by these theologically based political decisions. Even as Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump posed for photos and sipped champagne with their ideological counterparts, the Israeli Defense Force was engaging in yet another massacre of oppressed Palestinians.

True believers in the God of peace will not see this as an opportunity to celebrate the fulfillment of a chapter in their prophetic timeline. Even if they are correct, what is there to celebrate when this audacious act will only lead to the shedding of more innocent blood and the fomenting of more unrest in the region? If anything, this event highlights the need for a renewed understanding of prophecy. Not prophecy in the sense of foretelling the future, but the type of prophecy where men and women of God confront societal injustice.

As the recently deceased Dr. James Cone recognized, Divine justice always sides with the oppressed. Those who claim submission to God’s will have no choice but to be God’s channels of love to those who need it most. As you ponder these words, never forget that a tree is known by its fruit.