How Much Do We Really Know About Hebrew Israelites?

By | Feb 20, 2023
Black Israelites newsletter

The first teachable moment in the recent MomentLive! program, “Who Are the Hebrew Israelites?” came early—in fact at the very beginning of Professor Andre E. Brooks-Key’s remarks. Brooks-Key, who teaches African and African American studies at Claflin University in South Carolina, took issue with the program’s written description. It began with a reference to how NBA player Kyrie Irving had provoked a “firestorm of criticism” with his promotion of a film about “Black Hebrew ideology filled with antisemitic tropes” and followed with, “Yet not all Hebrew Israelites are antisemites.” To illustrate why this introduction to the topic was problematic, Brooks-Key offered this analogy:

Former American financier Bernie Madoff provoked outrage when he was caught in a Ponzi scheme defrauding individuals and organizations out of billions of dollars. Yet not all Jews are investment bank fraudsters.

Brooks-Keys made clear his intent was not to create some kind of “Gotcha!” moment but rather to illustrate how unconscious bias affects our framing of others and how cross-cultural communication often involves “flaws of perception, definition and categorization.” In other words: If you don’t know how complex a group, movement or tradition is, starting with the most extreme and high-profile example isn’t going to get you there. In addition, Brooks-Keys offered a correction to the term “Black Hebrew Israelites,” noting that some say it’s redundant to add “Black” because all Hebrew Israelites are Black, while others say it’s incorrect because Hebrew Israelites are ethnically diverse.

Welcome to the latest installment of the Wide River Project, a joint initiative of Western States Center and Moment that takes a deep dive—and fresh look—into the art, history and issues that both unite and divide the Black and Jewish communities. Wide River zoominars are produced by Moment’s Suzanne Borden and hosted by Editor-in-Chief Nadine Epstein, who is frequently joined by co-host Eric K. Ward, senior advisor to Western States Center and executive vice president of Race Forward. Both were on board to host the conversation about Hebrew Israelites, which maintained the level of frank and open dialogue Professor Brooks-Keys began with and allowed participants to, as Ward said, “lean in with curiosity.”

Incidentally, after the zoominar was over, the post-program description was updated to: “We’ve seen many stories in the news these last few months and in past years about Hebrew Israelites. But how much do we really know about the different communities associated with Hebrew Israelites?”

No doubt, anyone who watched surely came away knowing more, from the complex history of how Hebrew Israelites in the United States emerged post-Emancipation (including how slaves on plantations owned by Jews may have absorbed certain Jewish practices) to how anti-white or antisemitic strains emerged after Black Jews faced rejection from the larger American Jewish community, to the typology and foundations of the Hebrew Israelite tradition. Brooks-Keys also shared the many religious identities he’s embodied over the years, including Baptist Christian, Rabbinic Black Jew and Hebrew Israelite. Today he is a Black Humanist.

“His general concern not to pigeon-hole Hebrew Israelites left a deep impression on me,” said one viewer. “Beginning my deep dive into this fascinating subject has made me rethink our antisemitic fears. Yes, a huge education effort is in order, and this has to take place in many different guises, according to the specific audience in question.”

At a time when diversity and inclusion initiatives and racial equity trainings are coming under scrutiny for the way they’re conducted, the latest Wide River Project discussion offered a counterpoint to how a conversation about difference can be informative, sincere and uncomfortable—and therefore productive. If you didn’t watch the program live, we encourage you to watch the recording here. And then share your thoughts with us at:

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