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Jews of African descent ‘unnerved’ by comparisons to viral video group

A group of men interacts with Covington Catholic High School students and other people on the National Mall on Jan. 18, 2019, in Washington. Although not specifically identified, the group is thought to be a sect of Black Hebrew Israelites. Video screenshot

(RNS) — When he first saw clips of videos showing a controversial encounter involving white Catholic students, a Native American man and a group of black men yelling racist and homophobic slurs at the students, Bruce Haynes was intrigued.

“I heard the mess,” said Haynes, professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis and author of the new book “The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America.”

Then he thought, “Look at the Black Hebrews there.”

Bruce Haynes. Photo by Cheng Saechao

But therein lies the problem, he said.

Many different groups and congregations around the country have taken on the term “Hebrew” or “Israelite.” This group in Washington hurling insults Friday (Jan. 18) at the Catholic students, who had attended the March for Life that day and many of whom were wearing Make America Great Again caps, in no way represents the many other groups, according to Haynes.

“The challenge is no one has really done a systematic study of all the different persuasions of people who self-identify,” he said.

While some black groups that identify as “Hebrew” or “Israelite,” such as a nearly 100-year-old Ethiopian Hebrew congregation in New York, are more mainstream, others have been labeled as hateful by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Some groups, Haynes said, send congregants to yeshivas, speak Hebrew and recognize the Talmud, while others are more aligned with Christianity. The latter may also refer to themselves as “Hebrews.”

This Wild West of Hebrew Israelite identification concerns Rabbi Capers Funnye of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago.

“It was really unnerving that there was not any more specific identification of this group and that it seemed to put everything in one basket, to lump black folk together, ‘Hebrew Israelite.’ Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Funnye, who is Michelle Obama’s cousin and has been called “Obama’s rabbi.”

The problem began in this instance with the news coverage, Funnye believes.

Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr., of the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, stands in the sanctuary of the synagogue on Sept. 2, 2008, in the Marquette Park neighborhood of Chicago. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

“I wish that the news outlets would have identified the individuals or the group as the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge,” he said. “We have never — in the history of our community — assaulted, defamed or spoken in a derogatory manner to any person or persons ever. We respect every person. It does not matter. Whatever their ethnicity, we are totally respectful to them.”

An ISUPK leader, who goes by the name General Yahanna, denied that his group was involved in the incident, but he said he understands what motivated the individuals confronting the students.

Haynes, an African-American who grew up middle class in Manhattan, attended a predominantly Jewish prep school and has participated in Jewish communities since he married his Jewish wife 22 years ago, said he also draws a distinction between the street preachers in the videos and other black groups with stronger Jewish ties.

He has spent two decades interviewing and studying Jews of African descent, whom he met in synagogues.

“I look at my research and the fascinating individuals that I met, and I listen to some of the things that are being said on television,” he said of the video. “These are not the same people. Rabbi Funnye would never be caught dead saying the things that those guys were saying.”

An “extremist fringe” of the Hebrew Israelite movement — itself a black nationalist theology whose origins are in the 19th century — holds that African-Americans, and not the people many think of today as Jews, are God’s chosen people, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The extremist groups believe that the former, and not the latter, are the true heirs to the Hebrews of the Old Testament.

Members of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, in Harlem in 2012. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

“Although most Hebrew Israelites are neither explicitly racist nor anti-Semitic and do not advocate violence, there is a rising extremist sector within the Hebrew Israelite movement whose adherents believe that Jews are devilish impostors and who openly condemn whites as evil personified, deserving only death or slavery,” the center states.

Of late, the rhetoric of the extremist groups has been “steadily heating up,” the center adds.

Funnye says that groups such as the ISUPK, who he says practice aggressive and verbally abusive street preaching, tend to operate in places like Philadelphia and New York, but not Chicago. That leads to less confusion in his neck of the woods.

But he still objects to them using the term “Hebrew Israelites.”

“I can assure you that we have nothing to do with this group whatsoever, in any way, shape, form or fashion,” he said.

If the group in the videos was identified by name, he said, “that would go a long way in helping to defuse and keep us from being lumped together with groups like this.”  

General Yahanna. Courtesy photo

Yahanna, the director of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, said he understands the motivation of the men in the video.

He said they are not part of ISUPK; if they were, he would have trained them, as he does all of the group’s members, to speak differently.

Still, he said, the ISUPK expects to be demonized in the media, which it sees as part of a broader history of degrading black men for speaking out about oppression  in America.

“Of course, we are looked at as instigators and troublemakers, but the entire Republican Party is not looked at as troublemakers for being racist,” he said.

Wearing pro-Trump apparel, he argues, is also a statement about race.

“In today’s black society, any white man wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat is, in essence, wearing a white Ku Klux Klan hood and is looked at and viewed that way by black people,” Yahanna said.

The ISUPK, which “vehemently” presses that it isn’t affiliated with any other group or organization, sees itself as tied to Harlem-based Hebrew Israelites going back to the 1900s, according to Yahanna.

“We would love to be identified separately from anybody else, because of course, we don’t want to be blamed for any of the actions of someone else,” Yahanna said. “However, black people have been lumped together and propagandized for as long as we can remember, from the days of slavery. We’re almost used to being lumped together.”

He added, “We’d love it to be another way, but what can you do?”

Yahanna also questioned the effectiveness of groups that use tamer language to get their message across.

“We’ve learned over the years that talking nicely to our own people is ineffective,” he said. “Our people have had a very, very hard time in this country, and it takes a very hard, stern person who will bring forth the real crimes of the people who have oppressed them for them to really see it.”

Members with Israel United in Christ, a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, demonstrate in Washington, D.C., in October 2015. Photo by Elvert Barnes/Creative Commons

There is a silver lining to the viral video, said Funnye, who is of the mind that more respectful language is absolutely effective in building bridges.

He believes that it will lead to more discussion, of which he is always a proponent. Visitors who come to his congregation will find a lot of diversity in the pews, he said.

“You will find Hispanic people. You will find Ashkenazi Jews, who have adopted African-American children. You will find Filipino Jews. You will find biracial Jews. Individuals with Jewish mothers and African-American fathers. You will find Jews from Nigeria, Ghana, the Caribbean and a broad spectrum,” he said. “Our congregation, I think, really resembles what the Jewish people around the world look like.”

Haynes said there’s a difference between Funnye’s congregation, which the latter says persistently builds bridges between Jews of African descent and the broader Jewish world, and extremist groups.

Haynes stopped short of describing the Black Hebrews in the video as members of a cult. But then he changed his mind.

“I think it’s important that people not get confused between those who really are seriously committed to their Judaism and those who maybe do fit the term ‘cult’ in the way that we tend to think of them,” he said.

A group of men thought to be a Black Hebrew Israelite sect were the impetus for a viral video from the National Mall on Jan. 18, 2019. Video screenshot

In his first teaching job, at Yale University, Haynes noted a “meltdown in the public sphere” between segments of the black and Jewish communities.

But his own interactions with both Jews of African descent and white Jews were very positive.

He said that if he and his wife had had children, he would have likely converted to Judaism. Having kids, he said, has often been a catalyst for African-Americans who are married to Jews to convert to Judaism.

“I have such recognition within the community that in some strange ways there’s little pressure on me to convert,” he said. “It’s funny. I live the life of a stranger amongst Jews, in many ways.”

Meeting such a range of Jews of African descent, and studying those who self-identify as Hebrew and Israelite, has further convinced him that you can’t judge a group by its name.

“There are a million groups that call themselves the ‘Church of God,’” he said. “Just knowing that phrase will not help you understand anything about the people.”

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Menachem Wecker

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  • TOO LATE. It no longer matters what “Bruce Haynes … Capers Funnye … General Yahanna, … Southern Poverty Law Center” all think of the “Black Israelites”. For what only mattered then, and still matters from here on, is what The Indigenous Peoples Movement represented by Nathan Phillips think of the “Black Israelites”.

    Let the record show that “the [Covington] kids were meeting there to wait for their buses to arrive … [while] The ‘Black Israelites’ were obviously saying nasty, racist, inflammatory things [to them. Then] Omaha Elder Nathan Phillips and a crew from the Indigenous Peoples March came along and got into the mix. … It is quite clear that he put himself there” for a face-off – not at all with these “Black Israelites”, but OMG mercy Jesus, with Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington!

    Source: Max Mogren, “What Really Happened During Covington Catholic, Black Israelites, Nathan Phillips Situation”, YouTube, January 20, 2019.

  • It’s regrettable that we cannot confine usage of the word Israelite to mean only a person who is a citizen of modern Israel. And it is regrettable that we cannot confine usage of the word Hebrew (describing a person) to mean only those people who speak Hebrew as a first language. But,….we can’t. As a result, the words mean anything somebody says of them.

  • “The problem began in this instance with the news coverage, Funnye believes.”

    No scheisse, Sherlock.

    For example, this is supposed to be RELIGION News Service, and you should read some of the nonsense that it publishes.

  • And, is it not incredible that after the liberals and their news media were finished with them, the presumably non-liberal children and their school received death threats. How this media helps the American citizens!

  • That’s Sherlock “Funnye” Holmes to you.

    (With the wrong pronounciation of that middle name that rhymes with P.I., I may be accused of racial antisemitism, or antisemitic racism, by our mutual f(r)iend Cruddie. So I best state this parenthetically.)

    Re: RELIGION. After 2 years here at R-NBC I mean RNS, I’m deadly persuaded by them that MAGA is a state religion. Even over at Sojourners they”re calling the US/Mexico’s Wall of China a MAGA idol god, based on some Hebrew Scriptures.

    MAGA. Brilliant campaign!

  • Mob lynching mentality not taking roots because Conservatives prove to be quite a formidable political rival!

    Phew, I say.

  • Hilarious that today, those who’ve oppressed, terrorized and killed so many are now complaining because their victims don’t like them and are no longer silent. Guess that’s reverse-racism, right? Perhaps it’s a hate, that hate produced. But then the thinking of the oppressor has always been to self-medicate with terms like “Drapetomania” to explain the behavior of their victims: “There MUST be something wrong with them, because there couldn’t be anything wrong with the way we treat other people who do not look like us”. No matter the ‘vehicle’ used to voice the discontent and frustration, the media will spin it. Rabbi Funnye is no stranger to the racist views of those (ashkanazim) who enslaved our ancestors in America, but today claim our heritage and occupy our land.
    When you wear a hat that says MAGA, what are you saying? When was America “great” for everybody? And if it hasn’t been great for everyone, what are you asking for by saying you want specific conditions or times to return? As an African-American, I ask, to what year would you like return the U.S? The 30s, the 50s, the 60s or 70s, or maybe the days of Obama when AAs were being slaughtered in the streets like they were being hunted? When? It’s simple, the MAGA hat refers to a time when ‘whites’ were more comfortable in their control of and oppression of other ethnicities in the U.S. It is not a call for moving forward in unity or love. Its a call to Go Backwards, and that is what others find so offensive. Everyone likes to conveniently address the symptoms of the actual problems. Media attacks the cries of the disenfranchised but never addresses why they are crying, so they can remove the situations causing the distress. Today, we are focused on children who received death threats from other whites…..looks like more white on white crime about to happen, maybe another movie theater or school shooting, perhaps?

  • Your logic would suggest I am a British citizen, instead of an African-American because I speak English, or perhaps a Native Aboriginal to the north American continent because I am a U.S. citizen? How ludicrous and pathetic. Israelis are turko-finns, and are not originally from Palestine. A “friendlygoat” huh? No thanks!

  • I do not believe there is any such real thing as a Black Hebrew Israelite in the citizenry of the United States. There are people using such names and making messes of mis-reference in our country.

    Look, I have some Irish ancestry and some German ancestry. I could tell you that I am a White Hindu Dublin Germanite, but it would be horsehockey. Ditto the other.

  • Well….aren’t we blessed your belief is not a prerequisite for truth? We feel so endowed that you LIKE those who refer to themselves by a color and not an ethnicity. We will all sleep better knowing we have pleased you.

  • Why so? I pay attention to people who reply to me. If I can have conversations with them, I do. If they go nuts on me, I eventually block them.

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