While the New York Times continues to maintain that the Black Hebrew Israelites, a religious group that has been designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Leadership Center, is “not known for committing mass acts of violence,” it seems that the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the group may have inspired the most recent, deadly acts of violence against Jews in New York and New Jersey. Last month, a shooting rampage in a Jersey City kosher market targeted innocent Jews as they shopped, and less than two weeks later, a machete-wielding man attacked a rabbi and his family and friends during a Hanukkah celebration in the rabbi’s home in Rockland County, New York. In both cases, the perpetrators had ties to the Black Hebrew Israelites.
According to the New York Daily News, Grafton Thomas, the man who stormed the Hanukkah celebration, kept “an anti-Semitic journal” which included questions like “why people mourned for anti-Semitism when there is Semitic genocide?” and which included references to Adolf Hitler and Nazi culture on the same page as drawings of a Star of David and a swastika.
A search of Thomas’ cellphone by police revealed that he had searched “German Jewish temples near me,” “Zionist temples in Elizabeth, NJ,” “Zionist temples of Staten Island,” and “Prominent companies founded by Jews in America” in the weeks leading up to the attack. On the day of the machete slashing spree, Thomas clicked on an article, “New York City increases Police Presence around Synagogues.” And there were references in Thomas’s hate-filled journal to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. Both the New York Times and the New York Post reported that Thomas had attended the Black Hebrew Israelite services in East Harlem.
Likewise, the two perpetrators in the attack on a kosher market in Jersey that ended with the death of six people, including a police officer who was responding to the shooting, are both connected to the Black Hebrew Israelites. David N. Anderson, age 47, and his partner, Francine Graham, age 50, had posted anti-Semitic and anti-police screeds on Internet forums in the past. According to a neighbor, Anderson could be heard “shouting at night that his religion was the only true religion, while others—specifically Catholicism and Judaism—were false. Soon, he said, Ms. Graham joined in the chants.”
The Black Hebrew Israelites believe that “black Jews” are the “true” chosen people, and that “mainstream” or white Jews are the descendants of Satan. Followers of the group believe that the 12 tribes of Israel defined in the Old Testament are different ethnic groups, or nations, and that whites are not among them—nor are Jews, who they believe are “devilish imposters.” The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies a long list of enemies identified by the black hate group including, most importantly, those they call “fraudulent Jews” and “the synagogue of Satan.” They also list white people who are believed by the Black Hebrew Israelites as “descended from a race of red, hairy beings, known as Edomites, who were spawned by Esau, the twin brother of Jacob, later known as Israel in the Old Testament.” The list also includes “Asians, promiscuous black women, abortionists, continental Africans (who sold the lost tribes of Israel, who were black, to European slave traders), and gay people, who according to the extremist Hebrew Israelites should all be put to death.”
Key to understanding the anti-Semitism of the extremist Black Hebrew Israelite sect is the hatred toward those who sold the “true chosen people” into slavery. Believing that they (the Black Hebrew Israelites) were displaced as the chosen ones by white Jewish imposters who are devils, they await the coming of the black Jesus who will destroy all whites when he returns. Like many white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Hebrew Israelites have broadened their hatred to include Catholics also.
In fact, many of us were first introduced to the vile tactics of the Black Hebrew Israelites in January 2019, at the March for Life on the National Mall in Washington, DC, when a member of the movement began harassing and screaming obscenities at a group of Catholic high school students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky.
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Jewish community experienced historic levels of anti-Semitism in 2018 —a year marked by the shooting spree at a Pittsburgh synagogue which claimed 11 lives. Last year the ADL documented a total of 1,879 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions, marking the third-highest year since the ADL started tracking such data in the 1970s. The trend appears to be continuing into 2020, with escalating violence perpetrated against Jews in New York City and the surrounding boroughs.
Anti-Semitism is a recurrent phenomenon in modern history—peaking in some periods and receding in others. Since we appear to be experiencing a peak period now, it is helpful to try to understand the motivation for the re-emergence of hateful emotions against the Jews. René Girard, French historian and literary theorist of the 20th century and devout Catholic who died in 2015, argued that key to understanding this type of scapegoating is to understand “mimetic desire” or envy. Girard’s mimetic theory holds that people desire objects and experiences enjoyed by the other not for their intrinsic value, but because they are desired by someone else. We mime or imitate their desires. The Jews are viewed by the Black Hebrew Israelites as “having more” than others. The Orthodox Jews that have been targeted have loving families with strong fathers, meaningful lives, and deep faith in God—all of which may be sub-consciously envied by others.
In his book Not in God’s Name, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks helps us understand the distorted belief system of the hate group, drawing upon Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, which holds that the “root cause of hatred and violence is mimetic desire, the wish to have what someone else has, is ultimately the desire to become what someone else is.” It is not a coincidence that Esau plays a prominent place in the belief system of the Black Hebrew Israelites. Nowhere in all of literature is mimetic desire more clearly the case than with the biblical story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob longs to be Esau–he desires to occupy Esau’s place. He buys Esau’s birthright, dresses in Esau’s clothes, takes Esau’s blessing from his father. When the blind Isaac asks Jacob who he is, he replies, “I am Esau, your firstborn.” Jacob did all of this because Esau was everything Jacob was not.
In many ways, the Black Hebrew Israelites imitate, or, as Girard would say, “mimic” many of the practices and external signs of traditional Judaism. Many male Black Hebrew Israelites wear over-sized, jewel-encrusted necklaces with the Star of David or symbols of the Tribe of Judah, sold on the streets of Harlem today, as well as on Etsy and Amazon. Black Hebrew Israelite women are required to engage in the same ritual cleansing practices of the Orthodox Jews in their places of worship—including niddah, the separation of women during their periods of ritual impurity. All Black Hebrew Israelites are blessed with holy oils on their heads before they can enter their Temples, and women must undergo a ritual cleansing after giving birth.
Yet, even as they adopt the clothing, jewelry, and practices of Orthodox Jews, the Black Hebrew Israelites believe that the traditional Jews are the imposters—satanic devils who usurped their birth rights and helped sell the “true” black Jews into slavery. As Girard predicts, the envious begin to covet not just the common objects or advantages of the others, but they also begin to covet the others’ wholeness or being—and thus the faithful Jewish man or woman becomes an existential threat that must be eliminated.
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