Yesterday, a man at one time affiliated the Black Hebrew Israelites along with a female accomplice, launched an anti-Semitic attack against a kosher market owned by Hasidic Jews in Jersey City. This is the reputed Facebook page for David Anderson, one of the attackers. He targeted the business because it was owned by Jews, murdering the owner’s wife, a store worker and another customer. The two assailants were also killed after they murdered a local police officer.
This is precisely the sort of story which requires nuance and understanding of multiple related subjects including Black nationalism, the Black Hebrew Israelite community, anti-Semitism, Black-Jewish relations, and American extremism. It is precisely the sort of story that the media should be able to tell, but somehow often fails to do. Such failure is not merely academic; not just a failure of journalism. Rather, when media outlets fail in stories like this they endanger the lives of their subjects–in this case, Black Hebrews who are not anti-Semites; and who in fact love Judaic traditions, Israel and all that they represent.
How has the media failed this story? Let me count the ways: no less a media ‘paragon’ than the NY Times published this:
An assailant involved in the prolonged firefight in Jersey City, N.J., that left six people dead, including one police officer, was linked on Wednesday to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, which has been designated a hate group, and had published anti-Semitic posts online, a law enforcement official said.
…The Black Hebrew Israelites have no connection with mainstream Judaism. It has been described as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy group that tracks such movements.
…“They mostly trade in anti-Semitism,” said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They view Jews as impostors.”
Much of this is either wrong or woefully incomplete. First, the Black Hebrew Israelite movement is not a single unitary group. It has existed for over a century and just like historic Judaism itself, has several offshoots which vary in their relationship with Judaism, from those who view themselves as close kin, to those who view actual Jews as impostors (the branch the shooter seemed allied with):
The beliefs and practices of Black Hebrew groups vary considerably. The differences are so great that historian James Tinney has suggested the classification of the organizations into three groups:
- Black Jews, who maintain a Christological perspective while adopting Jewish rituals.
- Black Hebrews, who are more traditional in their practice of Judaism.
- Black Israelites, who are most nationalistic and furthest from traditional Judaism
In fact, the Black Hebrew Israelites of Israel consider themselves if not Jews, then certainly children of the same Book and traditions shared by Israeli Jews. They emigrated to Israel after the 1967 War. Their children serve in the Israeli army and the community has lobbied earnestly but so far largely unsuccessfully for Israeli citizenship for decades. For this reason, the journalist malfeasance represented by the report above could arouse tremendous hatred against the Israeli offshoot of the Black Israelites. It will be only too easy for some crackpot to confuse the two and mount an attack on them either in Israel or here in the U.S.
There is also an American community of Black Hebrews based in Chicago, whose chief rabbi, Capers Funnye, is a first cousin of Michelle Obama. Funnye has undergone a Conservative conversion and was ordained in the Hebrew Israelite rabbinic tradition. He serves on the official Chicago Board of Rabbis.
The former NBA star, Amare Stoudemire, is a follower of the Black Hebrews. He later played basketball in Israel and is currently undergoing an Orthodox conversion. Thus, contrary to the claim above, American Black Hebrews maintain a bond with, if not ‘mainstream’ Judaism, then certainly American Judaism. They too face the wrath of Jews and their sympathizers who will be quick to target scapegoats.
Further, up to 20% of American Jews are actually Jews of Color, who are Jewish and whose religious status could easily be confused with that of Black Hebrews. This too could wrongly link the former in the minds of the ignorant with this terror attack.
Another element of the attack which no reporter has mentioned is that Pres. Trump’s anti-Semitic rant before the Israel-American Council preceded the former by less than 48 hours. When an anti-Semite hears words like “brutal killers” associated with Jews, he doesn’t distinguish whether they were uttered in jest or with deadly invective.
We don’t yet know specifically what motivated this killer. But it’s critical to note that the endless stream of anti-Jewish slurs from the mouth of this president serves as fertile ground for white and Black nationalists, and extremists of all stripes. It’s natural for them to seek confirmation of their prejudices in larger society. There can be no greater rostrum from which to spout these noxious views than the bully pulpit of the White House.
While there is a history of violence among some of the more extreme offshoots of the Black Hebrews, those incidents were directed in some cases against members of the sect who had strayed; or against police or white people. Except for this incident which happened last October in Miami, there has never been any physical violence directed by this community against Jews (though, as noted, some of the views espoused are anti-Semitic).
Jews and African-Americans have a long history of urban tension, particularly in New York. In 1991, after a Black child was killed after being struck by a vehicle in the motorcade of a Hasidic rebbe, riots broke out and another rabbi was killed by protesters. There were days of violence, blood was spilled, and the wounds of this incident have taken decades to heal.
If the two communities in Jersey City don’t proceed carefully, there could be a repeat of this tragedy. There are, after all, elements here that were prevalent in 1991 in Crown Heights. Then the Hasidic community was growing. The neighborhood was gentrifying. Hasidim were buying apartment buildings and stores catering to the clientèle were opening. The existing Black community came to resent being replaced. They resented the rise in rents and the loss of their old neighborhood haunts. In many cases, the Hasidic newcomers not only had no understanding of the existing Black community, they often expressed fear of it. This in turn, led to the powder keg atmosphere that turned violent then.
It’s likely that a single act of murderous violence, in this case, will not spur the sort of riots that broke out then. Hopefully, this attack will be viewed as an anomaly by both the Black and Jewish communities. But there is little room for error in these matters. And leaders on both sides had best take heed and reach out to the other.
It is tempting to find parallels between Black nationalist and white nationalist extremist violence: both groups nurse a sense of powerlessness and grievance (though Blacks surely are poorer and more powerless than whites); both nurse a sense of racial superiority suppressed by other hostile elements or races.
Of course, the difference is that white supremacists are empowered in American society. They even sit in the White House. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), rank and file white nationalists continue to nurse resentment and grudges leading to violence we witnessed at Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Poway and elsewhere.