Jews of African Descent Unnerved by Comparisons to Profanity-Spewing Group in Viral Video

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

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.

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Source: Religion News Service