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The Black Hebrew Israelites and their connection to the Covington controversy, explained

How a rarely discussed religious group became part of the viral Covington story.

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A group of black Hebrew Israelites demonstrate outside the US capitol on November 13, 2018.
Black Hebrew Israelites are in the news after a January 18 video showed members of an unidentified sect interacting with students from Covington Catholic.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

A video of an interaction between white high school students and an indigenous activist that went viral over the weekend has sparked a wild internet debate, and thrust a little known religious group into the spotlight.

On Saturday, a viral video emerged of a teenage boy wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat standing in front of Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist and Omaha elder, as he beat a drum and sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The video was taken on Friday, the same day as the Indigenous Peoples March, and showed other boys, many of them also in Trump-branded apparel, dancing and laughing nearby.

Philips told several media outlets that he believed the students, who were from Covington Catholic high school in Kentucky, and were in DC to participate in the annual March for Life, were mocking him, and the video was shared repeatedly as a powerful example of racism in the Trump era.

But the conversation began to shift on Sunday when some observers claimed that a small group of Black Hebrew Israelite protesters standing nearby were to blame for the incident.

Another, longer video soon emerged, showing a verbal exchange between the Covington students and a small group of Black Hebrew Israelite protesters in the moments before Phillips appeared.

In a statement on Sunday, Nick Sandmann, the boy in the initial video, argued that the Hebrew Israelites instigated the incident and that his classmates “wanted to drown out the hateful comments that were being shouted at us.”

President Donald Trump, conservative commentators, and a number of prominent journalists responded to the second video and Sandmann’s statement by saying that the early criticism of students was overblown, and the result of a rush to judgement. Phillips, for his part, explained in interviews that he wanted to separate the students and the Hebrew Israelites, noting that the men were vastly outnumbered by students. “These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey,” Phillips said.

The Black Hebrew Israelites, meanwhile, have said that they are being used as a scapegoat for the students’ behavior. Now, more than three days after the video first went viral, the small group finds itself in the middle of a controversy over very different framings of the rally incident.

The Black Hebrew Israelites, briefly explained

The Black Hebrew Israelites are an offshoot of a broader religious movement scholars often call Black Israelism, which dates back to slavery and Reconstruction, if not earlier.

Writing for the Washington Post, journalist Sam Kestenbaum explains that Black Israelism is “a complex American religious movement” whose various sects are loosely bound by a belief that “African Americans are the literal descendants of the Israelites of the Bible and have been severed from their true heritage.”

Several figures played a role in the creation of this movement, including William Saunders Crowdy, a former slave who embraced parts of Judaism while arguing that there were deep connections between African Americans and biblical Israelites, the descendants of the prophet Jacob. Crowdy travelled across the country with his message in the late 1800s, setting up congregations in states like Kansas, Illinois, New York, and Virginia before his death in New Jersey in 1908.

Crowdy’s ministry also drew on aspects of Christianity. His practice “developed from particular history of African American suffering and the historical, spatial, ideological, cultural, and religious contexts of the Western frontier after reconstruction,” historian Jacob Dorman explains in Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions.

Crowdy’s followers, and the followers of other leaders in this movement, refer to themselves in varying ways, and practice their religion differently, although they are all often lumped under the same umbrella.

According to Andre E. Key, a history professor at South Carolina’s Claflin University, the differences between groups often referred to as Black Jews, Black Hebrews, and Hebrew Israelites are not always recognized, “at times creating confusing connections between disparate movements.”

Some groups, for example, focus on adapting a combination of Jewish and Christian teachings to predominantly black congregations, while other groups use terms and traditions of Judaism as part of an entirely distinct belief system that does not desire the support or approval of any existing religion.

The Black Hebrew Israelites who were at the Lincoln Memorial on January 18 were not immediately connected to a specific sect, but appear to fit into this latter group. Their version of religious practice developed in the years after the civil rights and Black Power movements, as some members wanted to distance themselves from “white” Jews and Judaism. Kestenbaum traces the development of these more radical groups back to the 1970s and 1980s, noting that several offshoots developed around the Israeli Tanack School in Harlem, also called One West.

Kestenbaum explains:

The One Westers saw themselves as radical reformers of earlier generations of Hebrew Israelites who had gone astray. They would troop out to street corners dressed in colorful and ornate capes and leather — vivid imaginings of what ancient Israelites might look like transported into the urban culture of New York City. They were also early and eager adopters of new media, hosting local television slots and filming their often-confrontational street ministry.

The One Westers believed that other nonwhite groups, including Native Americans and Hispanics, were also descendants of Israel’s 12 tribes, adding that these communities must acknowledge their history as Israelites before issues like poverty and police violence “could be overcome.”

The differing offshoots or “camps” affiliated with One West have some common beliefs, including a strong sense of black nationalism and an ardent belief in the end of the world being imminent. When compared to other facets of Black Jewish groups and Black Israelites, this group is largely seen as a fringe sect, and has fractured further since 2000, spawning groups like the House of Israel.

But the internet has helped these groups spread their message. If you live in a city like Washington, DC, Philadelphia, or New York, there’s a good chance you’ve seen members of the House of Israel or other offshoots of One West engaged in a highly confrontational form of street ministry.

As these groups have become more well known, organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center have argued that some Black Hebrew Israelite groups are “hate groups” and fit into a rise of black nationalism in the face of resurgent white supremacist movements. The SPLC refers to them as an “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,” and also have a history of sexist and anti-LGBTQ remarks. Groups like the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge contest this description.

The Black Hebrew Israelites say they aren’t to blame for the high school students’ behavior

As the backlash to the initial media coverage of the Covington students (and backlash to that backlash) continues, some critics have argued that the students’ behavior was “wildly mischaracterized.”

In Reason, a libertarian news outlet, Robby Soave argued that “far from engaging in racially motivated harassment, the group of mostly white, MAGA-hat-wearing male teenagers remained relatively calm and restrained despite being subjected to incessant racist, homophobic, and bigoted verbal abuse by members of the bizarre religious sect Black Hebrew Israelites, who were lurking nearby.”

But others, like Deadspin’s Laura Wagner, argue that additional information about the event should not end outrage over what happened to Phillips. “Nothing about the video showing the offensive language of Black Israelites changes how upsetting it was to see the Covington students, and Sandmann in particular, stare at Phillips with such contempt,” Wagner wrote on Monday.

The Black Hebrew Israelites involved argue that they are being unfairly singled out in attempts to excuse the students’ treatment of Phillips.

Ephraim Israel, a Hebrew Israelite present on Friday, told the Washington Post that the students were “mocking me as I was trying to teach my brothers, so, yes, the attention turned to them.”

“I explained to them, you want to build the wall for Mexicans and other indigenous people, but you’ve never seen a black or a Mexican shoot up a school,” he said.

While the longer video does show the men taunting other march attendees before turning to the students, who begin to chant and yell in response, Phillips has also told media outlets that he had problems with the students even before their confrontation with the Black Hebrew Israelites. And other videos posted by people on the National Mall that day seem to show Covington students harassing other people in the area near the Indigenous Peoples March.

On Saturday, Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan, another member of the Black Hebrew Israelites present on Friday, discussed the situation on Facebook Live. He argued that his groups’ comments toward the students — which included claims that the students were “Donald Trump incest babies” and “dogs” — were “just rhetoric.”

“Nobody started your children to mount up on us and surround us and start chanting and doing so-called indigenous dances mocking the march,” Banyamyan said.