What are the Myths, Facts, About Hebrew Israelites?
This blog highlights and summarizes an article by Robin Washington for Forward. The article features Bruce Haynes, a professor of sociology at the University of California Davis, and author of The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America; and Walter Isaac, a faculty member at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. You can access the full article here.
Hebrew Israelite groups have been making headlines thanks to Kanye West, Kyrie Irving and their antisemitism controversies. News outlets and advocacy groups like the Anti-Defamation League have published primers describing the groups, which vary widely in their origins, beliefs, and practices. But few of these explainers are shaped by Black scholars who study these movements or by Hebrew Israelites themselves.
That’s why we decided to delve deeply into the subject with two Black experts: Bruce Haynes, a professor of sociology at the University of California Davis, and Walter Isaac, a faculty member at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.
In this article, they answer some critical questions about Israelites’ backgrounds and beliefs, and reflect on public misconceptions.
There are many myths and misconceptions about Hebrew Israelites. Where do you think they come from?
“The media and internet are major sources of confusion and misinformation,” said Haynes.
“They come from the writings of various scholars, most of whom didn’t grow up in an Israelite family or weren’t practicing members of any Israelite community” added Isaac. “ And so our stories are not the stories they tell. My story is not their story.”
What’s wrong with the phrase “Black Hebrew Israelites”?
“‘Black Hebrew Israelite’ is a term that conflates many different groups that hold wildly different beliefs and practices,” said Haynes. “Some adhere to rabbinic practices and some may believe that white-skinned Jews are impostors or say that all Black people are really Jews. Also, not all members are Black. Many are Latinx and some are white.”
“Also, Black religious bodies generally use geographic places in their names, not race. Examples are the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church and Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, which has Israelite roots.”
Not all members are Black. Many are Latinx and some are white." – Bruce Haynes, UC Davis
How many Hebrew Israelites are there?
“A recent study that’s been quoted in the media said that 4% of African Americans identify as Hebrew Israelite. However, that study had a margin of error of 3.6%. Looking further back, the 2007 Religious Landscape Study conducted by Pew found that less than .05% of respondents self-identified as members of “Hebrew Israelite” communities. That means more African Americans self-identified as either Mormon, Rastafarian or a part of Conservative Judaism than as Hebrew Israelite” said Haynes.
Why do they call themselves Hebrews instead of Jews?
Isaac said, “Historically, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the terms ‘Hebrew’ and ‘Israelite’ were more commonly used in reference to Jewish communities in general. Think of the old UAHC acronym for Reform Judaism. It stood for ‘Union of American Hebrew Congregations.’ The term ‘Jewish’ grew in popularity in the 20th century.”
Haynes added, “Clearly at some point people started using biblical language to negotiate race. When Black and interracial congregations formed, they used the nomenclature that was prevalent at the time, and that was the term Hebrew.”
Continue reading the rest of the article here.