“I still can't believe that the *black Israelites* are playing a key role in a multi-day national controversy,” Washington Post political writer Dave Weigel tweeted Monday as the various videos of whatever happened Friday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were dissected again and again.
“If you live in a big east coast city you've been putting in headphones and ignoring those guys your whole life,” Weigel added.
But let’s go ahead and delve into another one, especially since the Black Hebrew Israelites angle is so fascinating and, believe it or not, important to grasping the full story.
Kudos to the Washington Post, which turned to Sam Kestenbaum, a contributing editor at The Forward, to write an explainer on the group:
In the initial media churn, they were nearly missed.
But a small band of Hebrew Israelites, members of a historic but little-known American religious movement, may actually be at the center of a roiling controversy that has gripped the nation in recent days.
It began with a now-viral video clip, filmed Friday at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in which high school students from a Catholic school in Kentucky appeared to be in a faceoff with a Native American elder, who was beating on a drum. The boys, some wearing red hats with President Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, appeared in the clip to be mocking a man, named Nathan Phillips. The clip was widely understood as being centrally about the dangers of Trumpism, and the teens were condemned.
But a longer video soon bubbled to the surface, widening the lens. It showed how a group of half a dozen Hebrew Israelites had, in fact, been goading and preaching at both the Native Americans and high schoolers, using profanity and highly provocative language, for nearly an hour. Phillips later told journalists that he was seeking to defuse tensions between the Israelite group and the high school students by stepping in between them.
But who are these Hebrew Israelites?
From there, Kestenbaum does a nice job of explaining the group’s history. I won’t attempt to summarize here but rather point you to his full article.
I particularly appreciate that he stresses that the movement is “complex” and that “Congregations and leaders differ widely, making neat generalizations tricky.”
Tricky stories demand nuance, and the Post piece by a writer with years of experience reporting on the group offers it.
The New York Times also has a helpful story on the group, and I like that it quotes a few members of the group, including this one:
For the Hebrew Israelites, it was a divine opportunity. Ordinarily, those approached by the group quickly rush by. Though they have been name-checked by Kendrick Lamar in a rap called “Yah,” they have also been denounced by others as a hate group. Provocation is their outreach method of choice. And provoke they did
“Our God did that to expose what this country is coming to, to expose what we’ve been teaching,” said Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan, one of the men involved in the dispute with the boys.
Later in the same story, another group member is quoted:
Whatever tensions are sparked by Hebrew Israelite teaching, some adherents chalk that up to people being unwilling to accept uncomfortable doctrine.
“A lot of the truths of the Bible, it can be a bit much for people to take,” said Ash Yasharahla, who lives in New York and belongs to a congregation of Hebrew Israelites known as I Am Israel (No Division).
He said he hoped that viewing the full sequence of what transpired at the Lincoln Memorial would be enough to win over supporters.
I’m not certain, however, that the final paragraph of the Times’ story is necessary. Tell me if I’m wrong, but it’s almost as if the paper couldn’t help but end with a not-so-subtle dig at the Covington Catholic High School boys:
To many black people, Hebrew Israelites are a harmless part of their communities, said Todd Boyd, a professor of race and pop culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, one of many cities where the group can be seen working the streets. More alarming to many African Americans, he said, is “seeing a white guy in a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat.”
For another newsy take on the Black Hebrew Israelites, check out this story from the Philadelphia Daily News.
The Detroit Free Press has another take that’s worth a look.
All of the stories I’ve seen cite the Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation of Black Hebrew Israelites as a hate group. Speaking of complicated, the SPLC’s list of hate groups has drawn its own scrutiny, as GetReligion readers know.
Your turn, dear reader: What other coverage have you seen — good and bad — of the Black Hebrew Israelites?
What questions about that group or the ongoing news coverage do you have?