Did You Read About Conservative Judaism’s Anti-Black Antisemitic Smearing of Hebrew Israelites? Neither Did I

Image: Onorland/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Did you catch the press release from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) denouncing the slander against the International Israelite Board of Rabbis (IIBR), a Black rabbinical organization, by leaders of Conservative Judaism? No, you say? What about the press release from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calling upon these Conservative leaders to retract and denounce their hate speech against Black Jews and Hebrew Israelites? Not that one either? I understand. Well, you had to see the New York Times story discussing the rise of exclusionary White Jewish Rabbanites (shoutout to the Karaites) within American Judaism? Hmm. You missed that as well. Guess what, gentle reader: I did too because none of these occurred. What am I referring to you ask?

In a recent JTA story, “It’s not racist to say Hebrew Israelites, Jews of color are not the same” representatives of Conservative Judaism (the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) wanted to share their concerns about recent developments regarding one of their member congregations engaging in interracial (not interfaith) cooperation with members of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, an indigenous African American form of Judaism. 

While some of its members and clergy prefer the nomenclature “Israelite” or “Hebrew Israelite” over “Jewish,” there’s no denying that this community of believers regards itself as observing the tenets of rabbinic Judaismalbeit in their culturally specific manner. 

For a moment I suspended the cynicism that usually occurs when someone preemptively states that what they’re about to say is not racist (which usually means something racist is coming). So I gave the authors the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, they totally squandered that good will with purposeful misinformation.

I fully respect the right of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to say who qualifies as a Conservative Jew or as clergy in their affiliated congregations. There’s nothing objectionable about either of these concerns if the USCJ likewise would frown upon an Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, or Humanistic (did I leave anyone out) ordained rabbi from also serving in the same capacity as the associate rabbi and intern from the IIBOR. In that case, a simple internal memo would have sufficed, case closed.

However, that is not what occurred. Instead, these Conservative leadersRabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO for the USCJ and Rabbinical Assembly; Rabbi Ashira Konigsburg, chief operating officer of the Rabbinical Assembly and chief program officer at USCJ; and Gulienne Rollins-Rishon, the racial justice specialist at USCJ and social justice project manager at Rabbinical Assemblyco-authored an op-ed not only stating their opposition to the interracial cooperation between Conservative Congregation Ahavas Sholom and the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, but they also took the extreme step of smearing and categorically rejecting and denying all of those who identify with the nomenclature “Hebrew Israelite” as practitioners of a foreign religion. They state:

“The recent hiring of both an associate rabbi and a rabbinical intern at a Conservative movement-affiliated synagogue in Newark, New Jersey, raise serious concerns about the intersection between mainstream Judaism and Hebrew Israelites.”

The language represented in this passage reveals not a concern with intersection but contamination. Once again, if this is simply an issue of unaffiliated clergy presiding over services of a member congregation, why make the distinction between “mainstream Judaism” and Hebrew Israelites? Is there a mainstream Judaism version of the recitation of the Shema? The supposed conflation between Jews of color and Hebrew Israelites isn’t about Jewish rites and rituals, it’s about the contamination of “pure” Jewish spaces. 

Whose mainstream?

“While we have great respect for other faith traditions, Hebrew Israelites and Jews are not members of the same religion. The Hebrew Israelite faith emerged in the 19th century from some in the African Diaspora, who, asserting historic ties to Abrahamic ancestry, appropriated aspects of Judaism into a novel faith.”

This patronizing and ultimately racist language employed by the authors displays all the characteristic bad faith arguments that the White Jewish community has employed for the past 100 years in regard to indigenous Black Jewish congregations. The repetition of the terms “mainstream,” and “normative,” in the article are simply euphemisms for Jewish Whiteness. 

But what exactly signifies Conservative Judaism as “mainstream” or “normative”? Is it the melodies used in liturgy? Is it the order of service? Are there certain observancesobservances which, incidentally, differ between and sometimes even within the movements themselves? 

As the original Forward article indicates, “there wasn’t much of a difference” between IIBOR and Ahavas Sholom (Eric Freedman, the president of the Conservative synagogue, even noted “if anything, they are even more observant than we are.”). Given that these differences are based largely on cultural preferences, let us dispense with all the talk about what Hebrew Israelites believe (orthodoxy) and focus on what they do (orthopraxy). 

So, what exactly is this mainstream talk about if it’s not about race? As the authors (one of whom self-identifies as a bi-racial Ashkenazi Jew) assert, their attempts at addressing diversity are complicated by the presence of Hebrew Israelites. Because ultimately this is a question not only of race but ortho-ethnicity (right people). Once again, Black people are not seen as the right type of Jews regardless of their level of observance unless they’ve been authenticated by White Jewish authorities. 

Jews of color hostile to Hebrew Israelites argue that they’re already facing racial discrimination which is only exacerbated by the existence of Hebrew Israelites. For those harboring racial animosity towards any “Blacks as Jews,” being able to assert legitimate Jewishness through Whiteness and rabbinic authority neutralizes questions of legitimacy that only continue to exist because of the existence of Hebrew Israelites in “normative” White Jewish discourse and spaces. 

In other words, if Hebrew Israelites are removed from consideration, and only halachically acceptable Jews of color/Black Jews are discussed, it’s believed that racial discrimination within American Judaism can be addressed through the framework of halacha (or rabbinic Jewish law). This has much in common with evangelical attempts to address race relations through reconciliation in Christ, where there is “neither Greek nor Jew.” Here a similar colorblind logic is employed which argues that halacha is the great equalizer.  

The halachic issue

Often halacha is cited as the reason that Black Jews/Hebrew Israelites have been excluded from full congregational membership, educational institutions, and other aspects of American Jewish communal life. As the logic goes, Black Jews are not halachically Jewish and therefore are outside the “legitimate” Jewish community. The fact they are Black is just a coincidence. The real issue, they assert, is adherence to Jewish law, because Jewish law must be followed, right? It is, until it isn’t. 

Like American religion in general, American Judaism displays an impressive amount of diversity in belief and practice. And, American Jewish movements have all had to contend with living in a hegemonic Christian society. From the Americanization of Hanukkah to the very construction of modern synagogues, American Christianity is like a specter haunting the practice of American Judaism. So just as American Christianity has liberalized, so has American Judaism. But what does that mean for Jewish law? Here is a brief list of the “changes” that Conservative Judaism has made to halacha:

  1. Driving on the sabbath
  2. Mixed gender worship
  3. Ordaining women
  4. Recognition of same sex marriages and ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy

These examples display the variance between Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, but who would really argue that these two movements are not rooted in the same faith tradition? And what about Reform and Reconstructionist which differs from Conservative Judaism in the following ways:

  1. Recognizes patrilineal descent (Reform)
  2. Halacha (rabbinic Jewish law) is sacred but non-binding (Reconstructionist)

Would the representatives of USCJ publish an op-ed declaring Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews to be practitioners of another faith even if they disagree with their stances on Jewish law? No, they would not. So again, we are back to race as a major factor in the delegitimization of Black Judaism and Hebrew Israelites, which is sometimes done at the behest of Jews of color. 

Who is a Jew of color?

“Some Hebrew Israelites have attributed their exclusion from normative Jewish spaces to racism. This undercuts the legitimate concerns and needs of Jews of color — authentic members of our people.”

The phrase “Jew of color” is an amorphous catch-all term to describe any notion of Jewish identity not tied to Whiteness. Jews of color may include but are not exclusive to Jews of African descent. Asian Jews, Latinx Jews, some Mizrachi Jews, as well as mixed race Ashkenazi Jews all qualify as “Jews of color.” 

Simply put, the only thing that binds Jews of color together is that they’re not considered White. It tells you nothing about their association with the Jewish people or faith. Much like the equally amorphous “people of color” which in its contemporary use has come to mean everyone not designated as White, there’s no Jews of color clearinghouse that certifies who is and who is not a Jew of color.

The need to delegitimize not only Hebrew Israelites but their approach to Judaism is therefore essential. White rabbinical authorities have relied on something known as the symbolic identification theory to disqualify Black Judaism as a legitimate form of Judaism, both within the majority Jewish world and in the popular media. An exhaustive discussion of the origins and development of the symbolic-identification theory can be found in Walter Isaac’s “Locating Afro-American Judaism: A Critique of White Normativity” 

In short, the symbolic identification theory argues that enslaved and emancipated Blacks who listened to Bible stories, sung the Negro Spirituals, and practiced freemasonry became confused and started believing they were really Jews. And, because they were ashamed of being Black, they appropriated the beliefs and culture of European Jewish immigrants during the late 19th century and early 20th century. 

Even when it’s been demonstrated that Black Judaism is, like all religious traditions, a fluid process of cultural mixture with roots in the antebellum era and pre-enslavement religions of West and Central Africa, the preferred narrative of confused Southern negroes and Caribbean migrants appropriating authentic (read: White) Jewish identity takes precedence for those wishing to uphold White Jewish normativity. 

(Never mind that if the only necessary ingredients were Negro Spirituals and Prince Hall freemasonry there’d be a Hebrew Israelite congregation on every street corner in Black Americabut I digress).

But the Conservative leaders’ JTA opinion piece goes beyond simple anti-Black racism and can be best summed up as an example of anti-Black antisemitism. By anti-Black antisemitism I mean a particular form of antisemitism, which turns White racial hierarchies on their head. Whereas European antisemitism designated European Jews as not racially pure and therefore not culturally compatible with modern Western civilization, anti-Black antisemitism is the result of the Whitening of the Jews from Europe and the parts of the Arab world in the US who then erected a racial barrier between themselves and “Blacks as Jews.” 

Sadly, it’s an inverted internalization of the racial logic of European antisemitism. Jews of color are met with suspicion until they can demonstrate they’re legitimate or authentic, while Black Jews and Hebrew Israelites are required to submit to external White authority or face ridicule, delegitimization, and mockery as cultural usurpers. Their histories are misinterpretedor worse ignoredand responses in like manner are met with charges of antisemitism. 

No, USCJ representatives are not standing in Time Square screaming at passersby that they are the real Jews and Hebrew Israelites are fake or imposter Christians trying to steal their identity. No USCJ representatives are not on YouTube espousing their symbolic-identification theories about Hebrew Israelites. They don’t have to. They have access to media outlets like the JTA and Jerusalem Post who will circulate their anti-Black antisemitism for them, thus making them no different from their counterparts on street corners yelling about Edomites stealing their culture. It’s just as exclusionary, just as racist, and just as antisemitic. 

But the question is what will well-meaning people who often call for Black people to denounce Black celebrities who traffic in antisemitic tropes do about this? Will the representatives of USCJ be held accountable for their purposeful and intentional smearing of Black Judaism and Hebrew Israelites? Or will they be complicit? I await your response.