So, let’s start with a joke. A Black nationalist female rabbi, a Black male womanist rabbi, and Black Jewish apostate walk into a bar…
There’s been nonstop controversy since NBA star Kyrie Irving tweeted a link to a film, Hebrews to Negroes, purporting to expose the secret and hidden history of African Americans as the true descendants of the biblical Israelites.
In addition, the film claims about recognized world Jewry that they’re not the actual descendants of the biblical Israelites, but converts at best and imposters at worst; alleges that Jews created the Holocaust story to preserve their power; reasserts the role of European Jews in the Atlantic Slave Trade; and advances a larger narrative about Jewish global domination which can be traced to Christian (and later more broadly European) stereotypes. This story about Jewish global domination, as irony would have it, is the “kissing cousin” of anti-Black bigotry—cousins that comprise the foundation of the White supremacist worldview in the ascendancy today.
Unsurprisingly and understandably Irving’s tweet and later comments have been largely condemned as antisemitic. I say largely and not completely because there are just as many Black people asking, “What did Kyrie say that was so wrong?” Most Black supporters of Irving see the reaction (including his suspension by the Brooklyn Nets and termination of his contract with Nike) as glaring evidence of the veracity of both of his comments and of some of the content contained in the film—or, at least what they believe it contains, as it’s clear from social media that many if not most supporters haven’t actually watched it. So here we are again at the intersection of Black Antisemitism Avenue and White Jewish Privilege Drive.
After the Ye debacle I declined requests to participate on panels wanting to discuss the state of Black-Jewish relations and tried to make it through this latest episode of the Who’s-the-true-chosen-people-Olympics unscathed. So if you detect cynicism dripping from my words, it’s intentional. However, it was a direct message from a close friend who posed the following query that changed my mind:
“I need to run this by you, and I know I can’t ask this in public because of how it might be misconstrued. Is it inherently antisemitic to claim that black people are the true Hebrews/Israelites?”
My immediate response:
“Inherently antisemitic? No. But do many Hebrew Israelites and their sympathizers use antisemitic rhetoric to support their claim? Yes.”
But as I reflected on that answer, the more unsatisfactory it sounded to me. After even more reflection this is, perhaps, a more nuanced response.
The ‘Jewish gene’ … backfires
If there’s been a general sentiment in support of Kyrie Irving’s tweets (and some of Ye’s earlier ones) that I’ve encountered among friends, former classmates, and acquaintances, it’s “Jews ain’t the only Semites.” Even in my own religious experiences as a Hebrew Israelite, this rhetorical parry was often dispatched in response to the notion of an exclusive Jewish claim to Semitic identity. Jews, they say, are only one “Semitic” people. “Arabs (particularly Palestinians) are Semites too,” is the common retort to the charge of antisemitism leveled by Arab and Muslim critics of the State of Israel.
But if we’re honest, when was the last time anyone outside of a narrow academic discussion in linguistics engaged in a conversation about Semites? Arabic being the most widely spoken Semitic language is (once again outside of linguistics) rarely discussed in the context of its identification as a Semitic language, and Arabic speakers are not generally described principally as “Semites.”
Let’s call this notion of Semites: “linguistic Semite-ness.”
In response to the assertion “Jews ain’t the only Semites” we must admit that when the term Semite is invoked it’s usually and almost exclusively used in relation to Jews. Historically, Jews as Semites refers not to a linguistic category but to a racial designation. Semite has traditionally been used as a signifier of Jewish otherness in comparison to Christian (and later secular) European identity. European Jews were routinely disqualified from being true Europeans due to their “foreign”—Semitic—stock.
Let’s call this “racial Semite-ness.”
When we encounter the “Jews ain’t the only Semites” argument it’s a conflation or collapsing of racial Semite-ness into linguistic Semite-ness. But, to be clear, antisemites aren’t the only ones who traffic in racial Semitic thought. With advances in genetics and DNA sequencing, stories of “Jewish genes” have been in great supply via scientific journals and popular media.
In the early 2000s, the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH) was deemed “the Priestly Gene,” with some even declaring this scientific proof that the stories of Moses and Aaron were historically verifiable. The largest branches of world Jewry, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, were thus viewed as the genetic descendants of the biblical Israelites, making their claims to the territory that now comprises the state of Israel indisputable.
All was good until the proverbial fly-in-the-buttermilk was discovered with news that an ethnic group from South Africa called the Lemba, who maintained their own oral history of Jewish ancestry, was found to possess the same genetic markers as mainstream (read: White) Jews. As fast as the initial news story broke, attempts to explain the presence of “Semitic” genes in a group of Black Africans arose that were reminiscent of the odious Hamitic hypothesis, the racist 19th century ethnological theory offered to explain “civilization” throughout the Nile Valley and sub-Saharan Africa as having arisen from the “Hamites,” who were actually a dark-skinned subset of the “Caucasian race.”
The treatment of the Lemba also paralleled the European “discovery” of Beta Israel (Black Jews) of Ethiopia. Academic literature under the guise of objective scholarship proposed far-fetched Eurocentric theories seeking to strip this group of African Jews of any claims of “genetic” Jewishness through assertions that Beta Israel weren’t Semites but Judaized Africans who forgot they weren’t really Jews.
What the cases of the Lemba and Beta Israel both illustrate is that questioning a Jewish community’s ancestry is only deemed antisemitic when the said group of Jews is of European background. To remix a line from Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight: If one asserts that Sephardic Jews are mainly Berbers and Arabs, as did Paul Wexler’s Non-Jewish Origins of Sephardic Jews, no one objects; however if that same author claims Ashkenazi Jews are largely the descendants of Slavic and Turkish peoples, as in his The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People In Search Of A Jewish Identity; or the widely condemned Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Koestler (which was denounced as antisemitic propaganda); or Shlomo Sand’s more recent Invention of the Jewish People; everyone loses their minds.
It’s presumed that, because some Jews are more Jewish than others, delegitimizing ancient non-rabbinic Jewish communities (Beta Israel of Ethiopia), emerging Jewish communities (Abayudaya of Uganda), or communities who maintain traditions of “lost” Jewish identities (Conversos and Black Jews in the Americas) is fair game. I believe there’s an aphorism about gooses and ganders that fits this present predicament.
The chosen or the damned
All of which brings us back to the issue of chosenness and who the “true” Hebrews or Israelites are. The ideas shared by Irving on this question have been circulating in the African-American community for decades. Beliefs that were primarily discussed in Black bookstores, barbershops, Black nationalist study groups, and informal gatherings are now disseminated via YouTube and social media platforms reaching a wider and more sympathetic audience, most of whom have been immersed in Abrahamic religions.
As I’ve previously discussed on RD, much of Black liberation theology and ethno-religious traditions—such as the Nation of Islam and Hebrew Israelite groups—are undergirded by belief in Black chosenness. However, this chosenness is largely the result of the Abrahamic worldview found in most expressions of Black religion proper.
By Black religion I mean the collection of African-American religious traditions concerned with protecting, defending, and advocating for the full humanity and spirituality of African people. Therefore, the Black Church, Black Islam, and Black Judaism are all manifestations of the wider Black religion worldview that’s almost exclusively Abrahamic in nature.
And the Abrahamic worldview only affords Black folks two options: either assume the role of the chosen or the role of the damned. Honestly, what sane people would voluntarily choose the role of the damned? Whether it’s reconciliation through Christ as seen in Phillis Wheatley’s On Being Brought from Africa and early 20th century Ethiopianism, or the ethno-religious traditions of Black Islam and Black Judaism, Black chosenness has been the vocabulary for African Americans and Anglophone African populations of the Caribbean to express being viewed as full humans.
But Andre, you ask, what about the Jews are the seed of Satan and Jewish world domination rhetoric? Isn’t that evidence of Black antisemitism? Rabbi Tamar Manasseh argues that Kyrie Irving and Kanye West (yes, Kanye! His momma called him Kanye, I’m calling him Kanye) have tragically become the latest examples of the “I’m not Black, I’m OJ” phenomenon.
Not in the sense that either one of these individuals regards themselves as not Black, but that their public antics (which sometimes include anti-Black behavior) are largely tolerated until their actions cross some proverbial line in the sand that violates the sensibilities of White society. In this case both celebrities have trafficked in anti-Jewish tropes and reimagined themselves as taking up the mantle of Black leadership by speaking “truth” to power.
In response, “respectable” Black public intellectuals, Black celebrities, and others have either felt compelled or been actively recruited to denounce the antisemitism of West and Irving respectively. Also there are a number Black Jews who felt compelled to denounce West and Irving as not being legitimate Black Jewish voices and causing harm to real Black Jews (read: some attachment to the White Jewish community via birth, marriage, or conversion).
This has set up a troubling dichotomy of the “good” Black Jews versus the “bad” Black Hebrew Israelites. The mission of the good Black Jew is to serve as the voice of reason and a public face of American Jewish outrage. But it’s also to demonstrate that American Jews are an ethnically and racially diverse community who cannot tolerate the antisemitic rhetoric of the bad and hate-mongering Black Hebrew Israelites and their sympathizers.
This dichotomy is reminiscent of the options given to moviegoers in the first installment of Marvel Studios Black Panther franchise. On one side, T’Challa, king and defender of Wakanda, the Black Panther whose aloof attitude towards global Black suffering was only complicated when Wakanda’s “chickens came home to roost” in the form of Erik Killmonger, a symbolic stand-in for diasporan Africans in general and African Americans in particular. T’Challa ends the first Black Panther movie with an offer to assist the global community of nations through technological expertise and the wealth of Wakanda, while underprivileged Black youth in Oakland get a STEM program.
Lewis R. Gordon, an Africana philosopher and Frantz Fanon scholar, astutely observed that Killmonger (as written in the MCU), under the ruse of being a freedom fighter and Black liberation hero, was little more than a psychopathic dictator, and that the admiration he received from Black audiences was misplaced and undeserved. (One is free to insert any of the post-colonial African dictators who were propped up by the West and Soviet bloc during the Cold War.)
By no means do I intend to imply that either West or Irving is a psychopath, but rather that they’re playing on and manipulating the real frustration felt by African Americans by declaring that Black people are the “real Hebrews” for more selfish, rather than altruistic, ends. Neither, in my opinion, are they voices crying in the wilderness, but nouveau riche Black celebrities whose public antics caused them to lose lucrative endorsement deals.
There are other Black Jews, however, who are not interested in being T’Challahs—and we are definitely not Killmongers. Rather, we prefer a different Marvel Cinematic anti-hero, Blade, the vampire-hunting hybrid (yes, I know about the long antisemitic history of Jews and vampires, so keep reading). Blade is a Daywalker, a person who, unlike vampires, possesses the ability to walk in the day, but who retains the skills and powers of a vampire. (Before, the comic book fanboy/fangirl gets carried away with the analogy please understand this, like any analogy, is not precise.)
What it does convey is that Black Jews such as Tamar Manasseh, rabbi and Chicago anti-violence community organizer, or Walter Isaac, rabbi and Africana philosopher—and even myself at one time—inhabit multiple spaces. We are tri-lingual and tri-cultural. We speak to and understand African-American culture in general, and Hebrew Israelite religiosity in particular. But also, we have lived, worshiped, and been educated in the American Jewish community. None of us is (or was) Black or Hebrew Israelite or Jewish. All of us are (or have been) Black and Hebrew Israelite and Jewish—for part or all of our life.
What this means is that we’ve experienced the non-Jewish Black person who starts a statement with, “You know the Jews…” only to become flustered and embarrassed when they discover that we too are Jewish. All of us have felt the sting of anti-Black racism in a White Jewish setting as we’ve been bombarded with questions of “How did you become Jewish” or been told “you are different from those crazy antisemitic Black Hebrews” only to shamefully discover that they too are “our people.”
And finally, all of us have had to serve as spokespeople to inform and educate others about the realities of being Black and Israelite and Jewish. Who are these vampires we see ourselves slaying? They’re not a who but a what: Bad faith and bad education.
That’s the joke
Let me say this in unequivocal terms. I fully defend the right of Black folks to believe these ethno-religious myths about Black chosenness and being the “true Israelites.” But I also retain the right to criticize these ideas as facilitating the continued miseducation (and misreligion) of Black folks.
So, to my Black brothers and sisters my question is: “Should Black folks continue to believe and propagate these stories?” No, they should not because, since they seem to require the presence of conspiracy theories about Jewish omnipotence, they encourage the mindset that anti-Black racism and White supremacy are supernatural in character and that Whites are destined to rule over Black folks until some type of cosmic intervention occurs.
The idea that European Jews are “fake” or “imposters” only reinforces the narrative that in order to be a “real Jew” one must be at the bottom of the societal order. Hence, the equally troubling blood sacrifice conspiracy theory that any successful Black celebrity (particularly rappers) must have entered into a deal with the devil to gain professional success—a far cry from Robert Johnson at the crossroads.
The insistence on demonic Jews, the Illuminati, and being the “true Jews” all lead to the same destination: political quietism. The idea that the social, economic and political order is divinely orchestrated and cannot be changed without divine intervention in the form of eschatological reckoning (i.e. God will fix it).
Interracial and interethnic strife is not the result of some demonic plot, but rather of the inability of humans to create a just, multiracial democratic society. The solution to the Black-Jewish conundrum isn’t in the self-serving policing of Black religious thought—nor is it in turning Ashkenazi Jews into a group of demonic arch-supervillains.
It also means that if the non-linguistic category of Semite continues to possess an implicit racial logic that corresponds to the notion of White Jewish normativity (i.e. Jewish=White), and Black religion continues to be rooted in an Abrahamic worldview, this Black-Jewish contestation will continue unabated. Likewise, recriminations of antisemitism and anti-Black racism will continue to be hurled back and forth in perpetuity. I grew weary of racial Semite-ness long ago and consider it the primary obstacle to genuine diversity and inclusion in the Jewish community.
Likewise, I hope for a post-Abrahamic turn in Black religion away from the chosen/damned binary, whether that means a return to traditional African religions, as many have done, decolonizing received traditions to create new hybrids, or even imagining new spiritual possibilities shorn of the Abrahamic tradition entirely.
So how does the bar joke end? Well, that’s the joke. How many of you knew that there were that many types of Black Jews having this discussion in the first place?