"Get into the Know"
African Hebrew Israelites speak to visitors in Dimona.
The very words cause many people to grin at what appears to be simply a play on words. No one reads about such people in european authored history books and there are only a few references to "Ethiopian Jews" in white Jewish sources. Yet Black Hebrews have existed since biblical times. In fact, they are the original or proto-typical Hebrews.
Their story begins with the Patriarch Abraham (2117-1942 B.C.), a native of the Sumerian city of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia. Archaeological discoveries have proven that the earliest inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia were members of the "Brown Race," i.e., the Negroid branch of humanity.
It has been confirmed that the ancient Sumerians were akin to the modern Black Dravidians of India. The Sumerians also had an affinity with a people known as the Elamites, the very first Semitic group mentioned in the Bible (Gen. 10:22). The Elamites were a black-skinned and woolly-haired people as the colorful glazed artwork on the royal palace walls of the ancient Persian city of Susa clearly show.Thus Abraham, the native of Sumerian and the founding father of the Israelite nation, was a black man. The black racial origins of the Patriarchs is not based on mere conjecture, it is in complete agreement with the picture one gets from examining the identity of the earliest inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia.
Ben Ammi Ben Israel, Anointed Spiritual Leader of the African Hebrew Israelites explains why the Community made the exodus from America to the Holy Land in 1967.
This truth is grossly neglected, suppressed, and distorted in most European and American historical texts which are flavored with race prejudice. Fortunately, however, there are enough well authored and highly researched works by Black historians that challenge the Eurocentric revisions of history and correct the various erroneous views regarding the ethnic identity of the Hebrews.
Biblical history relates that the descendants of Abraham, namely Jacob (Israel) and his twelve sons and their wives, 70 in all, migrated from Canaan to Egypt around the year 1827 B.C. During their sojourn in Egypt the Children of Israel multiplied from being a family of 70 souls to a nation of over 3 million people at the time of the Exodus which took place in 1612 B.C.
This astounding number of people in so short a time can only be adequately explained by intermarriage between the family of Jacob and the native Egyptian populace. It is an established fact that the ancient Egyptians were a black African people. Thus, even if the Hebrews were not black before they arrived in Egypt, which is unlikely given Abraham's background, they were definitely black by the time they left Egypt under Moses.
The biblical Hebrews were indistinguishable from native Egyptians and Ethiopians. The Bible is full of examples which demonstrates this, and even ancient secular historians remarked of the physical appearances of the Hebrews. The historian Tacitus, for example, stated that it was a common opinion among the Romans that the Jews "were an Ethiopian race." In Roman times PalestinianIsraelites were classed among Black Africans because it was almost impossible to tell them apart.
Hence, the Eurocentric notion of the Black Hebrew as a kind of Johnnie-come-lately in Hebraic history does not accord with the facts. On the contrary, the historical record is abundantly clear that the majority of white European Jewry are not Hebrews in the biological sense but are actually the descendants of converts to Judaism during Greco-Roman and Mediaeval times. Professor Roland B. Dixon states emphatically that: "The great majority of all Jews [Ashkenazi] to-day are 'Semites' only in speech, and their true ancestry goes back not so much to Palestine and Arabia as to the uplands of Anatolia and Armenia, the Caucasus and the steppes of Central Asia, and their nearest relatives are still to be found in these areas to-day".
Caucasian Jews are not the lineal descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Nor do they constitute a separate race but rather a religious fraternity which adheres to the ethnic tradition of a people whose origins are inextricably linked to Black Africa.
But if the original Hebrews were black where are their descendants in the world today? Are all black people Hebrews? The answer to the latter question is obviously no. The Israelites were only one of several black people existing in ancient the ancient world. Nevertheless, it is certain that the ancient Hebrews customs and practices who's legacy orginated in Africa, were adopted by that of white Jews in Europe. Very little is heard about the hundreds of thousands of Black Hebrews living in various parts of the world such as Africa, Asia, India, Arabia, the Caribbean islands, South America, and North America.
The history of Black Hebrews in North America is perhaps one of the most important chapters in US history which has yet to be fully written. The ancestors of African Americans came from West Africa during the era of slavery. That particular region of Africa was once home to a number of Black Hebrew tribes that migrated from North and East Africa over many centuries. In speaking of these migrations, Dr. Yoseph A. A. ben-Yochannan writes that: "In North Africa, just before the period of Christianity's legal entry into Rome - due to Constantine "the Great" conversion in the 4th century - there were many Hebrew (Jewish) 'tribes' that are of indigenous African (the so-called 'Negroes') origin.
These African Jews, as all other Romanized-African of this era, were caught in a rebellion in Cyrene (Cyrenaica) during 115 C.E. against Roman imperialism and colonialism. This rebellion also marked the beginning of a mass Jewish migration southward into Soudan (Sudan or West Africa) along the way of the city Aer (Air) and into the countries of Futa Jalon and Senegal (Sene-Gambia) which lie below the parabolic curve of the Niger River's most northern reaches, where the City of Tumbut (Timbuktu, Timbuctoo, etc.), Melle (Mali) presently stands." ("African Origins of the Major Western Religions," 1970, p. 76).
Dr. Ben goes on to relate that Black Israelite immigrants from northern and eastern Africa merged with indigenous groups in western Africa to become the Fulani of Futa Jalon, Bornu, Kamen, and Lake Chad. They also formed the parent-stock of groups such as the Ashanti, the Hausa, the B'nai Ephraim (mentioned in earlier posts), and the Bavumbu (Mavumbu or Ma-yomba). All of these groups suffered tremendous population decreases during the years the Atlantic slave trade was in operation, others were completely eliminated.
Thus, every so-called African American has Israelite ancestry in their family tree whether he or she knows it or not. Even in the very crucible of slavery the descendants of West African Hebrew captives in America struggled to keep their heritages from being obliterated by forced assimilation and acculturation. Their distinctive traditions became submerged in Christianity but always remained a part of the oral tradition via the so-called Negro Spirituals which praise the memory of ancestors and kinsmen like Moses, David, Joshua, and Daniel.
Since the African-American conviction of having Israelite ancestry antedates the Civil War it is not surprising that the earliest Black Hebrew congregation to be established in North America was founded in the 1880s in Chattanooga, Tennessee by F. S. Cherry (the group later moved to Philadelphia). Cherry was a railroad worker and seaman who was fluent in both Yiddish and Hebrew. He adamantly preached that so-called American Negroes are really the lost sheep of the House of Israel whose true legacy was stolen from them during slavery. He urged his hearers to investigate their history in order to rediscover this truth and reclaim their heritage.
In 1896, a man by the name of William S. Crowdy established another Hebrew congregation in Lawrence, Kansas. In 1899, Leon Richlieu established the Moorish Zionist Temple in Brooklyn. To date there are literally hundreds of uncharted Black Hebrew congregations in North America. They do not exist because of an aversion for mainstream American Protestantism or an attraction to white Jewish culture. As stated earlier, Black Hebrews have always been in the world; and they repudiate the notion that they are usurpers of the heritage of white Jews.
The great proliferation of Black Hebrew groups occurred after World War I during the Great Migration of Blacks from rural areas in the South to urban centers in the North. There were at least nine Black Hebrew congregations in New York in the early 1900s, one of which was founded by a West Indian named Arnold Josiah Ford called "Beth B'nai Abraham Congregation." In 1918, another West Indian born Israelite named Wentworth Arthur Matthews founded the "Commandment Keepers," and emerged as one of the leading Black Israelite rabbis in Harlem. Born in 1892 of African Hebraic parentage in Lagos, West Africa, Matthews moved with his family to St. Kitts in the West Indies before coming to America in 1911.
Branches of the "Commandment Keepers" exist in many American cities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Cincinnati, Chicago, Ohio, Virginia, and New Jersey. In 1965, the "House of Judah" was founded by William Lewis in Wetumpka, Alabama. The group later purchased a twenty-acre tract near Grand Junction, Michigan where they practice a communal life-style. Black Hebrews feel that by reclaiming their Israelite identity they have also recovered an important part of their ancestral heritage. They hold to the conviction that their "Hebrewness" is directly traceable to their African forebears of Israelite extraction who were brought to this country during slavery. They are cognizant and proud of their non-Hebrew African heritages but like many other people with mixed backgrounds they opt to give certain of their forebears a more pronounced place in their identity.
Black Israelite groups in America are decentralized and varied in ideology.Unlike white Orthodox Jews, Black Hebrews reject the Talmud, a collection of commentaries, as being on a par with the Bible and so they do not conform to rabbinical judgments which emphasize the need of conversion to Talmudism in order to be considered "truly" Jewish.
Since the Bible recognizes patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent, Black Hebrews (like Reform Jews) do not place any special significance on having a "Jewish" mother as do Orthodox Jews. Another major reason why the Talmud is rejected is due to its role in creating the so-called Hamitic Myth which is the doctrine that teaches that all black-skinned people are the cursed descendants of Ham in the Bible.
It was the promulgation of this erroneous myth, passing under the guise of "Jewish" talmudic scholarship, which provided the moral pretext for European slavery of Africans. The Talmud was not the product of ethnic Hebrews but of proselytized Babylonian sages who worked on editing it from the 3rd to in the 6th century A.D. It should not be used as the litmus test on Hebrew identity, particularly since it was of men who were clearly prejudice of Blacks, Israelites or otherwise.
A major dilemma facing many Black Hebrews who wish to settle in Israel has to do with the Talmud and the fact that conversion is a mandatory prerequisite for gaining Israeli citizenship. The Black Jews from Ethiopian were not allowed to immigrate to Israel until they agreed to undergo a ceremonial conversion to white Judaism (which was tantamount to a denial of their own Hebrewness) and embrace the Talmud. However, many Ethiopian Jews, particular in the aftermath of the recent blood scandal in Israel, are seriously rethinking their decision to adopt the Talmud because it has not given them equal status with other white Israelis.
Ethiopians Jews occupy the bottom rung of Israeli society today because they are black and are not considered "true" Hebrews because of their blackness. American Black Hebrews wanting to join their Ethiopian brethren feel that the Israeli Law of Return is unjust because it forces recognition of a racist text (the Talmud) in order to be considered eligible for citizenship It is truly ironic that the descendants of the original Hebrews are not considered to be Hebrews even in their own land because they happen to look like their distant forebears.
Who are the Black Hebrew Israelites ?
Black Hebrew Israelites (also Black Hebrews, African Hebrew Israelites, and Hebrew Israelites) are groups of people mostly of Black African ancestry situated mainly in the United States who believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites. Black Hebrews adhere in varying degrees to the religious beliefs and practices of mainstream Judaism. They are generally not accepted as Jews by the greater Jewish community, and many Black Hebrews consider themselves — and not mainstream Jews — to be the only authentic descendants of the ancient Israelites. Many choose to self-identify as Hebrew Israelites or Black Hebrews rather than as Jews.
Dozens of Black Hebrew groups were founded during the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. In the mid-1980s, the number of Black Hebrews in the United States was between 25,000 and 40,000. In the 1990s, the Alliance of Black Jews estimated that there were 200,000 African-American Jews, including Black Hebrews and those recognized as Jews by mainstream Jewish organizations.
While Black Christians traditionally have identified themselves with the Children of Israel, they never claimed to be descendants of the Israelites. In the late 19th century among some African-Americans, an identification with the ancient Hebrews developed into an identification as ancient Hebrews.One of the first groups of Black Hebrews, the Church of God and Saints of Christ, was founded in 1896. During the following decades, many more Black Hebrew congregations were established. These groups claimed descent from the ancient Israelites. They selected elements of Judaism and adapted them within a structure similar to that of the Black church.
The beliefs and practices of Black Hebrew groups vary considerably. The differences are so great that historian James Tinney has suggested the classification of the organizations into three groups: Black Jews, who maintain a Christological perspective and adopt Jewish rituals; Black Hebrews, who are more traditional in their practice of Judaism; and Black Israelites, who are most nationalistic and farthest from traditional Judaism.
Nevertheless, Black Hebrew organizations have certain common characteristics. Anthropologist James E. Landing, author of Black Judaism, distinguishes the Black Hebrew movement, which he refers to as Black Judaism, from normative Judaism practiced by people who are Black (black Judaism):
Black Judaism is ... a form of institutionalized (congregational) religious expression in which black persons identify themselves as Jews, Israelites, or Hebrews...in a manner that seems unacceptable to the "whites" of the world's Jewish community, primarily because Jews take issue with the various justifications set forth by Black Jews in establishing this identity. Thus "Black Judaism," as defined here, stands distinctly apart from "black Judaism," or that Judaic expression found among black persons that would be acceptable to the world's Jewish community, such as conversion or birth to a recognized Jewish mother. "Black Judaism" has been a social movement; "black Judaism" has been an isolated social phenomenon.
Landing's definition, and its underlying assumptions about race and normative Judaism, have been criticized, but it provides a helpful framework for understanding some of the common traits that various Black Hebrew organizations share.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dozens of Black Hebrew organizations were established. In Harlem alone, at least eight such groups were founded between 1919 and 1931. The Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations is the oldest known Black Hebrew group and the Church of God and Saints of Christ is one of the largest Black Hebrew organizations. The Commandment Keepers are noted for their adherence to traditional Judaism and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem are widely known for having moved from the United States to Israel.
Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations
The oldest known Black Hebrew organization is the Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations. The group was founded by F. S. Cherry in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1886, and later moved to Philadelphia. Theologically, the Church of the Living God mixed elements of Judaism and Christianity, counting the Bible — including the New Testament — and the Talmud as essential scriptures. The rituals of Cherry’s flock incorporated many Jewish practices and prohibitions alongside some Christian traditions. For example, during prayer the men wore skullcaps and congregants faced east. In addition, members of the Church were not permitted to eat pork. Prayers were accompanied by musical instruments and gospel singing. After Cherry's death, members of the church believed he had left temporarily and would reappear soon in spirit to lead the church through his son.
Church of God and Saints of Christ
The Church of God and Saints of Christ was established in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1896 by William Saunders Crowdy. The group established its headquarters in Philadelphia in 1899, and Crowdy later relocated to Washington, D.C., in 1903. After Crowdy's death in 1908, the church continued to grow under the leadership of William Henry Plummer, who moved the organization's headquarters to its permanent location in Belleville, Virginia, in 1921. In 1936, the Church of God and Saints of Christ had more than 200 "tabernacles" (congregations) and 37,000 members. Howard Zebulun Plummer succeeded his father and became head of the organization in 1931. His son, Levi Solomon Plummer, became the church's leader in 1975. Since 2001, the Church of God and Saints of Christ has been led by Rabbi Jehu A. Crowdy, Jr., a great-grandson of William Saunders Crowdy. As of 2005, it had fifty tabernacles in the United States and dozens in Africa.
The Church of God and Saints of Christ describes itself as "the oldest African-American congregation in the United States that adheres to the tenets of Judaism". It teaches that all Jews had been black originally, and that African-Americans are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Members believe that Jesus was neither God nor the son of God, but rather an adherent to Judaism and a prophet. They also consider William Saunders Crowdy to be a prophet.
Former headquarters of the Church of God and Saints of Christ in Washington, D.C. The building is now known as First Tabernacle Beth El and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Church of God and Saints of Christ synthesizes rituals from both Judaism and Christianity. They have adopted rites drawn from both the Old Testament and New Testament. Its Jewish observances include circumcision of newborn boys, use of the Hebrew calendar, wearing of yarmulkes, observance of Saturday as the Sabbath, and celebration of Passover. Its New Testament rites include baptism (immersion) and footwashing, both of which have Old Testament origins.
Wentworth Arthur Matthew founded the Commandment Keepers Congregation in Harlem in 1919.
Wentworth Arthur Matthew holding a Torah scroll.
Matthew was influenced by the white Jews he met and by Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. One of the accomplishments of Garvey's movement was to strengthen the connection between black Americans and Africa, Ethiopia in particular, and when Matthew learned about the Beta Israel — Ethiopian Jews — he identified with them.
The Commandment Keepers follow traditional Jewish practice and observe Jewish holidays. Members observe Jewish dietary laws, circumcise newborn boys and celebrate bar mitzvah, and their synagogue has a partition to separate men and woman during worship.
The Commandment Keepers believe they are descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Matthew taught that "the Black man is a Jew" and "all genuine Jews are Black men", but he valued white Jews as those who had preserved Judaism over the centuries. Matthew maintained cordial ties with white Jewish leaders in New York and frequently invited them to worship at his synagogue.
Matthew established the Ethiopian Hebrew Rabbinical College (later renamed the Israelite Rabbinical Academy). He ordained more than 20 rabbis, who went on to lead congregations throughout the United States and the Caribbean. He remained the leader of the Commandment Keepers in Harlem, and in 1962 the congregation moved to a landmark building on 123rd Street.
Matthew died in 1973, sparking an internal conflict over who would succeed him as head of the Harlem congregation. Shortly before his death Matthew named his grandson, David Matthew Doré, the new spiritual leader. Doré was 16 years old at the time. In 1975, the synagogue's board elected Rabbi Willie White to be its leader. Rabbi Doré occasionally conducted services at the synagogue until the early 1980s, when White had Doré and some other members locked out of the building. Membership declined throughout the 1990s and by 2004 only a few dozen people belonged to the synagogue. In 2007 the Commandment Keepers sold the building that housed their synagogue while various factions among former members sued one another.
Beside the Harlem group, there are eight or ten Commandment Keeper congregations in the New York area and others throughout North America and in Israel. Since 2000, seven rabbis have graduated from the Israelite Rabbinical Academy founded by Matthew.
African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem
Ben Ammi Ben Israel established the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem in Chicago, Illinois, in 1966. In 1969, after a sojourn in Liberia, Ben Ammi and about 30 Hebrew Israelites moved to Israel. Over the next 20 years nearly 600 more members left the United States for Israel. As of 2006, about 2,500 Hebrew Israelites live in Dimona and two other towns in the Negev region of Israel, where they are widely referred to as Black Hebrews. In addition, there are Hebrew Israelite communities in several major American cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.
The Black Hebrews believe they are descended from members of the Tribe of Judah who were exiled from the Land of Israel after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE.The group incorporates elements of African American culture into their interpretation of the Bible, and they do not recognize rabbinical Jewish interpretations such as the Talmud. The Black Hebrews observe Shabbat and biblically-ordained Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur and Passover.Men wear tzitzit on their African print shirts, women follow the biblical laws concerning menstruation, and newborn boys are circumcised. In accordance with their interpretation of the Bible, the Black Hebrews follow a strictly vegan diet and wear only natural fabrics. Most men have more than one wife, and birth control is not permitted.
Hebrews of Ethiopia
When the first Black Hebrews arrived in Israel in 1969, they claimed citizenship under the Law of Return, which gives eligible Jews immediate citizenship. The Israeli government ruled in 1973 that the group did not qualify for automatic citizenship, and the Black Hebrews were denied work permits and state benefits. The group responded by accusing the Israeli government of racist discrimination. In 1981, a group of American civil rights activist led by Bayard Rustin investigated and concluded that racism was not the cause of Black Hebrews' situation. No official action was taken to return the Black Hebrews to the United States, but some individual members were deported for working illegally. Some Black Hebrews renounced their American citizenship to try to prevent more deportations. In 1990, Illinois legislators helped negotiate an agreement that resolved the Black Hebrews' legal status in Israel. Members of the group are permitted to work and have access to housing and social services. The Black Hebrews reclaimed their American citizenship and have received aid from the U.S. government that helped them build a school and additional housing. In 2003 the agreement was revised, and the Black Hebrews were granted permanent resident status.
In 2009, Elyakim Ben-Israel became the first Black Hebrew to receive Israeli citizenship. The Israeli government said that more Black Hebrews may be granted citizenship.
The Black Hebrews have become well-known for their gospel choir, which tours throughout Israel and the United States. The group owns restaurants in several Israeli cities. In 2003 the Black Hebrews garnered much public attention when singer Whitney Houston visited them in Dimona. In 2006, Eddie Butler, a Black Hebrew, was chosen by the Israeli public to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Yahweh Ben Yahweh
The Nation of Yahweh set up its headquarters in Liberty City, Florida. Yahweh ben Yahweh emphasized that God and all the prophets of the Biblewere black and blacks would gain the knowledge of their true history
through him. He also emphasized whites and particularly Jews as
infidels and oppressors. Lastly he emphasized loyalty to himself as the
son of God YHWH.
Various videos of Yahweh Ben Yahweh
The Nation of Yahweh remodeled a series of buildings in Miami. These buildings allowed for the growth and development of the Yahwehs. He
became the living Messiah of the Nation of Yahweh.
At the time his business and charity efforts earned him respect in the community. The mayor of Miami, Florida declared on October 7, 1990, "Yahweh ben Yahweh Day." This occurred a month before his indictment for alleged crimes.
Correspondence of the Twelve Tribes of Israel
Some groups of Black Hebrews believe that various groups in the Americas correspond to the Biblical Twelve Tribes of Israel. One such correspondence is:
* Judah — Black Americans
* Benjamin — West Indians
* Levi — Haitians
* Simeon — Dominicans
* Zebulon — Guatemalans, Panamanians
* Ephraim — Puerto Ricans
* Manasseh — Cubans
* Gad — Native American Indians
* Reuben — Seminole Indians
* Asher — Colombians, Uruguayans
* Napthali — Argentines, Chileans
* Issachar — Mexicans