Comedian and celebrity television host Nick Cannon interviewed Richard “Professor Griff” Griffin about his new book, and the conversation quickly turned to the latter’s well-documented antisemitism. Griffin brushed the charges aside on the grounds that Jews are not “the true children of Israel,” articulating the Black Israelite belief that Africans are the “true Hebrews,” and that Jews are usurpers. God’s chosen people, Griffin contended, “has absolutely nothing to do with any white people.”
Cannon enthusiastically concurred, and defended his guest – and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan – against charges of hate speech leveled by what they both believe is a Jewish conspiracy. “When we talk about the lies, the deceit, how the fake dollar controls all of this, then maybe we can get to the reason why they wanted to silence you, why they want to silence Minister Farrakhan,” he said, “and they want to throw that we are having hate speech when it’s never hate speech, when it’s not. You can’t be anti-Semitic when we are the Semitic people, when we are the same people that who they want to be, that’s our birthright.”
It’s difficult to know what to say. These ideas have a long history and are the central component of the beliefs both the Black Israelite movement and the Nation of Islam going back a century. Yet, they are not merely history or, it seems, marginal beliefs; I have encountered the notion that Jews like me are usurpers, and thus part of a conspiracy, with increasing regularity in social media. I have invariably kept my counsel but, with this antisemitic cant migrating to the mainstream, silence is no longer an option. Words mean something, and these words only mean violence.
I have heard Farrakhan’s brand of sneering Jew-hate for most of my life but, to be blunt, it has always been difficult to take him seriously as either a threat, or much of an authority on anything. His mercurial politics – swinging from Black Nationalism to support for Barack Obama in 2008, and then to a full-throated antisemitic endorsement of Donald Trump eight years later – not to mention his bizarre conspiracy theories and somewhat incongruous embrace of Dianetics, mark him as little more than a crackpot. His screed is only so much gas from a burner, to borrow James Joyce’s phrase.
I have mostly tended to ignore the Black Hebrew Israelite movement on the principle that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. If they want to be Jews, then let them be Jews. The movement, founded by Frank Cherry and William Saunders Crowdy in the late-19th century, holds that Africans, and not Jews – either, it seems, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Beta Israel, or any other group of conventional Jews – are the real descendants of the biblical Israelites.
There is nothing to be gained from getting into an argument with people about who are and who are not the “real” Jews. History is so replete with this or that group claiming to be descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, or the true inheritors of God’s Covenant, that these claims are drearily repetitive. Only a few years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, Puritan preacher Thomas Thorowgood announced that he had found the lost tribes among the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Or maybe, according to Nicholas McLeod 250 years later, it was the Japanese… Or maybe the Maori?
In the late-18th century, the British charlatan and would-be prophet Richard Brothers proclaimed himself the leader of the “true remnant of Israel” in Britain, and advocated a strange kind of pseudo-Zionist mission (but only for white British people) to lead the Ten Lost Tribes back to the Holy Land. Brothers was tapping into a thread of British Israelism – the belief that “racially pure” Englishmen are the direct descendants of Israel – given fullest expression in John Wilson’s 1840 book Our Israelitish Origin. From there, British Israelism grew into a global movement with perhaps millions of adherents in Britain and North America, including Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, and William Bennett Bond, the Anglican Archbishop of Canada in the early-20th century.
Cherry and Crowdy drew directly on this kind of contemporary thinking when they created the Black Israelite movement, only they substituted the oppressed descendants of African slaves in their version of the narrative for the racially-pure, white Englishmen of Wilson’s imaginings. And, in a way, I can’t blame them; by assuming the identity of the “Chosen People,” who God delivered from slavery in Egypt, they could assume ownership of the Covenant, and the messianic promise of deliverance in Zion. Such a narrative could only have the deepest resonance among people who experienced a history of the most brutal slavery and oppression.
Should it be flattering or validating? Does the fact that so many have claimed membership in our people after millennia of oppression somehow ease the memory of the discrimination, the suffering, the violence? I would gladly invite them into our community, which embraces people of every race on every continent, but the premise of their belief system denies our very existence. Like Christian Identity, the virulent contemporary iteration of British Israelism at the foundation of much White Nationalism, Black Israelite extremists regard us as imposters, and agents of Satan.
This kind of antisemitism, promoted by Cannon and Griffin just last week, is among the vilest, most egregious forms of bigotry. It is a kind of rhetorical genocide that dehumanizes Jews and negates our very existence. The only step beyond that is our physical annihilation, so the people who promote this libel don’t get a pass, even if they have historically been, and continue to be oppressed. The experience of oppression does not authorize passing oppression on to others. Ideology is not merely thought and words, it is an act.
Just before last Chanukah, David Anderson and Francine Graham stormed into a Kosher supermarket in the Greenville neighborhood of Jersey City and brutally murdered Mindy Ferencz, Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, and Moshe Deutsch. Motivated by a extremist Black Israelite ideology, Anderson and Graham had been frustrated in their intended goal of massacring children at the yeshiva located next door.
That tragedy must have been on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s mind when he called out the entertainment community’s tolerance for antisemitism last week. “These famous, outspoken people share the same scapegoat logic as all oppressive groups from Nazis to the KKK: all our troubles are because of bad-apple groups that worship wrong, have the wrong complexion, come from the wrong country, are the wrong gender or love the wrong gender.”
This eminence-grise of American culture reminded us that the lesson never changes. “No one is free until everyone is free. As Martin Luther King Jr. explained: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.’ So, let’s act like it. If we’re going to be outraged by injustice, let’s be outraged by injustice against anyone.”