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 Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, appeared in the clip to be mocking the man, a Vietnam veteran 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?
Dressed in fringed black garb, some with scarves tied around their heads, they preached what to many were both abrasive and unfamiliar End Times messages – calling Native Americans literal descendants of the Israelite “Tribe of Gad,” the white students cursed “Edomites” and preaching that a nuclear apocalypse was around the corner.
How did this relatively obscure group shoot into the national spotlight?
They are members of the House of Israel, which draws from what scholars call Black Israelism, a complex American religious movement that can be dated to the 18th century, at least. Beliefs vary widely, but groups are bound together by the central tenet that African-Americans are the literal descendants of the Israelites of the Bible and have been severed from their true heritage. A related belief holds that white people are Edomites, the genealogical descendants of Esau – the twin of Jacob.
Several distinct denominations or traditions have emerged over the years. Congregations and leaders differ widely, making neat generalizations tricky. Some read the Christian Bible and believe that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah; others read only the Hebrew Bible. Some have moved into tentative dialogue and collaboration with wider American Jewish organizations. Others have not.
The 1970s and ’80s saw the rise of an innovative new branch of Black Israelism centered around an organization named the Israeli Tanack School, known colloquially as One West, after its address on 125th Street in Harlem.
The One Westers saw themselves as radical reformers of earlier generations of Hebrew Israelites who had gone astray. They would troop out to street corners dressed in colorful and ornate capes and leather – vivid imaginings of what ancient Israelites might look like transported into the urban culture of New York City. They were also early and eager adopters of new media, hosting local television slots and filming their often-confrontational street ministry.
Doctrinal innovations, said by insiders to be the product of divine revelation, came to the One West school as the years passed.
Leaders developed their own modified version of Hebrew – which they claimed was, in fact, the true and ancient version of the language, free from modern impurities. Unlike standard Hebrew, which has several vowels, their language was spoken with only one wide “a” sound and other idiosyncratic pronunciations (“Shalom,” for example,’ becomes “Shalawam.”)
Around the same time, their outreach also expanded. Significantly, One Westers began teaching that it wasn’t just African-Americans who comprised the true Israelites – other nationalities and ethnicities were also descended from the Israelites of the Bible. Puerto Ricans, for example, comprised the Tribe of Ephraim and Native Americans were the Tribe of Gad.
These people were the downtrodden of the earth, they argued, whose past hardships were the result of their having strayed from the commandments of God. Contemporary hardships facing these groups – such as poverty, police brutality, racism and gun violence – could be overcome only when they recognized their forgotten history as Israelites.
“These are the people who constitute the nation of Israel,” a leading teacher known as Masha said in a 1990s television appearance as an assistant held up a hand-drawn chart of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and their supposed modern-day corollaries. “This is their true identity.”
Leaders also embraced an apocalyptic worldview, teaching that the world would soon come to an end, ushering in a time when the Israelites would assume their rightful place as rulers and the white man’s time would come to a close.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, doctrinal disputes and an End Times prophecy gone awry caused the school to fracture several times. Today there are at least a dozen organizations that have roots in the early One West school, with many other smaller groups, or “camps,” as they are often called, drawing influence.
House of Israel is one of them. Headquartered in New York, the group is led by a onetime member of the original One West school known as Zabach. According to the group’s website, it has branches in three other cities, including Washington.
Doctrines may vary slightly within the One West splinters, but HOI, as the group is commonly known, is still working straight from the original school’s playbook by “uniting and building up the nation destroyed by Colonialism, Imperialism, and Slavery,” its website reads. “Our chief mission is the uplifting of the so called Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans; who are the 12 Tribes of Israel.”
In recent years, One Westers such as HOI have seen a huge boost in interest as a result of online outreach. There are thousands of videos on YouTube and dozens of Facebook and Twitter accounts dedicated to One West Hebrew Israelite messages. Typical videos look much like the one that has now spread widely from D.C.
A related organization, Israel United in Christ, was also recently thrust into the spotlight after rap superstar Kendrick Lamar featured snippets of his cousin, one of its members, preaching on his Pulitzer Prize-winning album.
With an elevated profile, Hebrew Israelite groups such as HOI have received significant pushback from organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League – which brand them as “hate groups” for their inflammatory messages about white, LGBT and Jewish people – as well as from Christian groups that see them as a growing religious threat.
Meanwhile, other Hebrew Israelite groups that are not in the One West tradition diverge significantly in their beliefs and denounce the abrasive ministry of groups like HOI.
But as the scene of their preaching spread widely over the weekend, HOI members claimed they were not instigators and were not threatening any real violence. One Westers also claim they are unfairly targeted by groups such as the SPLC.
The HOI presence at the Lincoln Memorial was, for the group, quite mundane – despite the flurry of attention. Indeed, Israelite street preaching in parts of District of Columiba, Philadelphia and New York is commonplace, a familiar if odd accent to city life.
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Kestenbaum is a contributing editor at The Forward and a writer-in-residence at The New York Public Library.