Who are the Black Hebrew Israelites? Are they linked to Jersey City attack?
JERSEY CITY -- On this much, state and local officials now have consensus: The Jersey City shootings that took the lives of a police officer at a cemetery and three people in a Jewish supermarket were act of hates, ones that should be investigated as an act of terror.
A day ago, they weren't all on that page.
But what's much less clear is what, if any, connections the two shooters -- who were found dead in the market after an exchange of gunfire with police that left hundreds of shell casings on the ground -- have to a fringe group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites.
During a news conference in Jersey City Thursday, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said the attackers, David Anderson and Francine Graham, had expressed interest in the Black Hebrew Israelites, but so far, authorities haven't established any formal connections to it. A leader of the religious and activist movement in Philadelphia, denounced the Jersey City attacks this week, saying "we are totally against that kind of activity," the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
Israel United in Christ, a Black Hebrew Israelite group with more than 40 U.S. locations and a large social media following, condemned the attacks as well.
The group said it does not “condone nor teach this type of behavior.”
So what kind of a group is the Black Hebrew Israelites?
Heidi Beirich, the director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, is an expert on hate groups and extremists operating in New Jersey and across the country.
She said the Black Hebrew Israelites religious sect believes “the real Jews of the Bible are actually black people, so in other words people we normally think of as Jewish are not the real Jews. They reject modern Jews as impostors.” The Black Hebrew Israelites are likewise not considered Jews by mainstream Jewish movements.
Beirich said, however, "there are a lot of versions of Black Hebrew Israelites. Not all of them are rabidly anti-Semitic or anti white, but some of them are.”
She said hard-line Black Hebrew Israelites “believe the Jews are devilish imposters, and are often into Holocaust denial.”
Beirich said no one really has a handle on how many Black Hebrew Israelites there are in New Jersey because they are “quite mysterious to the outside world.”
“They’re very cultish," she said. "They don’t associate largely with people outside their networks,. We don’t know that much about them because they’re very, very insular.”
She said there are about a dozen Black Hebrew Israelite chapters “that are anti-Semitic and anti white that we track in New Jersey, but I could not tell you if that means there’s 500 people involved, 1,000 or more,. It’s just completely unclear to us.”
Beirich said when individuals join the Black Hebrew Israelites they typically change their names, almost like a sort of re-birth.
“They also for the most part are required once they join to stop associating with everyone they’ve associated with before, with their family. They really don’t let anybody from the outside in," she said.
She said some Black Hebrew Israelites engage in an aggressive form of street-yelling, "pushing things like Holocaust denial, screaming at people they think are Jewish, making anti-Semitic remarks, doing the same with white folks,"
The movement's followers are often seen proselytizing in crowded city centers, such as Times Square.
Last January, videos of a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington probably introduced many people to the movement. A group of black street preachers who referred to themselves as Black Hebrew Israelites shouted insults at Native Americans and Catholic high school students from Kentucky who had participated in an anti-abortion rally in Washington. Videos of a face-to-face encounter between a Native American activist and a student wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat quickly spread on social media.
J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism, said the Black Hebrew Israelites have used Facebook and YouTube to spread their message and attract new followers. Prisons also have been fertile recruiting grounds for the sects, some of which have thousands of members, according to MacNab.
“Once you go online, you find a bigger world. They take pride in confronting Jewish people everywhere and explaining that they are evil, that they are heathens,” MacNab said.
MacNab said the Black Hebrew Israelites also include elements of the anti-government “sovereign citizen” movement, which has been linked to deadly attacks on law enforcement officers.
“There is no purity test,” she said. “When you're generally radicalizing online, you're going to pick up bits and pieces from all over the place.”
Beirich stressed while some Black Hebrew Israelite groups are violent, “these groups do not have the history of violence that’s connected with white supremacists in the United States.”
State-level officials cautioned against assuming anti-Semitic motivations in the attacks, even as surveillance footage that showed the shooters appearing to deliberately hone in on the Jewish market began to circulate. They've since been similarly cautious about making explicit ties to any religious movements or organized groups.
At the press conference Thursday, officials gathered Thursday said they believed Anderson and Graham acted alone, and there was no known continuing threat. The FBI is continuing its investigation.
Beirich pointed out it's not yet known whether and to what extent the Jersey City shooters were involved in any Black Hebrew Israelite group or sect, "and we shouldn’t paint all people who are involved in Black Hebrew Israelism as similar to these attackers.”
She said the Southern Poverty Law Center has a hate map with detailed information about all known hate and extremist groups operating in New Jersey, including some Black Hebrew Israelite groups.
An Instagram account that apparently belonged to Anderson shows he was an aspiring rapper whose posts included at least one reference to Black Hebrew Israelite philosophy — a list of the 12 Tribes of Israel from the Bible, with each tribe equated to a modern-day ethnic group or country. “America has NOTHING for us but DEATH,” a caption on one of his posts read. The account went dormant a few years ago.
On Wednesday, the FBI searched the Harlem offices of a major Black Hebrew Israelite group, according to a law enforcement official, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com. Includes material copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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