OPINION: Why that Jersey City shootout has me shaking my head

A gunfight at a kosher market on Dec. 10 left several people dead in Jersey City, N.J. Among those killed were the two armed suspects who stormed the market; they had expressed interest in the Black Hebrew Israelites, a fringe religious group whose members often rail against Jews and whites. BRYAN ANSELM / THE NEW YORK TIMES

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A gunfight at a kosher market on Dec. 10 left several people dead in Jersey City, N.J. Among those killed were the two armed suspects who stormed the market; they had expressed interest in the Black Hebrew Israelites, a fringe religious group whose members often rail against Jews and whites. BRYAN ANSELM / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Six people, including a police officer, died last week in Jersey City because of hate, and I’ve been trying to make sense of it ever since.

Police say David Anderson and Francine Graham killed Jersey City Police Detective Joseph Seals in a cemetery and then stormed a kosher supermarket, killing three more people before being killed themselves after a lengthy shootout with police.

Anderson, 47, and Graham, 50, had expressed interest in the Black Hebrew Israelites, a fringe religious group whose members often rail against Jews and whites.

If that weren’t bad enough, police believe it was a hate crime and I’m left shaking my head.

Black people and moral people, in particular, ought to know better.

Hatred, after all, was the demon that sent 6 million Southern blacks north after World War II, why we’re particularly sensitive to any sign of racism.

It’s why we remember slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow laws, when danger was a regular visitor to black life, when black schools were vandalized and destroyed and bands of whites attacked us in the night.

We ought to know better.

These were gruesome incidents in which blacks were tortured and mutilated before being murdered. Families were attacked and forced off their land. It wasn’t that long ago that we were even forbidden from entering public parks and theaters and restaurants were segregated; and it wasn’t unusual to see signs posted at city limits warning that we weren’t welcome there — all because of hate.

We ought to know better.

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You could argue that we’re also entitled to be as vengeful as the rest of society, but I find that lacking given our history and the deep abiding and humiliating pain we’ve felt at the hands of hatred.

It’s not clear whether these suspects acted on feelings of oppression or adherence to a set of beliefs.

I should hasten to say as Jacob Dorman rightly points out that there is “no one one Israelite movement and no Black Hebrew Israelite group has claimed any affiliation with the killers, and no one has demonstrated that any Black Israelite group sanctions the kind of tragic and wanton violence that we saw in Jersey City.”

And so we’re sadly left with the acts of the gunmen. Still I was curious about the Black Israelites, who believe blacks are the true descendants of biblical Jews.

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Jacob S. Dorman is an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of “Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions.” CONTRIBUTED BY TESS HUNT

Jacob S. Dorman is an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of “Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions.” CONTRIBUTED BY TESS HUNT

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Jacob S. Dorman is an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of “Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions.” CONTRIBUTED BY TESS HUNT

Dorman, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of “Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions,” said it should be noted that this is not a religion, and that many Israelites explicitly reject the category of religion.

“Rather, it is a theory of history that says that the ancient Israelites were black, and that contemporary black people are their descendants,” he said. “Accordingly, Christians, Jews, Rastafarians, Muslims, and Hebrew Israelites can all be Black Israelites.”

Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee, called what happened “a terrible tragedy and something that has shaken the Jewish community, once again, to our core.”

Wilker said there has been a lot of discussion over decades about whether or not members of the movement are actually Jewish.

“The people who perpetrated this attack are associated with the extreme sect of the Black Israelite community, who espouse anti-Semitic views,” he said. “This once again shows that the multiple sources of anti-Semitism does not fit within the confines of any political party. It is a virus that must be stopped, from wherever it comes.”

Still, Dorman said it’s important to distinguish between the actions of individuals and of groups.

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“When Dylann Roof or Timothy McVeigh committed their crimes, did anyone argue that all Christians or all white people belonged to hate groups?” he asked. “It is far too soon to know the motivations of the killers.”

I first heard of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement a few years ago when a friend called to lament that her daughter, who grew up Christian, had joined the group.

I wondered about how she could’ve made that leap and how and when the group came into existence.

According to Dorman, they first emerged in the 1890s out of the biblical literalism of the Holiness movement that led sects to adopt Hebraic practices from the Hebrew Bible and combined these rituals with ideas from freemasonry and the Anglo-Israelite movement, as well as identification with the ancient Israelites and the Exodus narrative of liberation popular among African American Christians.

During the Harlem Renaissance, Dorman said, the second wave centered around rabbis who were followers of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. This generation followed the philosophies of mainstream Judaism more closely.

The third wave formed during the Black Power era of the 1960s and 1970s, after deindustrialization, urban renewal, white flight, and insurance fraud arson deteriorated America’s inner cities and led to far more hostile and distant relationships between blacks and white Jews than had existed in the 1920s.

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Randal Maurice Jelks is a professor of African American Studies at the University of Kansas. CONTRIBUTED BY RMJ PUBLICITY

Randal Maurice Jelks is a professor of African American Studies at the University of Kansas. CONTRIBUTED BY RMJ PUBLICITY

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Randal Maurice Jelks is a professor of African American Studies at the University of Kansas. CONTRIBUTED BY RMJ PUBLICITY

Randal Maurice Jelks, a professor of African American studies at the University of Kansas, told me Black Israelites do not consider themselves a hate group and neither does the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Like the Nation of Islam, these organizations consider themselves foremost religious organizations that are defending the faith,” Jelks said. “They consider themselves to be true believers. They consider themselves Jews.”

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Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

With that in mind, Jelks said it would be misleading to think this was solely an anti-Semitic act.

“This then is also about the long history of nonacceptance by the dominant Orthodox establishment in Israel as well as the U.S. It is clearly both racial and religious,” he said. “This is also about Hasidic Jews moving into what once was considered a black lower-income community. We forget the festering tensions and politics that brought on the three-day Crown Heights riot in (Brooklyn) in 1991 in reaction to a car crash.”

This act of violence, terroristic violence, must be read wider, Jelks said. “Remember this group originally (hailed) from Chicago and immigrated to Israel in the late 1960s. Lastly as my colleague, Jacob Dorman, notes, there are African American Jews who do not act in such a violent manner.”

Police are calling what happened a hate crime. Dorman says it’s too early to tell. I hope he’s right. Black folk ought to know better.

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