Last May, four Yeshiva students walking through Brooklyn Bridge Park were accosted by a black man. According to the watchdog group StopAntisemitism, the man drew a knife and demanded the students’ money. He also allegedly yelled anti-Semitic slurs, telling the students that he was the real Jew, not them.
This peculiar claim—that four Yeshiva students are less Jewish than the black man robbing them—may sound like the ramblings of an unwell individual. But the incident in Williamsburg is not isolated. The same ideas motivated a 2019 mass shooting in a Jersey City kosher grocery store and, several months later, the stabbing of a Monsey, New York, Orthodox rabbi. Prominent black figures, including, most recently, Kanye West and NBA star Kyrie Irving, have parroted them.
Despite these and similar high-profile, sometimes violent incidents, we know surprisingly little about the prevalence of “Black Hebrew Israelism”—an ideology holding that blacks are descendants of, and in some tellings the true descendants of, the biblical 12 tribes of Israel. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League assert that extremist, anti-Semitic Hebrew Israelism is relatively uncommon. But few efforts have been made (I’ve found just one survey) to measure how many people, black or otherwise, agree with the main tenets.
This dearth of study is all the more surprising given the rising interest in extremist ideologies and their nexus to violence more generally. Law enforcement officials have emphasized the threat from white supremacists, and President Joe Biden has claimed that former president Donald Trump is leading an extremist movement. Yet little attention is given to similar extremism among black Americans, with groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center actually reducing its coverage of black extremist ideologies in the name of “equity.”
To fill this gap, I recently fielded a survey under the auspices of the Manhattan Institute to measure the prevalence of Black Hebrew Israelism and its association with anti-Semitism and support for violence. The results paint a complicated picture, but one that generally supports the idea that extremist Hebrew Israelism should be taken seriously as a security threat.
To measure agreement with the core idea of Black Hebrew Israelism, survey respondents were given a short paragraph describing the biblical Israelites. They were asked if they believed that modern-day blacks, Jews, and other nonwhite groups were descended from the biblical Israelites. A plurality (49 percent) of the main, all-black sample somewhat or strongly agreed that black people were descended from the Israelites, compared with 29 percent of the smaller nonblack sample. Black respondents were also more likely to think that modern Jews were not descended from the Israelites, 13 percent versus 6 percent.
Of course, holding this view doesn’t mean that one attends a Black Hebrew Israelite (BHI) worship service, but it does imply a degree of influence by those beliefs. I define two groups: one, BHI believers, agrees that black people are descended from the Israelites and report being familiar with the actual story; another, those who identify as BHIs, are the subset of BHI believers who also call themselves Hebrew Israelites when asked. In total, about a quarter of the black sample are believers, and 9 percent identify as BHI. That compares with 14 percent believers in the nonblack sample, and 3 percent self-identified BHI (the latter are probably weird test-takers).
Survey respondents were then administered two rounds of questions: one about anti-Semitism and one about violence. The anti-Semitism section asked them to express how they felt about a variety of groups, including Jews, on a “warm/cold” scale from zero to 100. Remarkably, BHIs of both samples and kinds were warmer toward Jews—though they were also warmer toward everyone else. Respondents were also asked if they agreed with a series of claims about Jews: that Jews were more loyal to Israel than to America, that Jews have too much power, and so forth. Here, BHIs were significantly more likely to agree with all of the claims, indicating anti-Semitic beliefs.
The second round of questions tried to measure support for two kinds of violence, interpersonal and political. On the interpersonal survey—which asked about the appropriateness of a hypothetical man striking another man in various circumstances—BHIs were no more or less supportive than their non-BHI peers. But on the political-violence survey, which asked about using violence to advance political goals or stop discrimination, BHIs were more likely to support it.
In other words: Black Hebrew Israelites are not uniformly more anti-Semitic or more supportive of violence. But they are more likely than their same-race peers to agree with anti-Semitic ideas and to support specifically political violence.
What this implies is that Black Hebrew Israelism is not predictive of animosity, anti-sociality, or a tendency toward violence on its own. To the extent that BHI is a dangerous influence on black communities, it is not because it encourages such base tendencies. Rather, BHI should be understood as an extreme belief that carries with it other extreme beliefs—such as the view that Jews have too much power or were deeply involved in the slave trade—that raise the risk for extreme action.
To be sure, not every person identified as a Black Hebrew Israelite in this survey poses such a risk. Some simply believe that black people are descended from the biblical Israelites, period. That’s wrong—even kooky—but not necessarily dangerous.
What is dangerous is when that belief becomes associated with other, more extreme views that license, say, supermarket shootings or the stabbing of rabbis. The survey suggests that in the black community, such extreme views are, if not common, then certainly not nonexistent. Insofar as we insist that other extremist views are a threat to the American public, we should include BHI in that calculus.