I was driving down Murray Avenue recently when I paused in front of the traffic light at Forbes, opposite the parking lot under the Squirrel Hill Library. There I spotted five young men dressed in colorful costumes or clerical robes of some kind.
The tall one in the center — whose name I never learned, incidentally — was talking into a microphone with considerable animation, saying something like: “We blacks are the real Jews. The Jewish people, followers of the Jewish religion, are imposters, and children of Satan, the ones who created Hollywood. And we all know that they are the ones responsible for bringing drugs into our neighborhoods.”
I don’t remember his exact words, but that was emphatically the gist of the young man’s message.
Who are these guys, I wondered. Nation of Islam? Preaching in Squirrel Hill? Not likely, I thought, so I went to the local police station to complain.
Oddly enough, there were two officers on duty, one white and one black. The black officer seemed tolerably sympathetic to my complaint, though not inclined to do much about it, while the white one, who was evidently of higher rank, or at any rate more talkative, was much more defensive on this score. He assured me that what I had just heard was not hate speech, as I feared, but free speech, and that there was nothing that they could (or would) do to stop it. I apologized for wasting their time, and thanked them (under my breath) for this splendid lesson in civics, and went right back to the street corner to investigate these colorful characters.
They ignored me at first, so it took a few moments to engage them in conversation. But then I spoke with two of them for almost 40 minutes, and never, in that entire time, did they repeat the charge that Jews are children of Satan, or the ones chiefly responsible for bringing drugs into black neighborhoods.
As I spoke with two of these young men, the other three Israelites continued their vigorous sidewalk preaching, but they were not rude or menacing — and neither, of course, was I. They were quite strange however — at least to me. Among other things, I learned that they were members of The Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, Inc. By their reckoning, their church has more than 20 congregations scattered around the country, and is growing rapidly, having upward of 10,000 members. Their local chapter is located at 817 Brushton Ave. in Homewood. The logo that appears in the top right-hand corner of their promotional literature contains a glowing Star of David with the tablets of the law, complete with Hebrew lettering, inscribed in the middle.
Throughout our conversation, they continued to insist that white skinned people who are “Jewish” are not real Jews, and that the real Jews of the Bible were black skinned Semites who were driven into Africa after the destruction of the Second Temple. But contrary to prevailing belief, they themselves are not really African, much less African American — though their black skinned forbears, who were the real exiles from Zion, were later transported to America as slaves.
Moreover, they contended, not only are real Jews not “Jewish” (i.e. white), but they believe in Jesus. From whence it appears to follow that unless you are black and believe Jesus is the Messiah you cannot be a real Jew. And that is why the Ethiopian Jews — also referred to as Falashas, an ancient Jewish community who were threatened with genocide, and air lifted to Israel en mass in the 70s and 80s — are not real Jews either, but merely “Jewish,” like their white counterparts in Israel.
At this juncture, I was suddenly tempted to quote the words of the immortal Jack Benny: “Roses are red and violets are bluish, if it wasn’t for Jesus we’d all still be Jewish.” But some obscure force prevented me from uttering these memorable words, lest they experience me as disrespectful toward their religion. (After all, I didn’t want them to accuse me of being an anti-Semite!)
Then, as an even deeper reticence engulfed me, it slowly dawned on me that in discrediting the Ethiopian Jews, saying that they are not “really” Jewish — these earnest souls unwittingly concurred with some ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel who humiliated their African brethren by claiming that they weren’t really Jewish, forcing them to convert to their own (Ashkenazic) brand of Judaism. (White on black racism? Black on black racism? Really, what is the difference?)
As a psychologist with a keen professional interest in the sources and meanings of religious belief, I am well aware that one’s theological frame of reference and sense of religious identity often goes well beyond verifiable history, shading imperceptibly into “sacred history” — collective narratives where history and mythology become jumbled and blurred. I am also aware that where a sense of group cohesion and mission are lacking, narratives of this kind can be manufactured to address present day needs, and that in our modern, pluralistic society, prudence and civility should make us wary of dismissing another group’s religious narrative as specious. And much as I may dislike it, the fact remains that if one group wants to believe that they are the “real” Jews referred to in the Bible, and to dismiss my ancestors and I as “imposters,” it is still their right to do so. But demonizing or dismissing us publicly as “Children of Satan” or ghetto drug lords, whether it is in Jewish neighborhoods, or in the safety and privacy of their own churches, goes well beyond civility and free speech. It is a huge step backward. Clearly, they should know better, and should be held accountable if they persist in perpetuating these monstrous accusations.
While still competing for the Democratic Party’s nomination, President-elect Barak Obama gave a historic talk to AIPAC, in which he called for the restoration of the Black/Jewish alliance that prevailed from the 1930s to the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. As the number of Jewish votes Obama garnered in the recent election shows, many of us look forward to the day when that once mighty but shattered nexus becomes a palpable force in our communities once more.
However, if groups like The Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, Inc. are any indication, and are indeed growing in popularity, as they claim, we may have a long, long way to go before we reach the promised land.
(Daniel Burston chairs the Psychology Department at Duquesne University, and convened a commemorative program entitled Kristallnacht: Jews, Blacks and American Popular Music in the Nazi Era at Duquesne Music School on Monday.)