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Here's What You Need To Know About the Black Hebrew Israelites

By Dartunorro Clark | November 2, 2016 3:21pm
 Multiple law enforcement agencies swarmed the Harlem church.
Multiple law enforcement agencies swarmed the Harlem church.
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DNAinfo/Dartunorro Clark

HARLEM — Harlem's Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, which has been deemed a hate group by watchdogs for its beliefs and strong anti-white preachings, had its Madison Avenue headquarters raided by a host of federal agencies including the FBI and the IRS on Tuesday.

The investigation is being spearheaded by the FBI field office in Newark, New Jersey — where the organization has four churches whose members are known as Black Hebrew Israelites — but authorities have released little else about the raid or its cause.

The FBI would only confirm that the agency has executed search warrants at multiple locations pursuant to an ongoing investigation. The agency would not confirm if the other locations were associated with the Israelites. 

A source told DNAinfo that the investigation is looking into the group’s bookkeeping.

Here's an explainer on the background of the group and why it's so controversial.

Who are the Black Hebrew Israelites?

The movement was begun in the late 1800s by black Christians who believed that African slaves were the Jews spoken of in the bible as “God’s chosen people, the true Hebrews,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a longstanding civil rights organization.

Members believe they are the descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel. Its leaders believe in black nationalism and preach about self-empowerment and economic independence, the organization said. 

The movement, according to the SPLC, did not initially start off preaching “racist dogma,” but a controversial minority of the religion eventually began anti-white teachings, which continues today.

For instance, in 1886 a man named F.S. Cherry started a "black Jew" church in Tennessee “where he preached that white people were inherently evil and hated by God,” according to the SPLC.  He also told his followers “that the earth is square and that Jesus would return in the year 2000 to install blacks over whites through a race war.”

Its current leader Jermaine Grant, who is also called the "Chief High Priest of Tazadaqyah,” has continued Cherry’s teachings and “once prophesized that "a vengeful black Jesus would soon return to earth to kill or enslave all whites,” according to the SPLC.

Members of the church can often be seen proselytizing on the street wearing colorful blue, black and red tunics with sashes. They also often wear headdresses.

Where do they operate?

There are dozens of chapters across the country. The organization's headquarters are on Madison Avenue in Harlem, and there are other locations in Lower Manhattan and the Bronx, according to the SPLC. There are also chapters in upstate New York, Oregon, Florida, Michigan, California, New Jersey, Louisiana and several other places.

Why is the organization considered a hate group?

The SPLC considers the organization to be one of hundreds of hate groups across the nation, including white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan or Neo-Nazis, and groups that deny the Holocaust.

It defines a hate group as one that holds “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

The Black Hebrew Israelites are deemed “black separatists,” who advocate for black nationalism and often traffic in anti-white rhetoric, according to the SPLC. 

“Although the Southern Poverty Law Center recognizes that much black racism in America is, at least in part, a response to centuries of white racism, it believes racism must be exposed in all its forms,” the organization said on its website.

The organization began tracking white supremacists in the 1980s when the Ku Klux Klan had a resurgence. It eventually began monitoring a “wide variety of hate and extremist organizations throughout the United States,” according to its website.

The organization estimates that 892 hate groups are operating within the country and New York City has 44 active hate groups, the third highest in the nation.