Main article: Commandment Keepers
The founder of the Commandment Keepers, Wentworth Arthur Matthew holding a Sefer Torah.
Wentworth Arthur Matthew founded the Commandment Keepers Congregation in Harlem in 1919. Matthew was influenced by the non-black Jews he met as well as by Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. Garvey used the Biblical Jews in exile as a metaphor for black people in North America. One of the accomplishments of Garvey's movement was to strengthen the connection between black Americans and Africa, Ethiopia in particular. When Matthew later learned about the Beta Israel—Ethiopian Jews—he identified with them.
Today the Commandment Keepers follow traditional Jewish practices and observe Jewish holidays. Members observe kashrut, circumcise newborn boys and celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and their synagogue has a mechitza to separate men and women during worship.
The Commandment Keepers believe that they are descendants of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Matthew taught that "the Black man is a Jew" and "all genuine Jews are Black men", but he valued non-black Jews as those who had preserved Judaism over the centuries. Matthew maintained cordial ties with non-black Jewish leaders in New York and frequently invited them to worship at his synagogue.
Matthew established the Ethiopian Hebrew Rabbinical College (later renamed the Israelite Rabbinical Academy) in Brooklyn. He ordained more than 20 rabbis, who went on to lead congregations throughout the United States and the Caribbean. He remained the leader of the Commandment Keepers in Harlem, and in 1962 the congregation moved to a landmark building on 123rd Street.
Matthew died in 1973, sparking an internal conflict over who would succeed him as head of the Harlem congregation. Shortly before his death, Matthew named his grandson, David Matthew Doré, as the new spiritual leader. Doré was 16 years old at the time. In 1975, the synagogue's board elected Rabbi Willie White to be its leader.
Rabbi Doré occasionally conducted services at the synagogue until the early 1980s, when White had Doré and some other members locked out of the building. Membership declined throughout the 1990s and by 2004, only a few dozen people belonged to the synagogue. In 2007 the Commandment Keepers sold the building, while various factions among former members sued one another.
Besides the Harlem group, there are eight or ten Commandment Keeper congregations in the New York area, and others exist throughout North America as well as in Israel. Since 2000, seven rabbis have graduated from the Israelite Rabbinical Academy founded by Matthew.
African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem
Main article: African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem
African Hebrew Israelites speak to visitors in Dimona, Israel.
A sign in Dimona.
Ben Ammi Ben-Israel established the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem in Chicago, Illinois, in 1966, at a time when black nationalism was on the rise as a response to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1969, after a sojourn in Liberia, Ben Ammi and about 30 Hebrew Israelites moved to Israel. Over the next 20 years, nearly 600 more members left the United States for Israel.
As of 2006, about 2,500 Hebrew Israelites live in Dimona and two other towns in the Negev region of Israel, where they are widely referred to as Black Hebrews. In addition, there are Hebrew Israelite communities in several major American cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.
The Black Hebrews believe they are descended from members of the Tribe of Judah who were exiled from the Land of Israel after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE. The group incorporates elements of African-American culture into their interpretation of the Bible. They do not recognize rabbinical Jewish interpretations such as the Talmud. The Black Hebrews observe Shabbat and biblically ordained Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur and Passover.
Men wear tzitzit on their African print shirts, women follow the niddah (biblical laws concerning menstruation), and newborn boys are circumcised. In accordance with their interpretation of the Bible, the Black Hebrews follow a strictly vegan diet and only wear natural fabrics. Most men have more than one wife, and birth control is not permitted.
When the first Black Hebrews arrived in Israel in 1969, they claimed citizenship under the Law of Return, which gives eligible Jews immediate citizenship. The Israeli government ruled in 1973 that the group did not qualify for automatic citizenship because they could not prove Jewish descent and had not undergone Orthodox conversion.
The Black Hebrews were denied work permits and state benefits. The group accused the Israeli government of racist discrimination. In 1981, a group of American civil rights activists led by Bayard Rustin investigated and concluded that racism was not the cause of the Black Hebrews' situation. No official action was taken to return the Black Hebrews to the United States, but some individual members were deported for working illegally.
Some Black Hebrews renounced their American citizenship to try to prevent more deportations. In 1990, Illinois legislators helped negotiate an agreement that resolved the Black Hebrews' legal status in Israel. Members of the group are permitted to work and have access to housing and social services. The Black Hebrews reclaimed their American citizenship and have received aid from the U.S. government, which helped them build a school and additional housing. In 2003 the agreement was revised, and the Black Hebrews were granted permanent residency in Israel.
In 2009, Elyakim Ben-Israel became the first Black Hebrew to gain Israeli citizenship. The Israeli government said that more Black Hebrews may be granted citizenship.
The Black Hebrews of Israel have become well known for their gospel choir, which tours throughout Israel and the United States. The group owns restaurants in several Israeli cities. In 2003 the Black Hebrews garnered much public attention when singer Whitney Houston visited them in Dimona. In 2006, Eddie Butler, a Black Hebrew, was chosen by the Israeli public to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Allegations of black supremacy and racism
In late 2008, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) described as black supremacist what it called "the extremist fringe of the Hebrew Israelite movement". It wrote that the members of such groups "believe that Jews are devilish impostors and ... openly condemn whites as evil personified, deserving only death or slavery". The SPLC also said that "most Hebrew Israelites are neither explicitly racist nor anti-Semitic and do not advocate violence".
The Black Hebrew groups characterized as black supremacist by the SPLC include the Nation of Yahweh and the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ. Also, the Anti-Defamation League has written that the "12 Tribes of Israel" website, maintained by a Black Hebrew group, promotes black supremacy.