Jersey City shooting shines light on Black Hebrew Israelites’ extreme beliefs

FBI raids Harlem offices of a major Black Hebrew Israelite group as killer linked to sect that often spreads anti-Semitic rhetoric

A pedestrian walks past the world headquarters of the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. (AP/Mary Altaffer)
A pedestrian walks past the world headquarters of the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

The deadly shooting rampage at a New Jersey kosher market has cast a spotlight on a fringe movement known for its anti-Semitic strain of street preaching and its role in a viral-video confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial this year.

Investigators believe that the man and woman who killed three people at the Jersey City grocery Tuesday in addition to gunning down a police officer at a cemetery hated Jews and law enforcement and had expressed interest in the Black Hebrew Israelites movement, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said Thursday.

“But we have not definitively established any formal links to that organization or to any other group,” he said. “Based on the available evidence, we believe that the two shooters were acting on their own.”

The Jersey City killers, who died during the attack, were identified as David N. Anderson, 47, and Francine Graham, 50.

This April 24, 2011 photo provided by the Kent, Ohio Police Department shows David Anderson, one of two gunmen who killed four people in Jersey City, N.J. on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. (Kent Police Department via AP)

An Instagram account that apparently belonged to Anderson shows he was an aspiring rapper whose posts included at least one reference to Black Hebrew Israelite philosophy — a list of the 12 Tribes of Israel from the Bible, with each tribe equated to a modern-day ethnic group or country. “America has NOTHING for us but DEATH,” a caption on one of his posts read. The account went dormant a few years ago.

On Wednesday, the FBI searched the Harlem offices of a major Black Hebrew Israelite group, according to a law enforcement official, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

A law enforcement official told local New York news outlet Pix 11 that Anderson was linked to the Israelite Church of God in Jersey City, some two blocks from where the shooting took place.

New York City police guard a Brooklyn synagogue prior to a funeral for Moshe Deutsch, December 11, 2019. Insert: Jersey City synagogue shooting victims Leah Mindel Ferencz, left, and Moshe Deutsch, right. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan/courtesy)

However, a lawyer for the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ in New York, part of the same sect, told USA Today it had no connection with the shooter.

“There’s no relationship to the events in Jersey City,” Gerald Lefcourt said. “There is no connection whatsoever, no knowledge of the individuals.”

Not all sects of the movement spew hateful rhetoric, but many Black Hebrew Israelites subscribe to an extreme set of anti-Semitic beliefs. Those followers view themselves as the true “chosen people” and believe that blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans are the true descendants of the 12 Tribes of Israel, said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

“They view white people as agents of Satan,” Segal said. They believe “Jews are liars and false worshippers of God. They view blacks as the true Israelites, and not the impostor Jews.”

Most who encounter the movement’s followers have seen them proselytizing and provoking arguments with passersby in places like Times Square in New York.

Last January, videos of a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington probably introduced many people to the movement. A group of black street preachers who referred to themselves as Black Hebrew Israelites shouted insults at Native Americans and Catholic high school students from Kentucky who had participated in an anti-abortion rally in Washington. Videos of a face-to-face encounter between a Native American activist and a student wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat quickly spread on social media.

J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, said the Black Hebrew Israelites have used Facebook and YouTube to spread their message and attract new followers. Prisons also have been fertile recruiting grounds for the sects, some of which have thousands of members, according to MacNab.

“Once you go online, you find a bigger world. They take pride in confronting Jewish people everywhere and explaining that they are evil, that they are heathens,” MacNab said.

Members of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem hold up canes as they dance during festivities marking the holiday of Shavuot in the southern Israeli town of Dimona, Sunday May 30, 2010. (AP / Tsafrir Abayov)

MacNab said the Black Hebrew Israelites also include elements of the anti-government “sovereign citizen” movement, which has been linked to deadly attacks on law enforcement officers.

“There is no purity test,” she said. “When you’re generally radicalizing online, you’re going to pick up bits and pieces from all over the place.”

In October, a self-proclaimed black Israelite was charged with assaulting two people leaving a prayer service at a synagogue in Miami, according to the ADL. The defendant, Larry Greene, threatened to stab the worshippers to death, called them “fake Jews” and told them to “go back to Israel,” the ADL said, citing an arrest affidavit.

But the Black Hebrew Israelites don’t have a significant record of violence, Segal said, noting that the ADL has been tracking the movement since the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Grewal, the attorney general, said authorities are investigating the shootings as “potential acts of domestic terrorism, fueled both by anti-Semitism and anti-law enforcement beliefs.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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