Black nationalism, identity politics and homegrown extremism

31st December 2019

On December 28th in Monsey, New York, Grafton Thomas, entered the home of a local rabbi who was celebrating Hanukkah. Armed with a large knife, he went on a stabbing spree, leaving innocent worshippers injured, including one critically. Law enforcement authorities are currently conducting their investigation and so the details we know likely will shift. However, according to a criminal complaint filed this week, Grafton conducted online searches on Hitler, Nazi culture and research on Jewish companies and individuals in the United States. His writing also contained material relating to the “ebonoid Israelites” and the “Hebrew Israelites”: which the authorities believe is a reference to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. 

Taken in isolation, it might be argued that the attack carried out by Grafton should be seen as nothing more than one lone individual with a history of mental illness, driven by a cocktail of online conspiracy theories, hatemongering, and the frustration of his own life experiences. However, the attack in Monsey fits a now-familiar pattern of antisemitic incidents throughout the United States and in particular the New York region. Earlier this month, we saw the heinous attack in Jersey City, N.J. at the kosher grocery store which took six innocent lives, including a police officer. According to the Anti-Defamation league (ADL), antisemitic attacks are on the rise around the country and have jumped 21 percent in the past year. Furthermore, the ADL has documented 1,879 incidents of antisemitism in the United States in 2018, including more than 1,000 situations of harassment. 

In relation to the attack carried out by Grafton and at the New Jersey kosher grocery store, there is now evidence that the perpetrators have some formal or informal affiliation to the Black Hebrew Israelite (BHI) movement.

The BHI religious movement is, of course, not monolithic. However, some BHI offshoots have been identified as hate groups by both federal law enforcement authorities and watch groups.

It is still early days. We need to know more about the ideological motivations behind Grafton’s attack, and his mental state, before we can reach an informed conclusion. However, now is the time to learn more about this formerly obscure group. Who are they? What do they believe?

Throughout urban America in cities like Baltimore, New York, D.C., Philadelphia and Memphis, individuals identifying themselves as Black Hebrew Israelites have been a feature of the local landscape for quite some time. The original Black Hebrew Israelites developed in the late 19th century and have existed in various iterations and ideological persuasions. They have never constituted a unified organisation. Some offshoots were more focused on the spiritual and theological significance of addressing the black experience. Others become involved in the black power movements of the 50’s and 60’s and shifted their focus to proselytization and recruitment, concentrating on the circumstances that their members faced.

In many instances, the modern-day faction using the moniker Black Hebrew Israelites have adopted a mixture of the rhetoric of black supremacy, hatred of certain religious and ethnic groups – in particular Jews – and propound the belief that black Israelites are the true descendants of biblical Jews. Their aggressive conduct in public places, confrontational nature against whites and other religious groups have made them a visible presence in cities throughout America. At the same time, their hybrid theology have rendered them a curiosity to bystanders. 

In order to understand why American Jewish communities have been targeted by individuals calling themselves Black Hebrews, we need a sophisticated understanding of the movement. Poverty, anger, socio-economic disparities, lack of literacy and also conspiracism has created a heady cocktail which has drawn in recruits. In many ways, the growth of the contemporary BHI is reminiscent of the growth of the Nation of Islam in the 1960s and 70s. 

As a former counterterrorism analyst working for the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center outside of Washington, DC, I am familiar with the manner in which such groups operate. In the United States, we now face a diverse range of threats from groups who seek to target and hurt the US homeland, and minorities within our country. We are no longer confronted solely by foreign based terrorist groups and networks. Instead, the growing threat is from individuals who are “homegrown”: born right here in the US. 

Our response to these emerging groups, individuals and networks will determine how much influence they ultimately gain. It is essential that government, civil society and ordinary citizens are aware of these groups and understand how they are adapting and morphing. Together, we can find an effective solution to address their violence and and end their attacks on the innocent. 

Dr. Muhammad Fraser-Rahim is the Executive Director, North America for Quilliam International, the world’s oldest counter extremism organization.