This past Shabbat we learned of the mythic origin for the Israelite name. The patriarch Jacob wrestled all night with a mysterious man – whom he likely considered an angel. The man demanded Jacob let him go, and Jacob refused to do so unless the man blessed him. So the man renamed Jacob as “Israel, for you have striven (Hebrew: ‘sarita‘) with God and men, and you have prevailed.”
His children and grandchildren – originally called “Hebrews” – morphed into the Children of Israel, or Israelites, and after four centuries as slaves in Egypt, escaped that empire accompanied by the “erevrav,” or “mixed multitude,” establishing a commonwealth in what had been Canaan. According to the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, the commonwealth split in two after the death of King Solomon. The northern kingdom, called Israel, was conquered and exiled by the Assyrian empire around 722 BCE and is considered lost to history. The southern kingdom, called Judah (hence “Judaism”), was conquered and exiled by the Babylonian empire in 586 BCE, but retains its religious and national identity to this day.
What became of the Israelite “lost ten tribes” is a matter of debate among academic scholars and religious leaders. There is only one known archaeological reference to the people Israel prior to the Davidic dynasty – the Merneptah stele from ancient Egypt circa 1200 BCE, which speaks of the Israelites destruction. Apparently, rumors of our demise were greatly exaggerated, as numerous archaeological artifacts demonstrate a sustained Israelite and Jewish presence in historic Palestine since the early 1st Millennium BCE.
Unless one accepts the historicity of the Tanakh, determining the origin of the ancient Israelites has proven elusive. It is generally believed that a group of Egyptian nomads merged with indigenous Canaanites over 3000 years ago, and the term “Yisrael” denotes “God rules” or “strives” (recalling the Akkadian, “sarar,” a cognate of the name of Abraham’s wife, Sarai or Sarah).
Even so, there has been no shortage of peoples claiming Israelite ancestry, with varying degrees of veracity. The Jews of Bukhara, in what is known today as Uzbekistan, likely originated as Israelite traders in the 10th Century BCE, accompanied by a larger contingent from the tribes of Naftali and Issachar exiled by the Assyrians circa 722 BCE. Generally they followed Persian Jewish traditions and later adopted many Sephardic practices. The first “Cochin Jews” may have also been traders in the 10th Century BCE, and were referred to as “Black Jews.” Over the past 500-plus years, they were joined by Paradesi, or “white” Jews, along with other Sephardic refugees. Both Cochin and Bukharan Jews are considered authentically Jewish; that is, they credibly claim Israelite origin and practice rabbinic Judaism.
A well known but tiny group known as Samaritans have proven Israelite heritage but do not practice Judaism. The Samaritan Bible diverges considerably from the Masoretic Bible (to which Judaism adheres) and hews more closely to the Septuagint (Greek) Bible (to which Christianity adheres). Samaritans consider themselves and Jews the “two houses of Israel,” but are not covered under the Israeli Law of Return.
There are also groups generally recognized as Jews but whose Israelite origin has not been proven. The “Bene Israel” claim to be descended from Jews shipwrecked near what is now Mumbai, India, 2000 years ago. Although they integrated with the local population, they continued to abstain from work on Saturdays. Their genetic makeup consists of Ethiopian, Indian and Levantine strands, but no genetic evidence has emerged to link them with the ancient Israelites. Another group in India, Bene Menashe, claim to be descendants of the lost tribe of Menasseh. They migrated from Assyria to Afghanistan to China to Thailand to Myanmar, all the while professing loyalty to the Torah. A small group of them ended up in northeast India. Numbering over 2 million souls, nearly all of them were forcibly converted to Christianity, although an estimated 9000 of them have returned to practice a form of Judaism.
“Beita Israel” are Ethiopians who claim to be descended from the lost tribe of Dan who refused to convert to Christianity in the 4th Century. Despite being cut off from the Jewish world for over a millennium, they practiced a non-Talmudic form of Judaism called “Heymanot,” somewhat similar to Karaism (a group of Jewish origin that rejected rabbinic authority and split away from same). A large portion of them were forcibly converted to Christianity and are known as the Falash Mura. The Israeli Law of Return has been applied to Bene Israel, though not to the Falash Mura. During the 1980s and 1990s, the vast majority of the former were airlifted to Israel, and today there are over 150,000 Israeli Jews of Ethiopian descent – having such an impact on Israel that one of their holidays, Sigd, was recently declared a state holiday.
The list goes on and on. The Lemba tribe in Mozambique claim Israelite ancestry, and in fact, 50% of their males contain the famous “Cohen gene” on their Y-chromosomes. This, however, may be attributable to a pre-Israelite connection, and no evidence suggests that they are direct descendants of Israelites. A surprising number of ethnicities contain those who claim to be descended from the ten lost tribes, including Pashtun, British, French, Scandinavian, Kurdish and even Japanese, among many others, but there is not a shred of evidence to support their claims.
Prominent in today’s news is the heavily splintered Black Israel movement of 25,000 to 40,000 adherents, whose beliefs originated among African-Americans in the late 19th Century. Some of these movements practice an amalgam of Christian, Jewish and folk rites while others – particularly the Commandment Keepers and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem – have adopted Jewish practices such as facing east during prayer, avoiding pork, observing the Sabbath, circumcising their male children, ordaining rabbis and wearing tzitzit, or fringes, on their garments. A small group of the latter immigrated to Israel and ultimately won citizenship there. Perhaps the most prominent among them is Capers Funnye, a first cousin of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who gravitated to Judaism since his undergraduate days at Howard University. He affiliated with a Chicago congregation loosely linked to the Commandment Keepers and was ordained as a rabbi by the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in Brooklyn, subsequently underwent formal conversion to Judaism under the auspices of the Conservative Movement, is presently a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and is heavily involved in the established Jewish community. There is no evidence proving any actual Israelite origin.
A large number of of Black Israelite groups – each of them quite tiny – are considered hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, though they number a very small minority of the Black Israelite movement. It was from among these groups that a few members committed or attempted anti-Semitic murders in places like Jersey City and Monsey, NY. These groups consider themselves the true Jews and Jews to be imposters. A previously obscure, very low-budget documentary, “From Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” traffics in well known anti-Semitic tropes and only gained fame when Brooklyn Nets player Kyrie Irving posted a reference to it on social media. Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) has also claimed that African-Americans are the true Jews.
It should be noted that being an Israelite and being a Jew are not the same thing. While most Jews ethnically are of mostly Israelite origin, an enormous number have left Judaism – voluntarily or otherwise. 25% of 600 million Latinos have at least 5% Sephardic Jewish DNA. Jews and Palestinians are genetic cousins, and it can be argued that the ancestors of many of the latter once practiced a form of Judaism. However, being Jewish means that one and/or one’s parents or grandparents practiced the Jewish religion as defined by the rabbinic Sages. Israel’s Law of Return applies to anyone with at least one Jewish parent, but not those with two Jewish parents who converted to another religion.
One can hardly blame so many others for claiming Israelite ancestry or an affinity to the Israelite story. Oppressed communities see themselves in the epic narrative of slavery, redemption and covenant. The Church of Jesus Christ – Latter Day Saints, when they baptize their adherents, declare them “regathered” among Israelites. There is no shortage of Negro Spirituals who mine Biblical narrative and apply it to the horrid treatment of African-Americans over centuries. As such, we should feel flattered by these claims.
Of course, a small number of these groups have commandeered the Israelite origin narrative for nefarious and hateful purposes, and at present they have been given a megaphone. Minority communities such as Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, LGBTQ+ and Middle Easterners, among others stand in solidarity to oppose hate vigorously wherever it rears its ugly head. Even so, it is important to avoid exaggerating the anti-Semites’ influence among the general population. There remains and – for the foreseeable future will remain – no reason to stop loving our neighbors as ourselves, irrespective of what they look like or whom they love. Shavua Tov.