Black Hebrew Israelites (also Black Hebrews, African Hebrew Israelites, and Hebrew Israelites) are groups of people mostly of Black African ancestry situated mainly in the United States who believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites. Black Hebrews adhere in varying degrees to the religious beliefs and practices of mainstream Judaism. They are generally not accepted as Jews by the greater Jewish community, and many Black Hebrews consider themselves — and not mainstream Jews — to be the only authentic descendants of the ancient Israelites. Many choose to self-identify as Hebrew Israelites or Black Hebrews rather than as Jews.
Dozens of Black Hebrew groups were founded during the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. In the mid-1980s, the number of Black Hebrews in the United States was between 25,000 and 40,000. In the 1990s, the Alliance of Black Jews estimated that there were 200,000 African-American Jews, including Black Hebrews and those recognized as Jews by mainstream Jewish organizations.
While Black Christians traditionally have identified spiritually with the Children of Israel, they never claimed to be descendants of the Israelites. In the late 19th century among some African-Americans, an identification with the ancient Hebrews developed into an identification as ancient Hebrews. One of the first groups of Black Hebrews, the Church of God and Saints of Christ, was founded in 1896. During the following decades, many more Black Hebrew congregations were established. These groups claimed descent from the ancient Israelites. They selected elements of Judaism and adapted them within a structure similar to that of the Black church.
The beliefs and practices of Black Hebrew groups vary considerably. The differences are so great that historian James Tinney has suggested the classification of the organizations into three groups: Black Jews, who maintain a Christological perspective and adopt Jewish rituals; Black Hebrews, who are more traditional in their practice of Judaism; and Black Israelites, who are most nationalistic and farthest from traditional Judaism.
Nevertheless, Black Hebrew organizations have certain common characteristics. Anthropologist James E. Landing, author of Black Judaism, distinguishes the Black Hebrew movement, which he refers to as Black Judaism, from normative Judaism practiced by people who are Black (black Judaism):
Black Judaism is … a form of institutionalized (congregational) religious expression in which black persons identify themselves as Jews, Israelites, or Hebrews…in a manner that seems unacceptable to the “whites” of the world’s Jewish community, primarily because Jews take issue with the various justifications set forth by Black Jews in establishing this identity. Thus “Black Judaism,” as defined here, stands distinctly apart from “black Judaism,” or that Judaic expression found among black persons that would be acceptable to the world’s Jewish community, such as conversion or birth to a recognized Jewish mother. “Black Judaism” has been a social movement; “black Judaism” has been an isolated social phenomenon.
Landing’s definition, and its underlying assumptions about race and normative Judaism, have been criticized, but it provides a helpful framework for understanding some of the common traits that various Black Hebrew organizations share.