Video of the viral standoff between students from Covington Catholic high school and a Native American man in Washington D.C. captured the nation's attention over the weekend, quickly eclipsing all other news items to become the number one story on many media outlets.
Amid the resulting firestorm of controversy, however, the role played by a third group was largely overlooked. Longer videos of the event showed that the conflict first began when a small group of Black Israelites (also known as the Hebrew Israelites, Black Hebrews, and several other variations) began taunting the high school students with lewd slurs and provocative language. The students responded with school chants.
This noisy interaction was reportedly what prompted Omaha elder Nathan Phillips to approach the two groups in a peacemaking effort. The viral footage of the standoff was captured not long afterward.
"The Real Hebrew People"
The Black Israelites (also known as the Hebrew Israelites, Black Hebrews, and several other variations) are members of The House of Israel, a little-known religious movement that has roots which go back to the 1700s. Black Israelites believe that African Americans are the true descendants of the Hebrew people and frequently engage in public protest to demand this heritage be recognized.
Members have shown no hesitation in using homophobic slurs, provocative racial insults, and other offensive language during public demonstrations. As a result of their campaigns against white, Jewish, and LGBT people, the Black Israelites have been branded a "hate group" by organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
In recent years, the group is perhaps best known for two things: dramatic messages about an impending apocalypse, and employing extreme profanity in order to get attention (plus capturing these interactions on video).
Black Israelite Ideology
The House of Israel has splintered into different factions and denominations over the years, but some ideas have remained constant. Among these is a belief that the world will soon come to an end, bringing to a close the era where white men control the levers of power. From the ashes, they believe, will arise a new world in which the Israelites emerge as the rightful rulers.
Another theme which has made its way into contemporary ideology is the notion that many marginalized peoples share a heritage that can be traced back to Israel. Whether it be African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans or numerous other demographics that have faced historic mistreatment the Black Israelites believe these oppressed groups all originate from the ancient Hebrew peoples.
But it gets even more complicated. Teachings also stipulate that the downtrodden of the earth have experienced hardship for a reason.
According to this belief system, their common suffering is actually a result of refusing to recognize their true identity as Israelites. Therefore, the thinking goes, marginalized groups will only see better days by leaving behind whatever superficial cultural or national allegiances they might cling to and instead embracing their true destiny.
Sparking a Fire
It's not entirely clear what drew the Black Israelites to last weekend's "March for Life" event in the nation's capital, but if their goal was simply to be provocative and draw attention to their cause, then it's certainly a bit ironic that the vast majority of media coverage surrounding the controversy entirely ignored their role in igniting it.