LAWRENCE — Christianity was their own faith, but for some white slave owners, religion also served as a way to maintain order among their slaves.
“Most Black Israelites who believe that Jesus and the ancient Israelites were black have actually been Christians. But Christianity, in the black experience, has sometimes been seen as unsavory because of its ties to social control during slavery — it was something slave masters used to keep slaves quiet, to prevent them from rebelling,” said Jacob Dorman, University of Kansas professor. “That connection has led a lot of African-Americans to want to experiment and try other religions — Judaism being one of them.”
Dorman’s new book, “Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions,” chronicles religions that teach that ancient Israelites were black and that today’s African-Americans are their descendants. The book was published this month by Oxford University Press.
Dorman is an assistant professor of history and American studies at the University of Kansas.
The book argues that black Israelites do not come from interactions with white Jews during slavery but rather from attempts to recreate the early Christian church among Freemasons and Holiness and Pentecostal Christians in the 1890s. It follows the rise of black Israelite synagogues in northern states and the advent of a black nationalist movement that led a group of African-Americans to resettle in Ethiopia in 1930.
“Today, thousands of African-Americans consider themselves to be Hebrew Israelites or Jews,” Dorman said.
In recent history, however, relations between blacks and Jews have also been tense at times.
In 1991, riots ensued in New York after a white Hasidic Jew struck two black children while driving in Crown Heights, killing one of them. A rumor started that emergency responders rushed to help the Jewish men in the car, but not the children.
When the news spread, an eruption of anti-Semitic violence left one Jewish man dead — despite the fact that the he wasn’t involved in the crash.
“It created a lot of consternation among blacks and Jews because it disturbed the narrative a lot of white Jews believed, which was that blacks and Jews were united in the civil rights movement,” Dorman said.
It was a moment when underlying tensions between the two communities came to light.
“I became very interested in not just the conflict between white Jews and blacks, but the similarities in their ideas about nationalism,” Dorman said.
When Dorman started researching the topic, unearthing a small collection of materials at a Harlem library, “there were only four or five books on black Jews,” he said.
Only a few more have been published since then, but a book by another author on black Jews in Africa and the Americas will be published in February. Dorman takes this as a sign that the topic is edging closer to becoming mainstream.
“It’s an interesting, exciting and growing field of study,” Dorman said.