Notes on the Jersey City Shooting (2)

In an earlier post, I took issue with the widespread but premature tendency to “link” the recent Jersey City shooting to the Black Hebrew Israelite (or Black Israelite) movement. From what I’ve read, the tendency takes the form of inflating the shooters’ interest in the group into a “link to” the group (suggesting something like membership), the implication being that the group’s ideology helps explain the shooters’ motivations, hence explains the shooting (suggesting something like complicity by the group itself).

I’m not in a position to deny either claim. Few of us are. The shooters may have been formal members of the Black Israelite (or some Black Israelite) group, the group’s ideology may explain their motivations, and the group may somehow be complicit in the shooting. But all of those claims are compatible with the possibility that the shooters weren’t members, that the ideology doesn’t explain (or doesn’t adequately explain) their motivations, and that the group isn’t complicit in the shooting. The insistence on playing the Black Hebrew angle strikes me as a kind of inverse or perverted Aristotelianism: from what Jonathan Lear calls “the desire to understand” to the premature desire to adopt an explanatory hypothesis at the price of misunderstanding.

The “Black Israelite” angle on the Jersey City shooting seems to have died down a bit in mainstream reporting over the past few weeks. But the damage is now done. The innuendo-like nature of the initial reporting has now licensed and validated innuendo-like commentary of a similar nature. Consider this example from a few days ago, “Black Leaders Need to Root Out Anti-Semitism in their Ranks,” by David Almasi, on a blog called Project 21: The Black Leadership Project. A laudable-enough sentiment, and a mostly laudable article. But what’s laudable in the article sits side by side with what isn’t:

In particular, recovered journals show the assailant expressed support for the radical Black Hebrew Israelite movement.

“Recovered journals show” seems to imply that Almasi has read them. Really? What did they say?* Just to repeat something I said in my first post on this topic: the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office has insisted that the shooter’s writings are uninformative with respect to the motivation for the shooting. If anyone thinks otherwise, they bear the burden of supplying evidence to the contrary.

Having gotten away with one evidence-free claim, Almasi feels entitled to up the ante:

In the Jersey City attack, people who also held Black Hebrew Israelite sentiments murdered three people at a kosher deli before being killed by police.

How does he know that they held “Black Hebrew Israelite sentiments”? And if so, which ones?

It’s worth revisiting some old (well, two-week old) mainstream reporting on this subject. After the initial inflated claims about the supposed “links” between the Black Hebrew Israelites and the Jersey City shooting, the Times ratcheted back the rhetoric. But still, they couldn’t quite let go of the Black Israelite angle. The Times’s big December 15 piece on the Jersey City shooting is something of an improvement on its predecessors, and in general well-written and informative. But the passage on one of the shooter’s connections to the Black Israelite movement makes some questionable moves that deserve scrutiny.

Mr. Anderson had been in the Army reserve for four years, during which he repaired fuel and electrical systems. His rap sheet included serving time for weapons charges and threatening to kill a live-in girlfriend.

An aspiring hip-hop producer and performer, Mr. Anderson appeared to have created several social media personas, posting under Dawada Maqabath, AKANapoleonHill, Baryon Bloodbourne and Dawad Maccabee.

By 2015, Mr. Anderson was subscribing to the ideology of the Black Hebrew Israelites, an extremist sect that thinks of its members as true Israelites, believes Jews are impostors and espouses anti-Semitism.

In October of that year, he reposted a Facebook friend’s statement: “I hope you negroes, latinoes, and native Americans wake up to who you are. According to the bible you are the real Hebrew Israelites. Not those fake jewish people who is really from kahzaria.”

It’s worth noting that Anderson spent four years in the Army, but at best subscribed to the ideology of the Black Hebrew Israelites. So far, we’ve gotten no evidence that he formally belonged to the latter organization. But obviously, he belonged to the former. So why isn’t his service in the Army thought relevant to the shootings? Like Nikolas Cruz’s formal involvement in Junior ROTC, it’s passed over in investigative silence. But the Army is arguably a more violent organization than the Black Hebrew Israelites have ever been, and Anderson’s connection to it is clearer and more easily established. That seems a lead worth following, but so far I haven’t seen anyone follow it. It certainly isn’t what David Almasi wants to talk about. But if speculation is in order, why not speculate about everything that calls for it?

I think we can infer from the third sentence that Mr. Anderson’s musical career didn’t quite work out as planned. So career failure may play a role here. I should add that the social media handles he chose suggest a great–though possibly unwitting– sense of humor, if only at his own expense. Here’s another lead, at least as important as the Black Israelite ideology that seems to have consumed interest: personal failure.

Oddly, it’s folk wisdom that “losers” tend to act out in destructive ways, and yet this oft-invoked piece of folk wisdom seems not to have played much of a role in the reporting. You might take exception to the idea that folk wisdom should play any role in journalistic reporting. But then, the connection between Black Hebrew Israelites and anti-Semitic attacks is not even folk wisdom. It’s just a tantalizing lead aspiring to become folk wisdom in the absence of any solid evidence in its favor.

The use of the imperfect in “By 2015, Mr. Anderson was subscribing…” subtly seems to suggest developmental stages to the effect that Anderson’s connection to the Black Israelites intensified over time. The implication seems to be that if by 2015, he was subscribing to their ideology, by late 2019 that ideological connection reached its culmination.

But there is no evidence for that sort of development at all: maybe things happened that way, maybe not. The hyperlink intended to support the point merely goes back to the Times article I criticized before, which says nothing of value on this subject. I take it that the last bit, about the Facebook repost in October 2015, is good evidence for Anderson’s subscribing to Black Hebrew Israelite ideology (or theology?)–at least in 2015, and assuming that the quotation is what Black Hebrew Israelites actually believe. But we don’t know whether it is what they believe, and we don’t even know whether it’s what Anderson himself believed four years later. More to the point, belief in it by itself doesn’t explain shooting anyone. Most people do not immediately shoot someone that they suspect of faking something. If that were so, I’d have shot every single student plagiarist I’d ever encountered in my twenty-five-year-long career in academia. But I haven’t–not one.

In my previous post, I also took issue with the idea that the Black Hebrew Israelites’ ideology/theology was, as reported in the Times, anti-Semitic. The claim has been strongly disputed. To be clear: I am not denying that it may be. Nor am I denying that the attacks were anti-Semitic, much less denying that they were evil and reprehensible. Nor am I denying that the shooters were anti-Semites. What I’m disputing is that the evidence reported in the Times constitutes good evidence that Black Hebrew Israelite ideology/theology is anti-Semitic. It seems to me that when an anti-Semite adopts the social media handle “Dawad Maccabee,” it’s unwise to rush too quickly to conclusions about his “ideology.” There’s the real danger here of becoming as confused as he apparently was.

The evidence of Black Israelites anti-Semitism (as reported by the Times) consists in the claim that mainstream Jews are “imposters.” I don’t know if “imposter” is a paraphrase or is the word that Black Israelites actually use. But since we’re in specifically religious territory–meaning in part the territory of myth and legendry–we have to put extra effort into suspending disbelief and adopting a quasi-anthropological stance in the interests of understanding. Angry atheists and sectarians aside, we tend to interpret religious doctrine with a certain degree of charity. It’s very easy to make fun of or deride mainstream religious beliefs, but it shows a certain tactlessness and tone deafness to do so–or at least to do so in cases where the joke isn’t extremely funny.  Given the numbers of people who sincerely have religious faith, we don’t typically equate belief in God with belief in ghosts, or belief in an afterlife or immortal soul with psychosis. Maybe we should, but we don’t.

The same thing is true, or should be true, of religious claims to being God’s truly favored community, a belief that has the unfortunate implication that all other communities are mere pretenders to that status. I’m afraid I find such claims deeply silly. But then, I find them all deeply silly. From which it follows, alas, that I find the claims of mainstream Judaism about as silly as I do the claims of Black Israelite Hebraism. When I encounter the claim that Black Hebrew Israelites are anti-Semites for regarding Jews as God’s chosen, I wonder what it is that we’re to call Jews who insist that Black Hebrew Israelites are not God’s chosen. How is it that when Black Israelites call Jews “imposters,” Black Israelites become anti-Semites, whereas when Jews assume a priori that Black Israelites are pseudo-Jews lacking any legitimate claim to divine favor, they are regarded as expressing a “normal” belief we’re obliged to respect?

Is it really anti-Semitic to say that mainstream Jews are pretenders to divine election? It could be, but it need not be. It’s one thing if this belief implies that Jews are distinctively and/or collectively mendacious. That is anti-Semitic. But it’s not clear to me that the assertion that the Jews are not the truly chosen people of God is anti-Semitic. It seems dumb, but then, so does the belief that the Jews are themselves the chosen people of God. Or if not dumb, then at least problematic: a God who goes around choosing one people over another strikes me as problematically inegalitarian in his belief structure. But then, so does the Lutheran God who ignores good works and endorses salvation sola fide. Personally, I like to think of God as an exemplar of egalitarian justice, probity, and fairness, not as a sadistic and capricious parent who plays favorites with his creation. How is that racist? Why can’t God live up to the standards to which we hold ourselves? Talk about defining deviancy down.

Claims about divine election and favor are ubiquitous among orthodox religious believers of all kinds. Devout Jews regard Jesus and Muhammad as false prophets. Devout Christians regard Muhammad as a false prophet, and regard Mormonism as a false religion. Devout Muslims believe that Jews and Christians have falsified the true teachings of God. Sunni Muslims often regard Ahmadis as apostates. Muslims squabble amongst themselves about who has or lacks the truest lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad. In political contexts, claims about the divine rights of kings (or monarchs) characteristically required elaborate derivations of a given monarch’s claims to rule by tracing them back to the paradigmatically legitimate claims of some ancient claim-holder (Adam, Abraham, Joshua, Muhammad, Hussein, etc.) And so on. No one thinks it racist to regard James III as a Pretender to the English throne. It’s a debatable matter.

Each of these groups of orthodox believers is obliged, by the terms of their beliefs, to regard rival claimants as asserting falsehoods. To let one example stand in for the rest: when Muslims claim that Jews and Christians have distorted God’s true word, they’re obliged to infer that the Hebrew Bible and New Testament make false claims to being God’s true revelation. Sometimes, they go so far as to call the Bible a falsified document, and to call Judaism and Christianity imposter faiths relative to the One True Faith, Islam. And so on, for the other examples. I’m the first to agree that much of this is dumb as hell. But I don’t see that any of it is obviously racist. There’s a difference between racism and sectarianism.

As reported by the Times, the Black Israelite ideology sounds like an incoherent and rather silly sectarianism. Take Anderson’s Facebook claim:

I hope you negroes, latinoes, and native Americans wake up to who you are. According to the bible you are the real Hebrew Israelites. Not those fake jewish people who is really from kahzaria.

I don’t have to belabor the “incoherent and rather silly” part. How black people, Latinos, and Native Americans are simultaneously true Israelites, while ordinary Jews are not, is anyone’s guess, if that.

But when a person who calls himself “Dawad Maccabee” insists that he is a true Jew, as contrasted with all those other Jews (who are all really from “kahzaria“) he’s making a claim of lineage that’s not all that much different from the claims routinely made by “mainstream” Jews and Muslims. A Muslim who tells me with a straight face that his family is directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)–and that mine is not–is not a racist, even if I insist that my lineage is just as good as his (and I’m right).** He’s a delusional, ignorant sectarian.

When I sit in a synagogue in Hebron and watch an American propaganda film designed to convince me that Brooklyn-born settlers can trace a straight line back to Father Abraham (as I did this past August, care of the Hebron Fund), that claim by itself is not racist, but I’m afraid it is just dumb as dirt. To say that mainstream Jews are really Khazars falsely claiming Semitic heritage to which Black Israelites are heir is not obviously anti-Semitic. It’s just one more in the long, sad catalog of theological beliefs presupposing a direct phone line to the Creator.

I’ve belabored all this because I doubt we’ve heard the last of the “Jersey City shooting was inspired by Black Hebrew Israelite ideology” narrative. And just to repeat for the nth time: I haven’t come out and denied that it might be true, for all I know. But there’s value in belaboring a collective profession of ignorance. To belabor it: We don’t know.  The question that’s gone unasked is why it’s so hard to admit that.

*Media reports often refer to a “note” left in the van used by the shooters, which evidently said: “I do this because my creator makes me do this and I hate who he hates.”[37][38] (Footnotes go to Wikipedia). But surely the question to ask is whether the preceding belief qualifies as a Black Hebrew Israelite belief. If a Jew kills a Palestinian because he regards them as the heirs to Amalek, we don’t necessarily infer without qualification that the belief in question is “Jewish.” NJ.Com reports:

There is evidence the shooters “expressed interest” in certain hate groups such as the Black Hebrew Israelites – but authorities believe they acted alone, not as part of any organization, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said at a news conference Thursday. He declined to address any notes found in the van.

I don’t understand how journalists who have not seen the “notes found in the van” can comment on their contents when the person in charge of the investigation, who has seen them, has mostly declined to. But The New York Post is undeterred:

Sources have identified the pair as adherents of the Black Hebrew Israelites, a fringe religious movement not associated with mainstream Judaism that’s been labeled a hate group by experts who track extremists in the US.

What if the sources end up being a bunch of conveniently unidentified, ill-informed cops shooting their mouths off?

**I’m not actually claiming descent from Muhammad. It’s just an example. It’s actually more likely that my ancestors were a bunch of promiscuous British Army officers than that any of them were Arabs. And yet you don’t see me claiming to be a successor to the Stuart monarchy.

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