For all of the talk of tactless youthfulness on the part of the Covington Catholic High School kids, their decision to remain calm at the Lincoln Memorial despite the taunts of an extreme religious sect showed a lot of maturity.
I initially ignored the confrontation between the Covington kids and a Native American activist as it popped up in my social media news feeds. I felt it was seriously cringeworthy. Seeing a Caucasian student smirking at a Native American man screamed a storyline with an undoubtedly racist bent. So I decided to pass on looking at that initial video.
When I finally saw what happened, it was one from a complete video of the incident. Alarm bells immediately went off for me. At the beginning, I saw several black men standing about 20 to 30 feet from a small group of Covington students. Two of them faced the camera, and a third was turned around. That man taunted and shouted at the students.
After observing their outfits and hearing the cameraman – a member of their group – reference one of the group by name, I knew exactly who they were and what they were doing. The Black Hebrews, or Black Hebrew Israelites, appear to me to be the ones who actually started the confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial.
I am black and Jewish. I had an Orthodox conversion to Judaism over 20 years ago, and I strongly believe in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the mitzvoth (laws and good deeds). While one may think these men are also Jewish because of their name, Black Hebrews are not actually considered to be Jewish. Many of them practice a blend of Judaism and Christianity that has references to Islam in it as well.
As a former New Yorker, I am familiar with Black Hebrews – particularly this very extreme branch. In the 90s and early 2000s, if you walked through Union Square, Herald Square or Times Square in Manhattan, you would likely be confronted by some of them. They would stand in these high-traffic areas with microphones in hopes of attracting attention and appealing to the “misguided.”
Black Hebrews were known for shouting racial epithets at others. If you were an obvious religious Jew, they would throw racial slurs at you and refer to you as the devil and/or Satan. Interracial couples would also catch their ire. These Black Hebrews were very racist, and they undoubtedly saw themselves as examples of black racial supremacy.
If you watch the Lincoln Memorial video and listen to the interaction, the modern-day Black Hebrews refer to the Covington students as dogs and demons who “worship blasphemy.” They tell the students to “get rid of their lice.” They truly believe G-d is on their side. One of the Black Hebrews even claims the students are keeping their distance because angels surround the Black Hebrews – even though the students were likely just using good judgement.
After viewing the full video and after my own experience with Black Hebrews, I strongly commend the students of Covington for responding to the men’s taunting by just shouting school chants and cheers. I feel these students, mere teenagers, took the higher and more mature road. They did not respond to these men in anger, but instead responded with joy.
Not all Black Hebrews are like the extreme ones who confronted the Covington students and appear to be the catalysts for the events of that day. There are a small number who left the sect and converted to Halachic (Torah-based) Judaism. In fact, one of my earliest mentors after I converted was a middle-aged black woman raised as a Black Hebrew who later converted to Judaism via Orthodoxy.
The Black Hebrews at the Lincoln Memorial acted with hateful intent. While it’s unfortunate that the media’s backtracking is giving them the spotlight they so desperately want, it’s also a shame the media doesn’t credit the Covington kids for showing the proper response. Instead, the media remains focused on finding the next provocation.
Marie A. Fischer is a member of the Project 21 black leadership network.