WeeklyWorker

30.07.2020
Black Hebrew in New York

Lost Tribe of Judah

We have to learn to live with offensive ideas and statements, argues Eddie Ford - whether they originate from Wiley and the Black Hebrews, mainstream Zionism or Judeo-Christianity

I had not heard of Wiley till recently. Also, I must confess to being completely ignorant of grime music - my knowledge of the genre is entirely derived from outraged headlines in the press.

Clearly, Wiley (real name: Richard Kylea Cowie) is an extremely successful musician, songwriter, DJ and record producer. He is known as the “Godfather of Grime” and is regarded as a pioneer in the British underground music scene. Whether solo or as part of the crews, Pay As U Go or Roll Deep, he has had many hit singles and records - with his 11th album, Godfather (2017), peaking at number nine on the UK albums chart. That also won him an “Outstanding Contribution to Music” award by the New Musical Express. In 2018 he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to music - surely signifying his incorporation into the establishment.

But alas, it was not meant to be. Wiley is now in disgrace after a series of remarks on Twitter and then Instagram (owned by Facebook) that have been near universally denounced as anti-Semitic. Priti Patel, the odious home secretary, was offended by Wiley’s “abhorrent” comments and attacked the networks for not immediately removing the posts in question. Feeling the heat, Facebook put a seven-day block on his account - as did Twitter - but that was not enough. On July 27 the UK’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, wrote to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter, saying “your inaction amounts to complicity” and urged them to “take swift action to challenge the hatred that currently thrives on your platform”. Then the great and the good started a 48-hour boycott of Twitter under the hashtag ‘#NoSafeSpaceForJewHate’, including Greenpeace UK, Gary Lineker, Sir Alan Sugar and various MPs from all parties.

The inevitable happened, with Wiley’s Facebook and Instagram accounts on July 28 being deactivated on the pious grounds that “there is no place for hate speech” on their platforms. Still not entirely happy, Patel said that from now on social-media companies “must act much faster” to remove “such appalling hatred” - implement a zero tolerance policy. Unsurprisingly, Wiley’s managers (A-List Management) have ceased representing him and the so-called Campaign Against Antisemitism reported the rapper to the police, who are looking at the “relevant material”. A tweet posted in November from the account of Jeremy Corbyn, thanking the grime artist for his support in the general election, was deleted at the weekend.

Demanding yet more action was Labour MP Neil Coyle. He noted that Wiley’s management seemed to act quicker than Twitter - emphasising once again that “legislation (including the Online Harms Bill) should ensure social media platforms are not used to spread hate”. A sentiment seconded by Jess Phillips MP, who complained bitterly about how Twitter “left up such blatant anti-Semitism and hatred” that “hits all the dangerous beats” - like “Jews get things you don’t get, they are in control, they think they’re better”. Eventually, Twitter succumbed to the barrage of criticism and permanently suspended Wiley’s account, apologising for the fact that they “did not move faster”. Wiley has now apologised for tweets that “looked anti-Semitic” but he is now a pariah and the overwhelming consensus is for more punitive legislation.

Real Jews

What exactly did Wiley say to provoke such condemnation? Though it is near impossible now to stitch together all the comments in the exact right order and proper context, the rapper basically unleashed his spleen on Jewish people - describing them as “cowards”, “snakes” and “too touchy”. He compared them to the Ku Klux Klan - immovable and beyond criticism: “There are 2 sets of people who nobody has really wanted to challenge #Jewish & #KKK but being in business for 20 years you start to understand why”. Wiley doubtlessly includes his former management company as a sub-set of Jewish power.

He also declared that “Jewish people are the law”, alleged that at the height of American slavery “78% of slave owners were ethnic Jews”. But it was not just Jews. He suggested that Covid-19 is a manufactured distraction or “lie”, and feels there is an “Arab control presence around Africa” - in fact “Europeans and Arabs have got Africa in a headlock”. But back to the Jews, Wiley complained that black people “have always been below them in their eyes” and asked, “Why do certain people from other races want us below them?” The remarks that particularly upset lots of people - maybe even sealed his fate - were “some people have gotten too comfortable on lands that don’t belong to them”. He went on to say that Israel “is not yours”. In fact, he added, “Israel is ours”.

Wiley’s last few comments might mislead the naive, or just appear baffling - ie, Jewish people now living in Israel are occupying a land that does not belong to them, by which he does not mean that the Palestinians are the real or genuine inhabitants of Israel/Palestine. Quite the opposite. Either way, it is important to point out that Wiley’s views are not simply plucked out of thin air. They actually stem from a coherent worldview, no matter how eccentric or ahistorical.

I am not talking about a Nazi or white-supremacist ideology, obviously, but f a religious movement that contains a whole number of different strands, factions and offshoots. Suffice to say, Wiley appears to be a convinced adherent of the Black Hebrew Israelites - sometimes also called Black Jews or Black Israelites. This movement has its origins in the late 19th century United States, essentially claiming that African Americans are the biological descendants of the “Lost Tribe of Judah” - based on the old myth that the Romans drove out all the Jewish people from Palestine after the defeat of the Jewish Revolution and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. In other words, the Hebrew people did not go to Europe, elsewhere in the Middle East and so on, but rather to Africa - with white slavers taking the biological descendants of the Tribe of Judah to the highly profitable plantations of the Caribbean and the southern colonies in America.

Or, to put it another way again, Wiley subscribes to one of the many esoteric religions that sprang up amongst the slaves and ex-slaves of the Americas: Voodoo, the Pentecostals, Mount Sinai Holy Church, the Holiness Movement, Nation of Islam, the Five Percenters and the Black Hebrews.

Black Hebrewism spread to the Caribbean, where they established synagogues. As a movement, it has had a very up-and-down history and has never been huge - there are about 200 congregations now. The oldest known Black Hebrew group is the Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations, established in 1886. The largest is the Church of God and Saints of Christ - founded by American William Saunders Crowdy in Kansas in 1896. Members believe that Jesus was neither God nor the son of God, but rather an adherent of Judaism and a prophet - and they consider Crowdy to be a prophet too.

This synthesises rituals from both Judaism and Christianity, adopting rites drawn from both the Old and New Testament. One of the various strands of Black Hebrewism actually ended up in Israel in 1969 - where they were initially denied citizenship rights. But that eventually changed in 2009, when Elyakim Ben-Israel became the first Black Hebrew to gain Israeli citizenship. Indeed, one Black Hebrew actually represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest and Whitney Houston has visited a group of them in the city of Dimona.

Obviously, we are dealing with a quite complicated ‘political theology’. Of course, it has no real basis in actual history - but you can say the same about many other religions, full of disjunctures and contradictions. Wiley should not be viewed as somebody with mental health problems or an individual psychological aberration who is babbling on in a crazy way about Jews being occupiers, imposters, snakes, and so on. Yes, such comments are clearly foul on any number of levels. Yet we must understand that these views are connected to a religion of the oppressed.

At this point we quickly get into complex territory. Like many other people, Priti Patel says that Wiley’s remarks are abhorrent and offensive. Hard to disagree. But the plain fact is that every Sunday all over Britain, Europe, the US and many other parts of the world, preachers and priests open up a large book called the Bible. It is the easiest thing in the world to find whole passages in either the Old Testament or the New Testament containing all sorts of remarks - whether from the mouth of Jesus or Yahweh - that are also deeply abhorrent. The New Testament gets progressively more anti-Semitic to the point where the Jews are blamed for killing the Son of God - proclaiming before the Roman occupiers that not only are they guilty, but so are their children and their children’s children down all the generations. That was the original blood libel from the Gospel of Matthew. Of course, that was used in medieval Europe to justify anti-Semitism - at the time a form of class warfare.

When it comes to the book of Joshua in the so-called Old Testament, you have Yahweh commanding the descendants of Moses to carry out genocide. The Ammonites, Hivites, Anakimites, Canaanites, etc, should be wiped out to a man, woman and child.

Criminalise

Of course, we should not take the Old Testament literally. It is not an active set of instructions that are still valid, requiring Jewish people now to wipe out all Ammonites, Canaanites or anybody else on the original extermination list. History moves on. Genocide is now frowned upon.

Nonetheless, in terms of freedom of speech, when Tony Blair drew up the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act, holy books were specifically excluded from prosecution. If you are a comedian or politician, you might be found guilty of promoting hatred. But if you are a preacher or anybody else quoting from one of these holy books, then it is an entirely different question. Blair did not want to go there and you can see why. In the Koran, an outraged Muhammad gives orders to wipe out three Jewish tribes in Medina that did not recognise him as the prophet - which surely qualifies as hate speech, like much in the Bible.

This might come as a surprise to Priti Patel or a large number of Labour MPs, but if you favour freedom of speech, you then have to accept that somebody will say something that is offensive to you. Some Christians say things that are deeply offensive to me, as do some Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Scientologists, etc. You just have to learn to live with it, whilst always remembering that there is a huge difference between saying something offensive and the equivalent of shouting ‘Fire!’ in the middle of a crowded theatre.

Communists are concerned about the latest developments. If Wiley’s various social media accounts can get closed down for being offensive, then the same can happen to anarchists, socialists, Marxists, etc. Yet it is clear that we may soon see legislation that will actually criminalise postings that express unpopular or minority viewpoints - ideas regarded as extremely unpolitically correct. When this crackdown gets caught up with religion, it will be difficult for the state to disentangle those two questions. But that is what is going on right now in front of our very eyes.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.co.uk