In 1991, riots began in New York City 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, anti-Semitic violence left one Jewish man dead — despite the fact that the he wasn’t involved in the crash. Jacob Dorman, Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Kansas, says that these events upset the narrative about the two communities as allies in the civil rights movement.
As tensions between the communities came to light, Dorman became interested not only in the conflict between white Jews and blacks, but the similarities in their ideas about nationalism as well. 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 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. Dorman says that today, thousands of African-Americans consider themselves to be Hebrew Israelites or Jews. Jacob Dorman recently gave a presentation titled “Rethinking Center and Margins: the Centrality of African American Alternative Religions” to a symposium at Utah State University: “Black Religious Experience in American History” sponsored by the USU Religious Studies Program & USU History Department.