The two suspects in a deadly shooting at a cemetery and kosher supermarket in Jersey City held anti-Semitic views and had expressed interest in the Black Hebrew Israelite group, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said at a press conference Wednesday.
Two of the four people killed Tuesday by the shooters were members of the Orthodox Jewish faith. They were buried Wednesday night.
“Based on what we have collected so far… we believe that the suspects held views that reflected hatred of the Jewish people, as well as a hatred of law enforcement,” Grewal said.
Both shooters had expressed interest in the Black Hebrew Israelite group – factions of which have been designated as “hate groups” by watchdogs – but appeared to have acted alone in what was being investigated as a domestic terrorism incident with a hate crime bent, Grewal said.
Despite reports that the shooters had authored a “manifesto,” Grewal said authorities had not discovered any writing that he would characterize as a manifesto. Authorities were also working to verify the authenticity of social media accounts allegedly belonging to the shooters that “purport to espouse certain viewpoints,” he said.
On Wednesday, the FBI searched the Harlem headquarters of a Black Hebrew Israelite sect, the Associated Press reports.
Lawyer: ‘No connection whatsoever’
The Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ in New York, a Black Hebrew Israelite sect, told the USA TODAY Network through an attorney Wednesday that it has no connection to the shooting and does not know the suspects.
“There’s no relationship to the events in Jersey City,” Gerald Lefcourt said. “There is no connection whatsoever, no knowledge of the individuals” who have been named as suspects in the shooting.
Israelite member John Lightbourne, who goes by Commanding General Yahanna of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, said the shooter’s actions do not represent the views of Black Hebrew Israelites and that he was unfamiliar with the two suspects.
“We are not into any form of violence or terrorism,” Yahanna said. “For us, that’s counterproductive. We have a bigger job, and that’s straightening out the lives of blacks and Latinos in the inner city.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, however, lists the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge as a hate group.
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Who are the Black Hebrew Israelites?
A fragmented collection of sects with a presence in the U.S. and abroad, Black Hebrew Israelites believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites. The group has prominent chapters in big cities along the Eastern Seaboard and in San Diego, but it is unclear exactly how many supporters subscribe to the group’s beliefs.
The group includes factions that have been designated as “hate groups” by watchdogs including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. Anti-Semitic Black Hebrew Israelites believe that white people are agents of Satan, that white Jews are “impostors” and that blacks are God’s true “chosen people.”
The Anti-Defamation League, however, emphasizes that the “extremist and anti-Semitic sects of Black Hebrew Israelites are unrelated to the thousands of black Jews of Ethiopian origin, who are genuine members of the Jewish faith, and who have been welcomed to Israel in recent years,” the organization says on its website.
Some sects believe that blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans are the true descendants of the 12 Tribes of Israel.
The group is known for its aggressive street preaching tactics, often in Times Square and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Preachers are known to read from the Bible, talk about Holocaust denial and make anti-Semitic slurs.
“That public, inflammatory debate and argument is the M.O. of the Black Hebrew Israelites that preach on the ground. They’re there to make people uncomfortable and be confrontational,” said Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism.
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Group has been on radar for decades
Watchdog organizations have been tracking the group for decades. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been following the group for more than 20 years, and it includes 144 Black Hebrew Israelite chapters on its annual hate group list. The ADL began tracking the group in the late 1970s, Segal said.
The group has been gaining traction in recent years, according to Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the SPLC.
“This is a movement that has been growing pretty rapidly in the last three or four years, largely in reaction to Trump and white nationalism. (Black Hebrew Israelites) have used these developments to recruit into their movement,” Beirich said.
Tuesday’s shooting in Jersey City, however, would mark a departure from past Black Hebrew Israelite tactics. Members of the group have been reportedly involved in domestic disputes in the U.S. and U.K. but not in mass killing incidents, Beirich said.
“I’m hoping that this does not signal some new move by members of the Black Hebrew Israelites. This is not typical of them to have a large targeted attack, as we see with white supremacists,” Beirich said.
The Anti-Defamation League notes that, in October, a self-identified Black Israelite was charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after allegedly assaulting two people as they were leaving a prayer service at a synagogue in Miami. The man threatened to kill the victims with a knife, called them “fake Jews” and told them to “go back to Israel,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
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The group gained national attention in January when video went viral of a white Covington Catholic High School junior standing face-to-face with an indigenous man near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The student said the standoff began after four African American protesters, later identified as members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, said “hateful things” to a group of his classmates.
“One of the lessons here is that there are many unknown groups and movements in this country that organize around ideologies that are hateful. We tend to not hear about them until something terrible happens. It’s just a reminder of the importance of always having to push back and stand up against hatred because the end results are too often violence,” Segal said.