You may know something about the Sicarii, or Sikari’im (or Sikrikim), the radical Jewish faction at the time of the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash.
What you may not know is that their name has been adopted by a small group of Californians who are part of a somewhat larger group of African-Americans who call themselves “Hebrew Israelites.”
The contemporary “Sicarii” hold that the Jewish People are imposters, and that descendants of Africans like themselves are the “true Jews.” They aim to “uplift disenfranchised blacks, Latinos and Native Americans” by teaching that they are the “true descendants of the ancient Israelites.” The group refers to white people in general as “deceivers” or “devils.” Stating the obvious, the Anti-Defamation League calls the Sicarii “anti-Semitic and racist.”
Members of the group are wont to create sidewalk and public space demonstrations of their beliefs and, recently, at one such regular rally in San Diego, a white passerby was allegedly knocked to the ground by one of the self-described “real Jews.”
The group’s leader, one Adonis Glaude (a.k.a. “Ahlazar BanLawya” and “Guerilla Hebrew”), denied that any of his disciples assaulted the passerby, and addressed those who contended otherwise as “you so-called Jews who are not the Jews… you’re the devil.” Helpfully, he added: “This is why we say what we say.”
A number of years ago, I came across a similar group in midtown Manhattan, where its members had set up shop — a makeshift stage and an impressive speaker system — in a pedestrian plaza.
The master of ceremonies was loudly inveighing against people of non-color. He was flanked by his two assistants dressed as he was, in colorful caps and robes adorned with Jewish symbols. Together, they angrily denounced Caucasians — with particular malice for “so-called Jews.” Occasionally, the main man would nudge one of his helpers who had missed a cue to read from the Bible in his hand. The addled assistant, once (or several times) so reminded, would then find the place in his own book and, pointing at it, read a pre-designated verse, stiltedly but with great enthusiasm.
Displayed nearby was a large board inscribed with the names of the “twelve tribes of Israel.” Opposite each was a novel identification: one of twelve African or Caribbean nationalities. Their citizens, the MC shouted, were the “real Jews.”
My immediate reaction was amusement. But then I thought about how tragic it was that beings created b’tzelem Elokim, capable of meaningful accomplishments, imagine themselves worthy of dignity only by belittling others, even stooping to adopt an identity not their own.
No point, I knew, in engaging the pitiable prophets in conversation. Their beliefs were fueled by fantasy, not fact. But I indulged in a little fantasizing myself, imagining what I would tell them if only I might find some crack in the wall of their whimsy.
I would share with them a secret: Klal Yisrael’s chosenness isn’t a trophy, a bed of laurels on which to rest. In the Jewish view of things, I’d explain, being chosen is less a badge than a charge. Yes, we Jews indeed consider our forebears’ merits as extending throughout the generations to encompass their descendants. But the bottom line is that being chosen is an obligation.
What’s more, I would tell them, our special status — unlike the supremacy preached by racists of whatever hue — is available to anyone, of any race, who both recognizes that fact and is sincerely willing to join the Jewish people and undertake its mission. One can, in other words, choose to be chosen.
But admission to the Jewish People requires sincerity and commitment, not placards and loudspeakers. It’s easy to strut about with skullcaps and shout, but undertaking the endeavor of Judaism —humbly assuming the holy yoke of the Torah’s commandments and Jewish observance — is in a different realm entirely.
Then, though, something else dawned. Chazal exhort us to “learn from every man.” Even from “Hebrew Israelites.”
For they are remarkable testimony to how coveted the name “Jew” is, even at a time (have there been others?) when the real “real Jews” are hated by so many. The Sicarii may have no clue about what being a Jew really means, but their desire to assume the mantle is still striking, and worth pondering.
What it should teach us, born or properly converted Jews, is just how special we really are, how desired is our very identity. And what it should inspire us to do is more seriously set ourselves to the holy mission of being what true Jews are meant to be.