Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly-area Black Hebrew Israelites leader responds to reports linking alleged Jersey City killers to his group

“We are totally against that kind of activity,” said Commanding General Yahanna

People work Wednesday to secure the scene of a shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City.
People work Wednesday to secure the scene of a shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City.Read moreSeth Wenig / AP

One of two assailants in the deadly attack on a Jersey City kosher supermarket Tuesday appears to be linked, according to media reports, to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, a labeled hate group with a strong Philadelphia presence.

But in an interview with The Inquirer on Wednesday, the leader of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, a sect within the movement, condemned the shooting and said the organization’s chapters in Philadelphia and elsewhere adhere to a doctrine of nonviolence despite fiery street rhetoric.

The two assailants, named as David N. Anderson, 47, and Francine Graham, 50, targeted the kosher supermarket in an attack that escalated to an hours-long shootout with law enforcement and left six people dead, including the two assailants and a police officer.

Anderson, the New York Times reported, seemed to be linked to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, but his involvement and status with the group was unclear. NBC News and the Associated Press also reported the possible connection.

Commanding General Yahanna of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, whose office is in Upper Darby, said he does not know Anderson. But Yahanna, whose real name is John Lightbourne, said that if Anderson had been affiliated with the group, “he would have learned the opposite” of violence.

Yahanna’s group is not connected to mainstream Judaism.

“Everybody expects us to be violent because the things we are talking about are so horrible, what has happened to us in America,” Yahanna said. "They just assume we’re going to be street thugs and criminals. We pull brothers out of prison and off the street and turn their lives around, have them open a Bible.”

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal would not confirm accounts of Anderson’s possible link to the group, and said investigators were still looking into “the why and the ideologies and the motivations.”

The Black Hebrew Israelites believe that African Americans descended from the Israelites of the Bible. In the streets of Philadelphia, adherents often yell obscenities from sidewalks where they gather. The Southern Poverty Law Center labels them a hate group, but says they are not known for violence.

Yahanna believes his movement is a scapegoat.

“Hebrew Israelites are the most unviolent people out of the entire black community,” Yahanna said. “They don’t go to jail, don’t sell drugs, they don’t go out shooting people. ... We are totally against that kind of activity. It doesn’t help us one bit to go out and shoot somebody.”

Yahanna has described the Philadelphia protests as “shock treatment."

A viral video

Earlier this year, Black Hebrew Israelites jumped from near obscurity to the center of a viral confrontation between a teen in a red Make America Great Again hat and a Native American activist at the Lincoln Memorial.

The viral clip first appeared to be a video of high school student Nick Sandmann mocking the Native American elder, Nathan Phillips, who was beating a drum. But a longer video clip showed that Hebrew Israelites were present and appeared to be using profanity and instigating the teens. The students also seemed to be taunting the group. Phillips said he was simply trying to intervene by playing a prayer song.

A New York-based leader of the sect, General Mahayaman, previously called the Lincoln Memorial incident “a perfect metaphor for why street speaking is so important.”

“There was the American Indian demonstrator who attempted to sing in the face of great hatred,” he said, referring to the teenagers wearing MAGA hats (which he said “are no different than Klan hoods”). “What we learned in the Israelite School is that you can’t sing in the face of hatred. You’re going to have to speak up and talk back, and our street speaking is how you talk back.”

Controversies in Philly

While the viral video may have been the first time some people heard of the group, it has had a presence in Philadelphia for three decades.

The men representing the group locally started spreading their message near the former Gallery Mall on Market Street (now called the Fashion District) before moving to the sidewalks outside One Liberty Place to shout through bullhorns at pedestrians. The building’s owners sued the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge in 2013, calling their outbursts hate speech.

» READ MORE: Liberty Place sues group over anti-white, gay rants

Members would post videos on their website of their demonstrations, which the lawsuit included to show statements like:

“Everybody knows that a white man will kill a baby on any day.”

“A woman need to shut her damn mouth.”

“You black women have been a terrorist to black men ... and it’s about time you mouth get shut.”

A leader of the group argued that the corner outside One Liberty Place was crucial to reach the people to whom they needed to spread their message: blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians.

A Common Pleas Court judge issued a temporary injunction to pause the protests, but ultimately the judge ruled in favor of the group.

» READ MORE: Din of iniquity: Liberty Place hires DJs to drown out Black Israelites

More recently, men representing the Israelite School have set up outside Temple University’s Center City campus, near 15th Street and JFK Boulevard. There, they called pedestrians “white devils,” “whores,” and other names.

These insults are hurled at people of color, General Mahayaman previously has said, because it is “the only remedy for someone that suffers from Stockholm syndrome, [which] is to make them face the cruelty of their oppressor.”

Staff writers Anna Orso and Justine McDaniel contributed to this article.