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For an Israelite chief rabbi, a ‘mess’ of Kanye’s making

By Louis KeeneNovember 22, 2022

Rabbi Capers Funnye leads the largest Israelite movement in the United States. He’s tired of people conflating it with extremists

The furor around antisemitic diatribes from Kanye West and a conspiracy-filled movie shared by Kyrie Irving has made it a long month for Rabbi Capers Funnye.

Funnye, 70, heads the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, which has meant he has been asked to explain, again and again, that the affiliated movement — the Commandment Keepers — has nothing to do with the antisemites it’s regularly inappropriately lumped in with.

The Commandment Keepers were founded in 1919 by Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, a Caribbean immigrant who preached that African Americans were descended from the Israelites of the Torah. A century later, it is one of an array of religious movements whose followers hold that belief — seemingly alluded to by both Irving and West in recent weeks.

Those movements are often grouped together under one label — “Black Hebrew Israelites” — but while many trace their origins back to Rabbi Matthew, the differences between them today are stark. Funnye’s organization, which serves about 2,500 people in the United States, is acknowledged by local mainstream Jewish organizations, and Funnye himself, who leads a thriving Chicago synagogue, sits on the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

Some other Israelite groups, however, deify Jesus Christ, and several have called white Jews impostors. The Anti-Defamation League has categorized at least seven of the groups as extremist. The Southern Poverty Law Center has created a separate designation, Radical Hebrew Israelites, for groups that “appropriate biblical Jewish heritage to claim an exclusive identity as the true chosen people of God.”

The tendency to conflate them was a thorn in Funnye’s side long before West — who changed his legal name to Ye — tweeted his plan to go “death con 3” on Jewish people, then declared that he coudn’t be antisemitic because “Black people are actually Jew also.”

“I don’t know what the hell that means,” Funnye said in an interview. “I don’t know what group he’s a part of, I don’t know what group he identifies with.

“For me,” he added, “all he’s doing is making a mess for the International Israelite Board of Rabbis.”

Funnye said his movement recognizes Ashkenazi, Sephardic and other Jews and that his synagogue, Beth Shalom B’Nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, has about 200 member-families and is “Conservadox,” with seating for prayer segregated by gender, but technology like microphones used on Shabbat.

I spoke to Funnye by phone Friday about the conflation of Israelite groups and why he thinks the ADL isn’t helping. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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