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Under the Sudra
The bizarre messianic politics behind Rudy Rochman’s purportedly progressive activism
Rudy Rochman gained notoriety as a young Jewish leader during his studies at Columbia University, where he founded the school's chapter for Students Supporting Israel. His ability to engage with the most hostile characters in a calm and collected manner was not just unique, but aspirational to many. Over the years, he has built a large social media following with a total reach of nearly 400,000 people across various platforms, affording him international speaking engagements, conversations with celebrities such as Jada Pinkett-Smith, and most recently, a feature on an ABC News segment on Black and Jewish communities.
Rochman’s success can be boiled down to his portrayal of bravery, presenting the self-image of a dissident voice challenging the stagnant conversations that have stunted much of the Jewish organizational world's perspective. He offered new frameworks for young Jews to connect to their identity when many were searching for meaning beyond the generic talking points of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. He drew comparisons between the indigenous Jews and Native Americans at a time when Zionists were being branded as colonizers. He offered otherwise disillusioned diaspora Jews a fresh voice outside of the mainstream consensus of Israel-Palestine discourse. And he spoke to the Jewish world about Israelis as if we had elected him as our spokesperson. Everyone ate it up.
Rochman achieved this by employing the lexicon of the progressive world, at the precise time when young Jews were increasingly being isolated from these very circles due to their support for Israel and Zionism. His movement offered a compelling narrative and a voice to the ‘voiceless’. And yet, while he was making waves on college campuses, most of my Israeli colleagues in the political research world found Rochman’s arguments on Israel and the conflict patently ridiculous. His views are void of any articulate resolution program, geopolitical strategies, or robust policy proposals, which in my experience, makes them difficult to take seriously. But still, I found him to be a rather interesting character and asked to meet.
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A week later in Neve Tzedek, a south suburb of Tel Aviv, Rochman and I sat down for a cup of coffee. Some of the conversation was blather. Some of it was quite serious. Some of it I disagreed with politely–whenever that was possible–and some of it I agreed with, even wholeheartedly. Towards the end of the meeting, Rochman expressed several opinions that were familiar to me as a follower of his social media. During the Israeli elections of November 2022, Rudy expressed disdain for Israel’s current democratic system on an Instagram post, calling it a “remnant of the former British occupation,” while wearing a shirt that says “We want mashiach now.” Furthermore, he has expressed support for a one-state solution. “Some call it Israel. Some call it Palestine… it is not ‘and’. It is one.” This all sounded awkwardly familiar.
While Rochman presented his doctrine as progressive and enlightened, his words echo the voices of Israel’s messianic right-wing fundamentalists and the settlement enterprise. In this context, a "settler" is a Jew who moves to Jewish-only communities in territory militarily controlled by Israel. A settler–typically hawkish and chauvinist, especially when it comes to equal rights and opportunities for Palestinians–would scoff at being labeled a leftist. So I went on my way slightly confused as to the interweavings of Rudy’s peace talk and his support for those whose ideology by and large denies the national rights of Palestinians.
As we ended the conversation, Rochman suggested I meet with Rav Yehuda HaKohen, a “progressive settler” and thought leader who founded the Vision Movement, for which Rudy had run as a representative in 2020, vying for a seat in the 38th World Zionist Congress.
A month later, during Sukkot 2021, HaKohen invited me to his home in Pisgat Ya’akov, near Beit El, a Jewish settlement in the contested West Bank. He was a charming host, prayed twice in the few hours I spent with him, and introduced me to his family. HaKohen explained that his movement was committed to inspiring a new vision for this current chapter of the Jewish people’s story and that the aim was to provide young leaders with the tools to identify and achieve the next goals of the Jewish collective.
Throughout our dialogue, HaKohen played the role of an eloquent, astute, and charming mystic who spoke persuasively about the collaboration of spirit and the body politic. As he spoke, I realized that the ideas he was presenting were those I was beginning to hear in many of Rochman’s newly released videos. "The State of Israel is not a Jewish state," he proclaimed, "It's a western state with Jewish decorations.” He described Zionism as catastrophic for the Palestinian population, whose lives and society were disrupted by its implementation. This was not just an absurd falsification of historical context, but contradictory, as HaKohen has expressed affection for Otzma Yehudit, a hardcore-racist political party, whose members idolize Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 Palestinians.
HaKohen spoke of one state between the river and the sea that is “deeply” Jewish, that wouldn't require a Jewish majority, where the Palestinians would be “taken care of” in regards to welfare and communal services, but where they would ultimately live under Israeli sovereignty. The only way this idea plays out in practice, where a minority can rule over a majority is to deprive the majority of some, if not all, civic and national rights. As a South African, and a staunch defender against the Apartheid-Israel libel, I sat there listening as this charismatic man expressed this vision as if he was Karl Marx rallying against the bourgeoisie. But I knew enough about Israeli politics and the Apartheid system to not be fooled by the flowery language his vision was cloaked in.
The phrases HaKohen used were word for word what Rochman expressed: “It’s an injustice to divide the land, the land is one,” and “living across all of Eretz Yisrael will lead the Jews on a pathway to fulfilling their greater purpose” which is believed to spur on a “post-capitalist, post-democratic” world called “Hebrew universalism.”
Regardless of the way these beliefs are expressed, they are the cornerstone of the ideology behind the settlement enterprise espoused by its father-ideologue Rav Kook. For the settler movement, the secular Zionist Jews were believed to be inadvertently carrying out God's will in a manner unbeknownst to them. According to this view, the state did not need to be created in its "purest" form, instead, the creation of the Jewish state is only the first stage, albeit incomplete and damaged until the entire Land of Israel is redeemed and the ultimate messianic dream is realized. It is for these reasons that many adherents of the settlement ideology denounce Zionism and seek out what is referred to as post-Zionist liberation. Post-Zionism, originally conceived by Israel's hard left, has galloped into place and birthed a variant on the far right in recent years.
Carrying out God's will is now rebranded as a spiritual ‘decolonization’ and spurring the messianic redemption through settling the hills of Judea and Samaria is dubbed as fulfilling the Jewish greater purpose in the cradle of our indigenous civilization, but this does not change the fact that the root of this ideology is inherently antithetical to Zionism’s basic principles—a Jewish and democratic state. Clearly, this doesn’t interest Rochman or HaKohen. They have other ideas–a quasi-theocracy–and they have branded it under the most sanctimonious label possible: equality.
“Rochman has married contradictory ideologies that are vague enough for people, whether they identify with the right or the left, to map their ideals on him which creates enough plausible deniability for those who wish to turn a blind eye to his agenda.”
A little over a year after meeting Rudy, it has become increasingly clear that I was right to be wary of his tactics. He consistently presents ideas that have been around for a long time as something new that he has just discovered, and thus manages to couch them in the language of progressivism to create a progressive reaction. He makes sweeping judgments based on scant evidence, often referencing disproven theories and otherwise ahistorical claims as a means to support his narrative. Rochman has married contradictory ideologies that are vague enough for people, whether they identify with the right or the left, to map their ideals on him which creates enough plausible deniability for those who wish to turn a blind eye to his agenda. And worryingly, he shows no indication of any kind of self-criticism or self-reflection at a public level when harm is done at a community level.
This was on full display when in recent weeks, Rochman sat down with Godfrey C. Danchimah Jr. on the American comedian’s podcast ‘In Godfrey We Trust’. They spoke of the rising antisemitism in the United States, relations between its Black and Jewish communities, the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, and Rochman’s soon-to-be-released documentary titled 'We Were Never Lost'.
This documentary claims to seek to bring lesser-known Jewish communities from Africa (and in later installments, Latin America and Asia) into the fold and share their experiences. This may seem like a necessary and worthy cause. And yet, through a series of bizarre theories expressed on the podcast it became evident that Rochman, like many before him, has fallen prey to pseudo-history, which treats myths, legends, sagas, and similar literature as if it is literal truth while pandering to his one-state agenda.
Before moving to Israel and starting my career in political research, I myself worked in Israel-Africa relations in South Africa. We routinely engaged with Jewish communities across the continent and led countless research projects into the history of Africa’s Jews. If one were to look at the well-known case of Ethiopian Jewry, and other fairly sizable Jewish communities in places such as Uganda, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, all of them have shown genetic traces of Cohenic ancestry. In the Sahel, the Jewish presence goes back millennia.
However, there is no evidence to substantiate any of Rochman's claims that the Igbo communities are the descendants of the tribe of Gad. According to Igbo lore, their common ancestor is Eri, the fifth son of Gad. This claim originated in the 18th century by the Black British intellectual and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. In this idiosyncratic version of history, 50 million Igbos are in fact 50 million Jews, while in reality, the vast majority of whom are Christian as they were proselytized by colonialist missionaries.
In 2017, The Forward reported on DNA tests to determine if Igbo men share genetic material with Jews, which found there was no connection between such groups. In 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court declared that Igbos were in fact not of Jewish lineage based on the empirical evidence provided to the court and various testimonies by geneticists and historians. David Sperling, professor emeritus of Bible at Hebrew Union College, has said that “the notion of Igbos as a lost tribe is mythical and that genetics continue to prove so as well. All these claims are discredited.”
If Rochman is to continue to use genetic evidence as a burden of proof that Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel, the question remains as to why he does not equally follow its principles when it works against his theories relating to the Igbos.
“Hebrew Israelites are not ‘waking up to their identity’ or ‘rediscovering their roots,’ as he brazenly claimed. Like many before them, they are engaged in the most effective weapon of choice for antisemites–denial.”
As the podcast continued, Rudy engaged in far more damaging claims when he legitimized the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. To his credit, Rochman is correct in stating that the Hebrew Israelites are not a monolith, but he is incorrect in his analysis of what their ideology has amounted to in practice. The Hebrew Israelites are not “waking up to their identity” or “rediscovering their roots,” as he brazenly claimed. The Hebrew Israelites, like many before them, are engaged in the most effective weapon of choice for antisemites–denial. There are those who deny the Holocaust, others who deny the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Middle Eastern countries, those who deny the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, and in the case of the Hebrew Israelites those that deny the very identity of the Jewish people.
Before 2019, most American Jews aware of the Hebrew Israelite movement might have associated it with the loud but largely non-violent street preachers who would harangue passers-by in city centers across the country professing to be “the real Jews.” However, in December of that year, extremists professing Black Hebrew Israelite beliefs attacked a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, killing four–two of whom were Orthodox Jews. This attack was followed by another attack at a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York, where Josef Neumann, a 72-year-old rabbi was stabbed in the head with a machete, and later succumbed to his wounds. With the memory of those attacks still fresh, and against the backdrop of a surge in antisemitism, it is difficult to comprehend how anyone, much less a self-proclaimed advocate of the Jewish people, would think legitimizing this movement would be helpful for the cause.
One should grant Rochman this: the podcast episode was timely. It was released in the same week when the militant posturing of a Black Hebrew Israelite group saw hundreds of members marching through the streets of Brooklyn in support of Kyrie Irving, chanting “time to wake up” and “we are the real Jews.” Similarly, a Hebrew Israelite rally was caught on film recently, as they scolded a young Jewish man who tried to engage with the group after hearing them vocalize support for Ye’s remarks celebrating Adolf Hitler. The leader of the group responded by stating, “We support Hitler… because Hitler was killing your people. Hitler knew who the real Jews were.”
In a true reversal of cause and effect, Rochman concluded his point on Godfrey’s show by stating that the onus of responsibility for the rising antisemitism emanating from these groups lies with Jewish people, in particular Ashkenazi Jews, whose European experience has resulted in “a superiority complex” of sorts that leads them to reject the Hebrew Israelites’ “true identity.” He washed away this victim-blaming by vaguely stating "we must not only deal with the symptoms but the source of the problem." In other words, the source of Jew-hatred is the Jews, a sentiment Rudy has trafficked before, most notably in a now-deleted video in which he claimed “the majority of the Jewish people just walked into the gas chambers” during the Holocaust.
Although Rochman and podcast host Godfrey went to great lengths to posture the conversation as if it was in defense of Black Jews and anti-racist in sentiment, Tyler Samuels, a Jewish activist and the creator of BluntBlackJew expressed concern over Rochman platforming the Hebrew Israelites. “When you say that some of their points are correct, you bring damage to Black Jews like me,” he said. “I have been attacked, spat on, and harassed by members of the Black Hebrew Israelites. For me, it makes no difference whether they support replacement theology or not. Judaism has an established protocol on who is and isn’t Jewish. I am deeply disturbed that a Jewish advocate has allowed this.” Tyler says that Black Jews receive enough hate as is and called on the community to “reflect, and listen to the Jews who will be most affected by ongoing conversations related to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement.”
Blake Flayton, a columnist for Jewish Journal, expressed sorrow at Rochman’s progression. "He was once a hero to many young Jews on college campuses. He helped us fight back against antisemitism from whatever direction it came from. But he has unfortunately adopted a view of Jewish identity that includes antisemites and non-Jews, a view of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that results in an anti-democratic regime, and has even trafficked in blaming Jews for the aggression they experience. These stances are then shrouded in a veneer of mysticism that 'ordinary' Jews are told they cannot understand. It has been a difficult disappointment to watch it all unfold."
“When challenged on the truism that a one-state paradigm leads to a demographic majority of non-Jews in a Jewish state, Rochman responded with a shrug, stating that by bringing the Igbo of Africa and other ‘lost tribes’ to Israel, the state could still maintain a Jewish majority, so it was nothing to worry about.”
This political agenda is often subtly incorporated into Rochman’s sought-after speaking engagements. Just last year, at an event hosted by Tribe Tel Aviv called “Sunset Series with Rudy Rochman,” he repeated before an audience of mostly young olim, “It’s an injustice to divide the land, the land is one,” and called on those in attendance to reject any notion of a two-state solution. He presented his plan as a new one but forgot to mention that proposals of various single-state arrangements have been presented to leaders from as early as the 19th century and have been consistently rejected by both the Jews and Arabs of the land. The false assertion that the conflict stems from attempts to partition the land is nothing short of ahistorical and presenting the one-state idea as new is nothing short of deceptive. When challenged on the truism that a one-state paradigm leads to a demographic majority of non-Jews in a Jewish state, Rochman responded with a shrug, stating that by bringing the Igbo of Africa and other “lost tribes” to Israel, the state could still maintain a Jewish majority, so it was nothing to worry about.
While Rochman may not claim to be the Mashiach, as the Jewish false-messiah Shabtai Tsvi once did, he has bizarrely cast himself as the head writer in this messianic drama. He has scripted a “real phenomenon” supposedly “happening before our eyes” that is going to return the "lost tribes" from all "four corners of the earth" to the land of Israel. In act two, the hills of Judea and Samaria are settled in a one-state paradigm in accordance with the settlement vision, where the “Jews” are a majority, so that in the final scene the plot can be concluded with the "greater purpose" of the Jewish people fulfilled. It's quite a thriller. My hope? That the intellectual vapidity of this tale marketed as a true story will no longer continue to go woefully unacknowledged.
Editor’s note: A portion of this article that described a conversation between the writer and Rochman over coffee and one that described HaKohen and his attitude towards Otzma Yehudit have been edited because of insubstantial quoting.