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The Black Jews of AfricaHistory, Religion, Identity$

Edith Bruder

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195333565

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195333565.001.0001

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Lost Tribes in Twenty‐first‐Century Africa

(p.3) Introduction
The Black Jews of Africa

Edith Bruder

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter begins with a brief discussion of the increasing number of ethnic groups throughout Africa claiming a Jewish, or Hebrew, or Israelite ancestry. It then lays out the main objective of the book, which is to review the processes and the complex interactions that shaped these new religious identities in Africa. The factors influencing African Jews' religious identities are discussed. An overview of the subsequent chapters is presented.

Keywords:   Africa, Jews, Judaism, Jewish ancestry, Africans, religion

But, with this contempt, one would commit unfairness similar to the thoughtless rejection of the material of legends, traditions and interpretations of a people's prehistory. Despite all distortions and misunderstandings, it is through them that the reality of the past is represented; they are what the people formed from their original experience, under the control of once powerful and still efficient motivations, and if one could only, through the knowledge of all operating forces, cancel these distortions, one could be able to discover the historical truth behind this legendary material.

Sigmund Freud1

Over the last hundred years or so, aside from the well‐known case of the Beta Israel (Falasha), the so‐called Jews of Ethiopia, different ethnic groups throughout Africa, without any specific link between them, have started claiming a Jewish, or Hebrew, or Israelite ancestry. Synagogues have been formed spontaneously in western, eastern, and southern Africa while various African groups proclaim that they are returning to long‐forgotten Jewish roots and trace their lineage to the Lost Tribes of Israel. These forms of identification, not all of them strongly connected or indeed connected at all with the Jewish religion, have created a loose African network of apparently Jewish groups that together constitute a new kind of African Judaism.2 Some are reworkings of biblical theology; others are the direct or indirect result of colonial interventions; some of (p.4) them are derived from local or tribal traditions in search of a different form of expression.

The groups in question are located in different African countries. I refer in particular to the Zakhor movement of Timbuktu in Mali, the Igbo of Nigeria, the House of Israel of Ghana, the Tutsi‐Hebrews of Rwanda, the Lemba of South Africa and Zimbabwe, the Abayudaya of Uganda, and others who claim mutatis mutandis to have a Jewish identity, in radically different ways over time and place.

Part of the intellectual background to this twenty‐first‐century discourse is an age‐old fascination with the Lost Tribes of Israel. Every aspect of the history—and the very existence—of the Ten Tribes is no doubt fraught with controversy and epistemological difficulty. As the late Stanford Lyman observed: “Embedded in the esoteric history of the Judaeo‐Christian civilisations of the Occident, the Lost Tribes continue to play their occasionally recognized and always intermittent role in both the praxes of modernity and in its post‐modern epistemology.”3

Interest in the subject has to some extent been triggered by recent events, not least the worldwide concern that the departure of the Beta Israel—from Ethiopia to Israel‐generated in the 1980s and 1990s, and their subsequent history in the Jewish state. The exodus and the recognition of the Ethiopian Jews, identified as the lost tribe of Dan, have led to an interest to similar Lost Tribes identities developments in other parts of Africa.4 Tudor Parfitt and Emanuela Trevisan Semi consider that “the implied universalism in such a construct has had the effect of stimulating a wider discourse in which the idea of universalistic Judaism has been prominent.”5 With the exception of the Rusape Jews in Zimbabwe, the Abayudaya in Uganda, and the Lemba in South Africa, none of the African groups considered in this study identified themselves as Jews before the 1980s. Alongside the Ethiopians' entry into world Jewish history, the Lemba of South Africa initiated a new web of ethnohistories and made up a wider myth of affiliation to an ancient Jewish Diaspora. The process leading to the emergence of “African Jews” was under way.

This book addresses the elaboration and development of Jewish identities by Africans. Africans have encountered Jewish myths and traditions in multiple forms and under a number of situations. The context and circumstances of these encounters produced a series of influences that gradually led, within some African societies, to the elaboration of a new Jewish identity connected with that of the Diaspora. The purpose of the book is to review the processes and the immensely complex interactions that shaped these new religious identities. It explores the ways in which Africans have interacted with ancient mythological substrata of both Westerners' and Africans' idea of Jews in order (p.5) to create a distinct Jewish identity. It particularly seeks to identify and to assess foreign influences and their internalization by African societies in the shaping of new African religious identities. While these subjects are given detailed insight in the text, this survey does not intend to provide an exhaustive view of the wealth of the varied and dynamic religious experiences in motion among African Jews. It rather offers a network of theoretical suggestions for a more thorough understanding of them.

Because Africans have had so many explicit and implicit exchanges with Judaism, this book draws on concepts taken from ethnography, phenomenology, history, and religious and cultural studies. Recognition of the critical role of colonialism in shaping the relationship between Africans and Judaism has broadened my vision of the continuing effects of colonial and neocolonial intervention in Africa.6 The role and effect of colonialism on these groups also situate this work in the framework of subaltern studies, but only marginally.7

When religion does receive scholarly attention, writers or academics generally tend to focus on mainstream groups and denominations. By contrast, the object of my research is the study of a micro‐situation, what Carlo Ginzburg names the “paradigm of the clue.”8 Ginzburg pushes beyond the simple “clues” of historical evidences to tease out the information embedded in them and he challenges us to retrieve a cultural and social world that more conventional history does not record (as he demonstrated with his study of witchcraft). It must be said that the number of people involved in these African groups is, broadly speaking, insignificant in terms of the overall African population: the groups in question constitute a marginal phenomenon that may be seen as historically irrelevant. Moreover, due to the dynamic nature of religious shift, they are almost impossible to assess. In its broadest form, I consider socioethnic history to be a focus on groups whose general contribution to the broader history of a society has usually been ignored. Recent advances in the study of culture, as Renato Rosaldo has observed, have encouraged analysts to “look less for homogenous communities than for the border zones within and between them. Such cultural border zones are always in motion, not frozen for inspection.”9

By exploring the ways in which Africans have identified with Jews ethnically and/or religiously, this book challenges existing Western racial ideas on what constitutes Jewish identity and ethnicity. The Black Jews of Africa raises basic questions about the meaning of Jewishness, but it does not purport to be a book on “Who is a Jew?” The Jewish identity theme and the essence of belonging to the worldwide Jewish community have a long history embedded in controversy about race and religion issues in general.10 Due to the two distinct definitional standards at play in the Jewish community—religious and (p.6) ethnic—there has always been a tension between the conflicting aspirations toward universalism on the one hand and particularism on the other.11

Over the past few decades, scholars from a variety of disciplines have increasingly questioned the existence of race as a meaningful scientific concept. If there is no race in any biological sense of the term, it is obviously rather meaningless to state that Jews are not a race.12 For instance, in The Myth of the Jewish Race (1989), Raphael and Jennifer Patai forcefully argue that there is no genetic, physical, or biological Jewish specificity.13 Ephraim Isaac insistently asserts that Jewish history is filled with interracial and intercultural mixing and that the popular vision of a single Judaism does not reflect any historical period: “Over two thousands years ago, the Jews were an ethnic group—but even then not a ‘perfect’ one. … The ancient Israelites were not a racial unit but a sacral association, called an amphictiony by some scholars. They were a people bound together by a common language, and common territory, similar historical experience, and common consciousness.”14

Racial categories are, according to a growing consensus, socially and culturally constructed and the result of a variety of ideological and political factors, “not a biogenetic category but an ideology embedded in and expressed through specific relations of power.”15 However, within the body of Judaism, the belief that continuous descent from the patriarchs is the “sine qua non of Jewish identities” continues to survive alongside and in contradiction with claims of the essentially nonracial character of Jewish identity.16

From the twentieth century, the emergence of Jewish religious movements from Africa to Asia turned the generally accepted views upside down and expanded the debate. If groups of African Americans or Africans or Asians who were raised as Christians or Muslims or in traditional religions declared themselves to be Jews and formed new communities, did that make them Jewish?17 In the United States, long‐established communities of African Americans have been practicing Judaism for more than 150 years. Some of them have Jewish heritage, others identify with Judaism, some have converted to Judaism, and others are connected to Judaism through marriage or extended family. Chireau and Deutsch stress that “the identification of African Americans with and especially as Jews expands the parameters of this debate and highlights the issues of race ethnicity, and self‐definition in determining who is a Jew.”18

African Americans and Africans understood and experienced the Jewish religion, as they did for other religions, on their own terms. For the African peoples under study who identify as Jews, identification with biblical Israel assumes symbolical significance while almost totally ignoring the physical (p.7) characteristics; they identify themselves as sharing a common descent with the members of the contemporary Jewish community. When identifying as Jews and with other Jews, they deny the existence of distinctive categories in popular concepts of Jews and subvert the racist image of blacks. Their self‐definition lies in their collective historical and cultural experiences that have led them to assume a shared history with the Jewish people. The entry or reentry of these people into religious consciousness as Jews has necessitated a reshaping of the standard accounts of Jewish history and a rewriting of each group's version of its history. As Steven Kaplan notes about communities of “exotic” Jews, their narratives take on a circularity: “Since they are Jews, they must have participated in a shared Jewish history; since they participated in this shared history, they must be Jews!”19

Africa's great ethnic and cultural diversity is combined with an equally complex religious scene.20 African Jews' recent religious identities were shaped by their participation in Christian, Islamic, or traditional African religions; moreover, many African groups and individuals that identify with Judaism also consider themselves to be Christians, Muslims, or members of African‐based religions. Within the confines of this book, however, enumerating all the connections that have had an impact on African Jews' religiosity did not seem possible. Rather, I hope to illuminate one thread in the medley of race, ethnicity, and religion in the African religious experience.

The book is structured in three parts, each examining a different sequence of the genesis of African Judaism. The first part explores the prehistory of African Judaism. The emergence of an African Jewish identity appears to draw on a very long history. For thousands of years, myths have accumulated about the presence of Jews in sub‐Saharan Africa. Directly—but never very directly—and indirectly—sometimes very indirectly—these mythic elements have played a role in the development of these communities. The myth of the Lost Tribes of Israel is one of them; the Solomon and Sheba legends, the issue of the biblical Children of Kush, and the mythic representation of Ethiopia and Africa in the Western imaginaire are others. It was essential to include a treatment of this mythic prehistory from which the reader may draw the necessary information to better understand the current manifestations.

The second part reveals the variety of interactions between blackness and Judaism from prejudices to reality. In chapter 5 and 6, special attention is paid to the Western representation of the racial “promiscuity” between Jews and Blacks, which became commonplace in the nineteenth century and has on occasion been adopted by the early twentieth‐century anthropology. This part explores mainly the process of identifying and inventing Judaism in the New (p.8) World and in Africa by colonizers, which enabled local people themselves to get to know and have access to this religion. The impact on traditional societies of European missionaries and early ethnographers recognizing all sorts of similarity between ancient Judaism and primitive religion is questioned.

Chapter 7 focuses on the theories of Afrocentrism that provided the theoretical basis for Africans to appropriate the Jewish history. By trying to restore the primacy of African influence in the world, the Afrocentrist ideology has established a link of connivance with the most remote ancestors and asserted that Africans were the true original Jewish race. Following the history of these political texts, this part considers the precursors of African Diaspora identification with the Jewish Diaspora and the subsequent roots of African Judaizing movements: special attention is paid to African American Jewish movements. The symbolic role of Judaism in the religious imagination of the Hebrew‐Israelites (in Israel) and the Rastafarian movement (in Jamaica) is also examined.

The third part reveals the historical background of Jewish traces or influence in Black Africa. Although direct sources supporting a Jewish existence in sub‐Saharan Africa do not exist, several sources indirectly testify to the antiquity of a Jewish presence, in particular in western Africa, or to a Semitic presence in southeastern Africa. Based on these elements, this chapter provides a historical context for attempting to reconstruct the most ancient Jewish or Semitic influences on sub‐Saharan Africa or to evaluate the extent of mythical realities (chapter 8).

Chapters 9 and 10 provide a survey of various African groups that self‐proclaimed a Jewish identity and examine one by one the creative elaboration and development of their recent religious identities. This part explores how most of these societies work toward the construction of a mythical‐genealogical connection from the Lost Tribes that would justify their claim of ethnic as well as religious Judaism. A section of this chapter assesses the impact of genetic research on group identity claims and the view of such claims by others.

In the epilogue, we turn to an overview of the catalysts for change. This final chapter examines the intricate tapestry of cultural, social, and political factors that could have led African religious traditions mingled with Christianity, and sometimes with Islam, to be superseded by a new Jewish cultural identity. Following Mircea Eliade, who states that the most important task in the study of religions is to “decipher” the “deep meaning” of religious phenomena, I shall suggest some hypotheses of the meaning and the benefits that these groups derive from their affiliation with Judaism.21 Of course, the number of topics to which I could have devoted attention in this section would fill an additional volume. I hope nonetheless that these considerations will stimulate future debate.


(1.)  Sigmund Freud, translated from Eine Kinderheiterinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci [A Childhood of Leonardo da Vinci] (Paris: Folio, Gallimard, 1991), pp. 114–115. All translations are my own unless indicated otherwise.

(2.)  Tudor Parfitt and Emanuela Trevisan Semi, Judaising Movements (London: Routledge Curzon, 2002), p. ix.

(3.)  Stanford L. Lyman, “The Lost Tribes of Israel as a Problem in History and Sociology,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 12, no. 1 (1998): 34.

(4.)  The surveys and publications on this community number in the thousands. In this study, the Falasha will be taken into account only in relation to the historical and cultural context of African Judaism, in order to apprehend other groups and understand their history. For a review on the literature on this subject, see Bibliography on Ethiopian Jewry (2001–2004), compiled by Shalva Weil (Addis‐Ababa: SOSTEJE, 2004).

(5.)  Parfitt and Trevisan Semi, Judaising Movements, p. ix.

(6.)  Frederick Cooper, “Conflict and Connection: Rethinking Colonial African History,” American Historical Review 99 (1997): 1515–1545.

(7.)  See, e.g., Gyan Prakash, “Subaltern Studies as Postcolonial Criticism,” American Historical Review 99, no. 5 (1994): 1475–1490. Much controversy has recently come to surround the status and value of postcolonial theory, which has been challenged on several fronts. See Bart Moore‐Gilbert, Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (London: Verso, 1997).

(8.)  Carlo Ginzburg, Clues, Myths and the Historical Method (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

(9.)  Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 217.

(10.)  Melford E. Spiro, “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation,” in Cultural and Human Nature: Theoretical Papers of Melford E. Spiro, ed. Benjamin Kilborne and L.L Langness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987): 187–222; Gary Porton, The Stranger within Your Gates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

(11.)  Parfitt and Trevisan Semi, Judaising Movements, p. vii.

(12.)  See, e.g., Steven Kaplan, “If There Are No Races: How Can Jews Be a ‘Race’?” Modern Jewish Studies 2, no. 1 (2003): 79–96; Michael Corinaldi, The Enigma of Jewish Identity: The Law of Return, Theory and Practice (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001); also Zvi Zohar and Avi Sagi, The Circles of Jewish Identity in Halachic Literature (Tel Aviv: HaKibbutz HaMeuchad, 2000); David T. Goldberg and Michael Kraus, eds., Jewish Identity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).

(13.)  Raphael Patai and Jennifer Patai, The Myth of the Jewish Race (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1989). For a good survey of recent scholarship opinions on this topic from a variety of perspectives, including physical anthropology and genetics, see Faye V. Harrison, “The Persistent Power of Race,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1992): 47–74; Alain F. Corcos, The Myth of the Jewish Race: A Biologist's Point of View (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2005). For a brief review on the literature on this subject, see Ari Kelman in Reader's Guide to Judaism, ed. M. Terry (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000), pp. 517–518.

(14.)  Ephraim Isaac, “The Question of Jewish Identity and Ethiopian Jewish Origins,” paper presented at the conference of the Society for Ethiopian Jewry, University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, October 14, 2004. The text is quoted in Diane Tobin, Gary A. Tobin, and Scott Rubin, In Every Tongue (San Francisco: Institute for Jewish and Community Research, 2005), p. 68.

(15.)  M. McGiffer, “Editor's Preface” to “Constructing Race: Differentiating Peoples in the Early Modern Period,” William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (1997): 3.

(16.)  Kaplan, If There Are No Races, p. 85.

(17.)  Indeed, the preferred self‐designation of the Israelite community is that a Jew is a person who is either born of Jewish parents—that is, who has “Jewish blood”—or who converts to Judaism according to the law of an official branch of Judaism. See Shaye J. D. Cohen, “Conversion to Judaism in Historical Perspective from Biblical Israel to Post‐Biblical Judaism,” Conservative Judaism 36, no. 4 (Summer 1983): 31–45.

(18.)  Yvonne Chireau and Nathaniel Deutsch eds., Black Zion: African American Encounters with Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 6.

(19.)  Ken Blady, Jewish Communities in Exotic Places (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 2000), introduction by Steven Kaplan, p. xxv.

(20.)  There are in Africa approximately 2,000 ethnic groups in more than fifteen nation‐states.

(21.)  Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated from the French by Willard E. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 15.