Jews of Africa
A little known story is that of the African Jewish Diaspora, which has received relatively little scholarly attention. When Ethiopian-born Ephraim Isaac is greeted with the question familiar to many diverse Jews, “Are you Jewish? You don't look Jewish,” he sometimes responds, “Ethiopia is mentioned in the Bible over 50 times, but Poland not once.”
The African story parallels that of other groups of Jews throughout the Diaspora. In Africa, as in other places around the world, there are long-standing communities with greater or lesser degrees of continuous practice, depending on how safe they were. There are those who have Jewish heritage and now practice other religions. Either through assimilation or through forced conversion, some may live as Christians or Muslims and have little sense of their Jewish past. However, others live as Christians or Muslims, yet are proud of their Jewish ancestry. There are also those who discovered Judaism and decided to convert to Judaism. These are more recent newcomers to the Jewish people.
Whether ancient or new, a distinctive trait of African communities results from isolation from rabbinic Judaism. Their Judaism has either been passed on through oral tradition or is practiced as pre-Talmudic Torah-based Judaism. These communities would like to be part of world Judaism.
Some are ancient, some more recent, and others once existed but are now extinct. The following section briefly describes some of those communities to illustrate both the historical roots and the possibilities for the future of the Jewish people.
African Jewish Communities
Jewish communities have existed throughout Africa for centuries. Some are ancient, some more recent, and others once existed but are now extinct. The following section briefly describes some of those communities to illustrate both the historical roots and the possibilities for the future of the Jewish people.
North Africa: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, & Tunisia
North African, or “Maghrebi” Jews of Algeria , Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen maintained their faith for more than two thousand years, in some instances surviving violence, political and geographic segregation, and legal status as second-class citizens. After the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, most North African Jews were expelled from their places of birth, along with other Mizrahi Jews from Arab states in the Middle East. Some countries still have an active, albeit small contingent of Jews who still practice a unique form of distinctly North African Judaism.
Jews have a long history in Algeria. In the 14th century, with the deterioration of conditions in Spain, many Spanish Jews moved to Algeria. After the French occupation of the country in 1830, Jews gradually adopted French culture and were granted French citizenship in 1870. Most of Algeria's 140,000 Jews left the country for France when Algeria attained independence in 1962. Following the brutal conflict of the Armed Islamic Group's 1994 declaration of war on all non-Muslims in the country, most of the thousand-odd remaining Jews left. A single synagogue functions in Algiers, although there is no rabbi. All other synagogues have been taken over for use as mosques.
During British rule and under King Fuad, Egypt was somewhat more friendly towards its Jewish population. Although they were not allowed to claim Egyptian nationality, Jews played important roles in the economy. Of the 100,000 Jews who lived in Egypt before 1948, only a hundred or so remain today. Many Egyptian Jews fled to Israel (35,000), with the rest going to Brazil, France, the United States and Argentina. Today, anti-Semitism is common in the Egyptian media.
The Jewish community of Morocco had a peak population of 300,000 Jews before 1948. In the midst of the first Arab-Israeli war, riots against Jews broke out, and they began leaving for Israel. In 1955, when Morocco attained independence, Jews occupied several political positions, including three seats in parliament and a ministry. The Six-Day War in 1967 led to increased Arab-Jewish tensions worldwide, and by 1971 the Jewish population was down to 35,000. As of 2004, Marrakech had an aging population of about 260 people, most over the age of 60, while around 3,000 Jews remained in Casablanca.
Despite their small numbers, Jews continue to play a notable role in Morocco: the king retains a Jewish senior adviser, and Jewish schools and synagogues receive government subsidies. However, Jewish targets have sometimes been attacked (notably in Al-Qaeda's bombing of a Jewish community center in Casablanca in 2003), and there is sporadic anti-Semitic rhetoric from radical Moslem groups. However, King Mohammed VI is taking an assertive stand against Islamic radicalism and reaffirmed the protection his predecessors historically offered to Morocco's Jews.
Tunisia has had a Jewish minority since Roman times. The Jewish community of Tunisia received successive waves of immigration over time, mostly from Spain and Portugal at the times of the Inquisition and then from Italy. In 1948 the Jewish population was an estimated 105,000, but by 1967 most Tunisian Jews had left the country for France and Israel, and the population had shrunk to 20,000. As of 2004, an estimated 1,500 remained, particularly on the island of Djerba, noted for its ancient synagogues, and in Tunis where most Jews still live as they have for centuries, maintaining strict Jewish practices and surviving by metalworking and jewelry-making. In the last few decades, a small but deadly number of attacks against Jews have occurred; however, they are generally not regarded as state sponsored and the Islamic government allows freedom of worship to the Jewish community.
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Beta Israel, Ethiopia
The group of African Jews that has received the most attention in mainstream media is the Beta Israel, the Jews of Ethiopia, a 2,500-year-old biblically Jewish community. The Beta Israel have become so well known that some Jews may think that any dark-skinned Jew is Ethiopian. Although the central legend of Beta Israel Judaism is the story of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, historians trace Ethiopian Jewish ancestry to the tribe of Dan, which migrated through the Nile valley to the ancient African kingdom of Cush.
The Beta Israel are often referred to as Falasha, meaning “stranger” in Ge'ez, the classical ecclesiastical tongue of Ethiopia, a derogatory term descriptive of their community's status as outsiders since the 4th century, when King Ezana declared Christianity the official religion of his kingdom.
Because of rescue missions Operation Moses (1984-85), Operation Joshua (1985), and Operation Solomon (1991), 100,000 Beta Israel now have Jewish lives in Israel. What most Jews do not know is that the process to recognize Ethiopian Jews as “real” and “legitimate” took well over 100 years, and the struggle is not over. Thousands of “Falash Mura,” Ethiopian Jews who, like Anusim, were forced to convert to Christianity and want to return to Judaism, remain in camps in Addis Ababa and in remote northern villages of Gondar, waiting to be accepted as legitimate Jews and make aliyah to Israel. Although movement toward recognition finally seems achievable, this path also has been tortuously slow.
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Lemba, Southern Africa
There have long been many sub-Saharan African communities. Some are dispersed and have found it difficult to maintain their connections to their religious pasts. The geographic challenges are often coupled with aggressive missionary pressures from messianic Jews, Christians, and Muslims. For example, the Lemba of South Africa and Zimbabwe have always been aware and are fiercely proud of their Jewish ancestry, but they do not necessarily practice Judaism today. This is changing, as some leaders of the community, including Rabson Wuriga, Ph.D., and members of the Lemba Cultural Association (LCA), are attempting to organize and educate dispersed individuals and reclaim the practice of Judaism among a wider segment of the Lemba population.
There are Lemba who live in urban centers, well-educated professionals and academics. At the same time, they may be the tribal elders who maintain a closely guarded oral Lemba history. Though non-Lemba women are allowed to marry into the tribe, Lemba men face expulsion if they marry gentiles. According to Dr. Rudo Mathivha, daughter of Professor M.E.R. Mathivha, the late president of the LCA, the Lemba are descended from a group of Jews who left Judea in approximately 500 B.C.E. and settled first in Yemen before traveling south through Africa. The story of their long migration through Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa has been retained and passed down through oral tradition.
A 60 Minutes segment, featuring Tudor Parfitt, head of the Judaic Studies department at the University of London, reported the results of DNA testing showing both Semitic origins of the Lemba in general and the now well-known existence of a marker associated with the Kohanim on the Y chromosome of many Lemba males, although DNA cannot necessarily prove or disprove Jewish origins. The testing itself remains controversial among the Lemba, with some feeling vindicated by the results as scientific proof of their Jewish roots, while others are insulted by the very idea of having to prove their identity. In response to those who question his legitimacy as a Jew, Wuriga responds, “My father told me I am a Jew. To whom am I going to listen? I am going to listen to my father.”
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Abayudaya Jewish Community
Other communities have found their way to Judaism only in the last hundred years. In Uganda, the Abayudaya, whose tribal name means “people of Judah,” trace their Jewish origins to the turn of the 20th century. According to Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, their spiritual leader, the Abayudaya began their journey to Judaism under the leadership of Semei Kakungulu, a great warrior who cooperated with the British the British imperialists at the turn of the 20th century. Kakungulu was to be a missionary for the British, converting the people of Mbale to Christianity. However, Kakungulu favored the Hebrew Bible. In 1919, the community began practicing the biblical Judaism they maintain to this day. In 1919, he is reported to have circumcised himself-when he was almost 50 years old - along with the 3,000 men of the 8,000 followers. They began practicing the observant Judaism they maintain to this day.
Over the years, Kakungulu's knowledge of Judaism increased as a result of meeting several Jews, who instructed the Abayudaya in Jewish practice and Hebrew, and left them with a Hebrew/English bible. After Kakungulu´s death in 1928, many members drifted away.
Since then, as has happened to so many other groups of Jews, the community has at times been subject to governmental pressures to abandon their Jewish practices. In 1971, Idi Amin came to power, banning Jewish practice, ordering Jews to convert to Christianity or Islam.
After the fall of Amin in 1979, the remnants of the Abayudaya community gathered to begin rebuild the community. Rabbi Sizomu, his brother JJ Keki and others were leaders of the “Kibbutz Movement” in the early 1980s, reclaiming the land and building a synagogue (the “Moses” synagogue), which restored the Abayudaya community's focus. Music has been critical to the survival of the Abayudaya community. The Abayudaya community leaders used music to attract people back to Judaism. This strategy successfully compelled many youth to return to the almost extinct Abayudaya community. The community has borrowed and adapted to forge a new, distinctly Jewish music. (Link to CD)
In 2007, the approximately 800 members of the Abayudaya community live in 5 villages among the rolling, green hills of Eastern Uganda within several miles of Mbale, the third largest city in Uganda. The overall Christian, Muslim, and Jewish population of these five villages is approximately 10,000. The Abayudaya Jews live among their Christian and Muslim neighbors, supporting themselves through subsistence farming and small businesses.
Formal Affirmation of Judaism
Even though the Abayudaya regard themselves as Jews, they realized that their isolation from the Jewish world was both dangerous and had prevented them from gaining a more thorough understanding of Judaism. At the community´s request in the spring of 2002, four Conservative rabbis from the United States and one from Israel joined Gershom Sizomu in supervising the conversion or reaffirmation of most of Uganda´s 750 remaining Jews in the community's mikva, one further step in their goal to be part world Judaism.
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Some recent returnees to the Jewish people have ancient roots. The Ibo (or Igbo) are a tribe in Nigeria numbering in the millions. Remy Illona writes in his 2005 book about the history of the Ibo:
The Ibo Benei-Yisrael of Nigeria [...] are an ethnic group [that] descended from the southern and westward migrations of both ancient Hebrew and later Israeli peoples from the Middle East into Africa. [...] The oral traditions of the Ibo maintain that their presence has been in what is termed "Ibo land" for over 1,500 years. [They] state that their ancestors were migrants from ancient Israel, possibly beginning with the Semitic migrations from Northern Arabia into Eastern Africa around 500 B.C.E..Ibo oral tradition references the names of specific Lost Tribes from which these clans are believed to have originated. However, many Ibo have no awareness of their Jewish heritage. Others are aware and proud of their Jewish ancestry and are actively reclaiming Judaism. Certain Nigerian Jewish communities have been making increasing connections with world Jewry. There are relatively recent efforts to reestablish the Jewish community in Nigeria, including building synagogues. Rabbi Capers Funnye's congregation in Chicago, represented by Nigerian-born Dele Jane Osawe, is sponsoring the building of a sister synagogue in Delta State, Nigeria. Because no formal census has been taken in the region, it is unknown how many native Jews reside in Nigeria. There may be twenty-six synagogues of various sizes and estimates of possibly as many as 30,000 Ibos practicing some form of Judaism. Further research is necessary.
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House of Israel, Ghana
The House of Israel, centered in the southwestern towns of Sefwi Wiawso and Sefwi Sui, is a relatively new Jewish community, but one that may have ancient roots. In 1976, a Ghanaian man named Aaron Ahomtre Toakyirafa recognized that the traditions of his Sefwi ancestors were similar to traditions of ancient Jews. Their story is typical of many communities in Africa: Before Christian missionaries converted much of Ghana nearly a hundred years ago, the Sefwi people practiced many “unusual” traditions, such as adherence to Saturday as a day of rest, dietary restrictions that forbade them from eating pork, the circumcision in youth of male community members, and the isolation of women in the community during their menstrual cycle.
Toakyirafa, along with his neighbor, David Ahenkorah, and others, researched their community and traced their historical origins from ancient Israel, through Mali, the Ivory Coast, wandering throughout West Africa to escape persecution, to their present home in Ghana. Convinced of their Jewish origins, Toakyirafa began to teach about Judaism. After he died in 1991, many thought that Judaism would disappear from the community, but in 1993 Ahenkorah became community leader. He re-affirmed the community's Jewish identity, reinstituted open Jewish practice, and built a synagogue.
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There are several thousand people of unquestioned Jewish ancestry in Timbuktu, Mali. Egyptian Jews began trading with tribes in the northern part of Mali as long ago as biblical times and pushed further and further into the Sahara throughout the centuries. In the eighth century, the Rhadanites (multi-lingual Jewish traders) settled in Timbuktu and used it as a base from which they could solidify their trade routes through the desert. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Jews fleeing Spanish persecution settled in Timbuktu. In 1492, King Askia Muhammed took power in Timbuktu and threatened Jews with execution who did not convert to Islam. Some Jews fled, some converted, and some remained in Mali, suffering centuries of persecution. By the 20th century there were no practicing Jews in Mali.
However, Malian Jewry has begun to experience a revival. In 1993, Ismael Diadie Haidara, a historian from Timbuktu, established Zakhor (the Timbuktu Association for Friendship with the Jewish World) for the almost one thousand Malian descendants of Jews who have become interested in exploring their identity. Zakhor's members hope to teach their children about their Jewish heritage and revive their interest in Judaism.
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In 1496 when the Portuguese expelled the Jews from their land and forced others to convert, many Cristãos Novos (“New Christians”) escaped to places like the islands of Cape Verde, the refueling stop on the Atlantic Ocean route to the New World. There they worked as merchants and in some cases slave traders, hiding their Judaism for generations. Ultimately, they stopped practicing Judaism in any form. Descendants of the Portuguese Cristãos Novos and the Moroccan-Jewish Cape Verdeans founded the Cape Verde-Israel Friendship Society in 1995 in order to revitalize Jewish life on the islands.
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São Tome and Principe
In the late 1400s, King Manoel I of Portugal imposed a head tax on Jews to finance his colonial aspirations. When some Jews refused to pay the tax, the king punished them by deporting almost 2,000 Jewish children, ages 2-10, to two small islands off the west coast of Africa, São Tome and Principe; only 600 were alive a year later. Some of the surviving Jewish children retained some semblance of their parents' religion. Observances generally declined, but in the 19th and 20th centuries some Jewish traders arrived on the islands and seeded a small new community. Today there are no known practicing Jews on the islands, but the descendants of these exiled children have expressed interest in learning more about the customs of their ancestors.
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