CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


“The Black Jews of Africa”: A Review

by Massimo Introvigne


By “Black Jews” scholars usually mean the followers of a number of movements born in the United States at the end of the 19th century around the claim that African Americans descend from the Lost Tribes of Israel, and should return to the practice of Judaism. The oldest U.S. Black Jew movement was established by William Saunders Crowdy (1847-1908) in 1896; the largest trace their origins to Frank S. Cherry (1870-1965) and Warren Robertson (1880-1931). In Israel, although some American “Black Jews” – from Ben Ami Carter’s Original Hebrew Israelite Nation of Chicago – have emigrated there, the name more usually designates the Falasha, i.e. the Ethiopian Jews who became citizens of the Jewish state under the Law of Return. The two movements are connected: the great promoter of the Falasha cause, Jacques Faitlovitch (1881-1955), took an interest in the American Black Jews and in turn influenced several American groups now claiming some sort of ethnic relationship with the Falashas.

Less well-known are a number of Black Jewish movements in Africa. They claim to descend either from the Lost Tribes or from an early immigration of Jewish tribes from Arabia or North Africa chased southwards by Islam. A new book by Edith Bruder, The Black Jews of Africa. History, Religion, Identity (Oxford University Press, New York 2008), originally a dissertation under Tudor Parfitt, fills the gap with a map of many groups claiming to be “Jewish” in sub-Saharan Africa. Falashas, on which a large literature exists, are excluded. And only a few pages are devoted to the Lembas, a tribe of some 70,000 members in South Africa, also largely covered in literature about Jewish identity since DNA research published in reputable journals lent some credibility to the claim that they do indeed descend from Jewish tribes from Arabia. Bruder judiciously notes, however, that most media misunderstood the impact of DNA research on the Lembas, and mistook mere hypotheses for final proof.

Bruder surveys all legends and historical reports connecting Jews to sub-Saharan Africa. The book discusses in detail legends about the Queen of Sheba and the Ten Tribes, particularly those locating them south of a mythical rivers Sabatyon, which cannot be crossed except on Saturday (when however no pious Jew would travel), and the very scarce reports which can be regarded as historical about the presence of Jews in the Middle Ages and in early modern centuries south of the Sahara. From this survey Bruder concludes that some claims of African groups to have Jews among their ancestors are not absurd. Disentangling fact from legend is however almost impossible, the more so after Christian missionaries made several tribes familiar with the Bible, and local prophets started comparing the sufferings of Israel with the sufferings of Africa. The identification thus from mythical often became mystical, guided by prophecy and revelations. This is the case of one of the most well-known African Black Jewish movement, the Abayudaya of Uganda, founded by Semei Kakungulu (1868-1928) based on celestial revelations, and almost destroyed by the persecutions of Idi Amin Dada (1928-2003). This movement, like several others in Africa, is now being revived and taught in the ways of a more orthodox Judaism thanks to the efforts of American and Israeli organizations, including the very active Kulanu.

The Abayudaya are more well-known than several other groups, to which Bruder’s book is a very useful and welcome guide. The Zakhor Jews of Timbuktu, Mali, may have some justifiable claim to a Jewish ancestry. They are proud of this ancestry, and quick to attack any dismissal of it as anti-Semitism, but on the other hand they are religiously “de-Judaized” in the sense that they do not want to go back from their historical conversion to Islam. “We are Muslim like yourself”, (p. 142), they say to their hostile Islamic neighbors who look suspiciously to anything Jewish for reasons connected with international politics.

More doubtful is the claim that the Igbos, the third-largest ethnic group in Nigeria, descend from Jewish ancestors. This does not prevent some 30,000 Igbo to congregate in more than twenty-five synagogues, although some claim to be, precisely as descendants of the Lost Tribes, “pre-Talmudic” and (not unlike the Karaites in Europe) accept the Torah but not the Talmud. The Talmudic branch, on the other hand, currently tries to be recognized as Jewish by Israeli authorities, and is supported by Kulanu. The same is true for the House of Israel in Ghana, a movement with some 800 member headquartered in Sefwi Wiaso whose origins lie in a vision by Aaron Ahotre Toakiyarafa (?-1991). The House of Israel maintains increasingly important relations not only with Kulanu but also with U.S. Black Jews of Ghanaian ancestry.

The Havilah Institute, supported by high profile Tutsi expatriates in Europe, claims that Tutsis of Rwanda and Burundi also descend from the Lost Tribes. Rather than conversion to Judaism, the Institute seeks a better awareness of the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsis during the wars in Rwanda, and liberally compares this genocide with the Holocaust. Its efforts have met with some degrees of success as evidenced, Bruder notes, by the involvement of European Jewish organizations, and of Kulanu, in demonstrations and other actions denouncing the anti-Tutsi persecutions in Rwanda.

In Cape Verde there is a Cape Verde-Israel Friendship Society which, unlike similar organizations elsewhere, does not limit its activities to supporting the State of Israel but claims that many local Africans in fact descend from Jews expelled from Portugal in the 15th century. Bruder observes that it is more probable that families with Jewish traditions in Cape Verde in fact descend from Moroccan Jews who relocated there in the 19th century. A similar movement exists in Angola.

In South Africa, Jewish ancestors are claimed by the members of several “Zionist” African-initiated churches who are, however, Christian. Some regard themselves as Jewish, including The Israelites (163 of which died in the Bulhoek Tragedy of 1921 in a skirmish with the white police) and the Black Philadelphia Church of Soweto, which now has some 1,000 members. The origins of these South African Black Jews go back to the influence of the American movement of William Saunders Crowdy, and the same is true for the 5,000-member Jewish community of Rusape, Zimbabwe, whose current leader is a former Rastafarian.

Bruder devotes several pages to theories about Jewish origins of the population of Madagascar. They were taken seriously by French colonial administrators, and today there is a movement, the Descendants of David, based on these claims.

African Black Jew movements are not a thing of the past. Bruder claims that “in recent years a myriad of other Judaizing societies, which are not included in this first survey, are burgeoning in West and East Africa and claim a Lost Tribes descent”. She quotes the Beit Avraham community in Kachene, Ethiopia (not a part of the Falashas), Rabbi Yisrael Oriel’s group in Cameroon, and an emergent community in Laikipia, Kenya.

Bruder explain that discussions of the Jewish identity are not part of her book. They do surface, however, whenever Israeli rabbis and politicians are confronted by the issue whether to ignore the African Black Jews, to take their claims at face value and allow them into Israel under the Law of Return, or to prepare them for a formal conversion to Orthodox Judaism.