Jewish Roots in Africa

Claims of a historic presence of Jewish communities in certain regions of Africa, notably West and Southern Africa, seem esoteric when first mentioned. This presence goes back not just centuries, but even to biblical times.

Of course in two areas such a communal presence on the African continent remains a firmly acknowledged part of Jewish history and experience (North Africa and Egypt/Ethiopia). A Jewish presence in Egypt and the former Kingdom of Kush are described in the Book of Exodus. Yet even after their exodus from Egypt and their settlement in the land of Israel, the Jewish tribes retained certain nomadic characteristics which are reflected throughout their history.

For example, in the 10th and 9th centuries B.C.E. Kings David and Solomon sought to expand Jewish influence and trade throughout the Mediterranean, including North Africa, Egypt, the Arab Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, as well as Persia. Often such trade promotion and colonizing drives were arranged in cooperation with the Cananites and the neighboring Kingdom of Tyre. These kingdoms often lent their military backing to these colonizing efforts, which led to the establishment of numerous settlements by Jewish artisans and traders throughout these regions.

But the subsequent scattering of a Jewish presence and influence reaching deep into the African continent is less widely acknowledged.

…the famous geographer al-Idrisi, born in Ceuta, Spain in the 12th century, who wrote about Jewish Negroes in the western Sudan…

Pressed under sweeping regional conflicts, Jews settled as traders and warriors in Yemen, the Horn of Africa, Egypt, the Kingdom of Kush and Nubia, North African Punic settlements (Carthage and Velubilis), and areas now covered by Mauritania. More emigrants followed these early Jewish settlers to Northern Africa following the Assyrian conquest of the Israelites in the 8th century B.C.E., and again 200 years later, when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians, leading to the destruction of the First Temple.

This catastrophic event not only drove many Jews into exile in Babylon, but also led to the establishment of exile communities around the Mediterranean, including North Africa. Then, with Israel coming under Greek, Persian and later Roman rule and dependence, renewed waves of Jewish traders and artisans began to set up communities in Egypt, Cyrenaica, Nubia and the Punic Empire, notably in Carthage, whence they began to scatter into various newly emerging communities south of the Atlas mountains. Several Jewish nomadic groups also started to come across the Sahara from Nubia and the ancient kingdom of Kush.

The Jewish presence in Africa began to expand significantly in the second and third centuries of the Christian era, extending not only into the Sahara desert, but also reaching down along the West African coast, and possibly also to some Bantu tribes of Southern Africa (where some 40,000 members of the Lemba tribe still claim Jewish roots). The names of old Jewish communities south of the Atlas mountains, many of which existed well into Renaissance times, can be found in documents in synagogue archives in Cairo.

In addition, Jewish, Arab and Christian accounts cite the existence of Jewish rulers of certain tribal groups and clans identifying themselves as Jewish scattered throughout Mauritania, Senegal, the Western Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana. Among notable Arab historians referring to their existence are Ibn Khaldun, who lived in the 13th century, a respected authority on Berber history; the famous geographer al-Idrisi, born in Ceuta, Spain in the 12th century, who wrote about Jewish Negroes in the western Sudan; and the 16th century historian and traveler Leon Africanus, a Moslem from Spain who was raised by a Jewish woman working in his family’s household, who is said to have taught him Hebrew and emigrated with the family to Morocco in 1492. Leon Africanus later converted to Catholicism but remained interested in Jewish communities he encountered throughout his travels in West Africa.

Some evidence can also be derived from surviving tribal traditions of some African ethnic groups, including links to biblical ancestors, names of localities, and ceremonies with affinities to Jewish ritual practices. Moreover, the writings of several modern West African historians and two personal anecdotes indicate that the memories of an influential Jewish historical past in West Africa continue to survive.

I still remember from my assignments in the 1960’s as a Foreign Service Officer an encounter with Mr. Bubu Hama, then president of the National Assembly in Niger and a prolific writer on African history. He told me that the Tuaregs had a Jewish queen in early medieval times, and that some Jewish Tuareg clans had preserved their adherence to that faith, in defiance of both Islamic and Christian missionary pressure, until the 18th century. In several of his books Hama even cites some genealogies of Jewish rulers of the Tuareg and Hausa kingdoms.

A related story about surviving memories of Jewish roots in West Africa was told to me around 1976 by former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres. He had just returned from a meeting of the Socialist International, during which he had met with then president Leopold Senghor of Senegal. In the course of their discussion about the possibility of normalizing Senegalese-Israeli relations, Senghor had told him that he too had Jewish ancestors. At that time we both smiled somewhat incredulously. Yet, indeed, there are a number of historical records of small Jewish kingdoms and tribal groups known as Beni Israel that were part of the Wolof and Mandinge communities. These existed in Senegal from the early Middle Ages up to the 18th century, when they were forced to convert to Islam. Some of these claimed to be descendants of the tribe of Dan, the traditional tribe of Jewish gold and metal artisans, who are also said to have built the “Golden Calf.”

Jewish presence is said to have been introduced into Senegal, Mauritania and numerous other West African countries south of the Sahara in part through the migration of Jewish Berber groups and later through some exiles who had been expelled from Spain, had first settled in North Africa, and had then crossed the Atlas mountains. Other even earlier arrivals are said to have come from Cyrenaica (now part of Libya, Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia), having crossed the Sahara to West Africa and eventually also moved further south.

In addition to the Jewish tribal groups in Senegal who claim to be descendants of the tribe of Dan, the Ethiopian Jews also trace their ancestry to the tribe of Dan. Some of these transmigrants established communities in such still renowned places as Gao, Timbuktu (where UNESCO still maintains notable archives containing records of its old Jewish community), Bamako, Agadez, Kano and Ibadan. A notable number of Berber and African nomad tribal groups joined up with the Jewish communal groups trying to resist aggressiqve Arab Islamic efforts or as bulwark against Christian proselytizing, sometimes going so far as to convert to Judaism. Notable among these were some Tuareg, Peul and Ibadiya groups.

…conflicting references to biblical sources by Jewish, Muslim, Berber and Christian sources survive … as indicators of their transitions through a common past.

Another source at the root of this Jewish presence and influence was the spreading gold trade emanating from Persia, with Jews becoming involved as important intermediary traders. These traders came to rely on contacts with scattered Jewish communities they encountered in their West African travels in search for gold, a trade widely prohibited to Muslims as usurious under Islamic law. Thus, for instance, various historical accounts claim that Jewish travelers from Persia had organized exchanges of Chinese silk for gold in the Kingdom of Ghana; the Ashanti needed the silk for weaving Kente cloth. To this day it is said that the Ashanti words for numbers relate to those in Parsi, the language of Persia. Under the impact of this Jewish influence a number of ruling families in Ghana converted to Judaism, and for nearly 200 years the Kingdom of Ghana, which extended at that time far north into western Sudan, was ruled by Jewish kings.

Because of their skills, abilities, and multilingual knowledge, Jews became important intermediaries in regional trade relations and as artisans grouping together as craft guilds. They are said to have formed the roots of a powerful craft tradition among the still-renowned Senegalese goldsmiths, jewelers and other metal artisans. The name of an old Senegalese province called “Juddala ”is said to attest to the notable impact Jews made in this part of the world.

Jewish presence is also confirmed by numerous surviving accounts of Portuguese and other European visitors in the 14th and 15th centuries, as well as North African and Arab historical records. Gradually most of these communities disappeared. Since they existed largely in isolation, there was a good deal of intermarriage which for a while reinforced their influence and expansion. As a result they were increasingly viewed as a threat by Muslim rulers, and most of the Jewish communities and nomad groups south of the Atlas mountains were either forced to convert to Islam or massacred; the remainder fled to North Africa, Egypt or the Sudan, and a few also to Cameroon and Southern Africa.

Reviewing the various Jewish and non-Jewish sources on the origins of these Jewish communities involves complicated and at times seemingly contradictory stories about tribal and religious wars and resultant alliances and transformations. These originated with the Roman and Byzantine persecutions of Jews and the promotion of Christianity beginning under the emperors Diocletian and Constantine. There was also a wave of Jewish proselytizing and conversions of nations and tribal groups to Judaism. For instance, the people of Yemen converted to Judaism in the fifth century under King Du-Nuas, as did a major Berber tribal group under their Queen Kahina in the seventh century. These were followed by additional forced conversions of Jewish communities to Christianity and later to Islam, but with some Jewish consciousness and traditions surviving.

These conflicting references to biblical sources by Jewish, Muslim, Berber and Christian sources survive not only to legitimize their respective spiritual claims but also as indicators of their transitions through a common past.

There has been a historical Jewish ambivalence about legitimizing mass conversions to Judaism and to look askance at those who do not “look Jewish.” In part such attitudes are reinforced by the fact that certain Jewish communities, for historical reasons or due to prolonged isolation, had evolved ritual and ceremonial standards linked to older sources and traditions, thus becoming somewhat differentiated from those authorized by the dominant rabbinical authorities. These differences may involve such questions as acceptance of talmudic interpretation. This had placed into question at times even the authority of so prominent a Jewish sage as Moses Maimonides.

Even before Maimonides these issues had led to the by now virtually forgotten split by the Karaites, who rejected the Talmud as divine law as well as the hierarchical authority of the rabbinate. Yet, despite their current obscurity, the Karaites played a significant historical role in the expansion of Judaism and also as advocates of a greater religious role for women. Karaite influence extended to Judeo-Berber communities and West African tribal communities such as the Malinke, Peul, Foulani, Mossi, Fanti, Songhay, Yoruba and Hausa.