Book Comment

The Black Jews of Africa: History, Religion, Identity

by Edith Bruder

Published by Oxford University Press, 2008

This is an impressive academic work by an author with a grasp of many disciplines. To cast light on her complex subject, Edith Bruder makes use of a wide range of writings from African history, anthropology, sociology, history of religion, Biblical studies, Jewish studies, African American studies, and epistemology, the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge and its foundations.

The title of the book, The Black Jews of Africa, is somewhat misleading, for it is not a polemic offering evidence as to the legitimacy of many African groups who claim Jewish ancestry from the Lost Tribes of Israel. Rather, Dr. Bruder, a researcher at the University of London, asks the questions: why do so many African groups identify with ancient Israel and what are the antecedents of their claims? An academic treatise with voluminous citations and notes, the book seeks to provide answers from a wide variety of secondary sources in a dispassionate and evenhanded manner, exploring both external (mainly European) and internal (mainly native African) influences and their interplay.

Answers to those questions take the author first to Biblical texts and speculative commentaries about the whereabouts of the Ten Tribes “lost” in the eighth century BCE. One of the places mentioned most notably in ancient literature is the land of Kush, generally considered to be Africa. Bruder chronicles in detail how this “narrative of exile” in Africa created a potent “myth” or story. The reader should keep in mind that “myth” does not exclude a core of historical truth. Moreover, as Bruder states in the second half of the book, “myth reveals a living pattern rather than a pure fiction,” — a “sacred history and therefore a ‘true history,’” citing many studies of myth in general and in African societies in particular (page 98).

She goes on to describe the continuity and embroidery of the story through the centuries. Initially, the story was impacted by the rudimentary knowledge of geography prevalent at that time, such as confusion between India and Ethiopia. Other influences were the legend of Solomon and Sheba, which had currency in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thought, and the wealth of Ophir mentioned in the Bible. Early Europeans who met unfamiliar peoples perceived them as “Moors” or “Jews,” and as time went by, race (non-white) became conflated with religion (Judaism) to classify “others.” Thus, explorers from Marco Polo to Amerigo Vespucci attributed Lost Tribe status to natives from China to North America. The notion that Jews were non-white (black) persisted through the nineteenth century, even into the twentieth, as Europeans encountered “exotic” societies in their colonial incursions abroad. In her chapter on “Encountering and Reinventing the Africans and the Jews,” Bruder does a good job of leading the reader through this complicated process in the history of ideas.

One of the most interesting chapters concerns African Americans’ appreciation of the Lost Tribes story.

One of the most interesting chapters in Bruders’s book concerns African Americans and their appreciation of the Lost Tribes story. Beginning in the nineteenth century, expounded by authors and thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, the idea of blacks as descendants of a great cultural heritage gained support as a response to the discrimination and cultural deprivation they experienced in the United States. Citing alternate “accusation and spiritual identification” with Jews, from the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan to Rabbi Capers Funnye’s Alliance of Black Jews, Bruder’s description includes the Hebrew Israelites who went from Chicago to Israel in the 1960s and the Rastefarians of Jamaica who trace their origins to Ethiopia. The second half of the book begins with the attempt to “disentangle — in regions with little written history — the true from the likely and the unlikely” regarding the historical presence of Jews in sub-Saharan Africa. Chock full of unfamiliar geographic and historical names, this chapter must have been challenging for the author and is a challenging one for most readers, as well.

This reader was struck by the evidence of early Jewish traders and refugees throughout Africa. The long-term results of this Jewish presence are mixed, however. Some populations whose interactions with these Jews are relatively well-established (groups from Sudan, for example) have shown little interest in their possible Jewish antecedents and are unknown in the West. Other groups (such as those from Timbuktu, Mali) are slightly better known, have justifiable claims to Jewish origin, but, as Kulanu discovered in the 1980s, have little interest in living Jewishly.

African groups whose intertwined political and religious histories Dr. Bruder explores include the Igbo of Nigeria, the House of Israel of Ghana, the Tutsis of “Havilah” in Rwanda and Burundi, the well-known Abayudaya of Uganda, Jewish-Christians of South Africa and Zimbabwe, a group in Madagascar, and the Lemba of South Africa and Zimbabwe. As an associate of Tudor Parfitt, the researcher who found a genetic link between one of the Lemba clans and Jewish Cohanim (priests), she devotes several pages to the historical record of the Lemba, their self-identity based on their oral tradition and Western perceptions of them through the centuries. She cautions against the “oversimplification” of the genetic findings as fueled by the media. One would have to know more about genetics than she provides in order to explain that oversimplification in genetic terms, but perhaps she means that genetic testing does not necessarily find practicing “Jews.” One significant result of the genetic findings was increased certainty among the Lemba themselves concerning their Jewish identity. But while some Lemba have shown increased interest in learning and participating in mainstream Jewish practice, others have maintained Christian or Muslim religious traditions.

The book ends with a brief epilogue that suggests several factors that might have influenced the “Judaizing movements” that grew more numerous in Africa in the last part of the twentieth century. Bruder notes the erosion of traditional religion and the resultant loss of identity, dissatisfaction with Christianity and the moral and historical power of Judaism. She might also have mentioned parallels between modern Jewish history and the history of African groups that have endured war and deprivation and have risen from the ashes. But somewhat disappointingly, “exactly which circumstances triggered the identity shifts in question is not clear.” Perhaps that specificity is work for another day. The question “Why now?” has a more clear-cut answer. Globalization based on technology allows the swift dissemination of ideas and encouragement from Jewish groups around the world.

I hope that supporters of Kulanu and like-minded organizations do not reject this book because they are worried that too much knowledge is a dangerous thing. Even if it is not possible to trace the origins of some black African communities directly from the Lost Tribes of Israel, they deserve recognition and support if they are sincere in their desire to learn about and practice Judaism. If groups are motivated to live Jewishly (without syncretism with Christianity), they should be encouraged. Without proselytizing, the world needs all the Jews we can find.