The last meeting of Kulanu took place December 19, 1999 at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland. At the meeting, I gave members of Kulanu and Temple Shalom an overview and update on Zakhor, the Timbuktu Association for Friendship with the Jewish World. Here is the Washington Jewish Week article on the meeting:
Jews of Timbuktu - group tries to help lost Jews
Washington Jewish Week, December 30, 1999
“We, the Jews of Timbuktu…the time has come for us to remember, and this time is the most difficult one in our history since the edict of Askia Muhammad, who in 1492 forced us to convert to Islam.”
So began Rick Gold’s lecture on the “hidden” Jews of Timbuktu, held Sunday, Dec. 19 at Temple Shalom, Chevy Chase.
The talk was sponsored by Kulanu (“all of us”), an organization dedicated to finding and assisting lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people. The manifesto from which Gold read excerpts was published in its entirety in the Malian newspaper, Le Republicain, May 29, 1996. It announced to the presidents of Mali and Israel, diplomatic missions in Mali and Jewish communities throughout the world, the presence of some 1,000 “Jews” in Timbuktu.
It was in Timbuktu, Mali, in the center of the northwestern hump of Africa, that Gold stumbled upon the lost Jewish community — or at least a group of people who descended from Jews — while serving as director of overall programming for the U.S. Agency for International Development mission from 1993 to 1997.
One of the poorest countries in the world, Mali has some 10 million people (two thirds under age 25), $250 per capita, 3 percent population growth and a mortality rate of 120 out of every 1,000.
It was in Timbuktu, Mali, in the center of the northwestern hump of Africa, that Gold first heard rumors about Timbuktu Jews from his colleagues at USAID and the Peace Corps, and from academics who followed the movement of Jews south from Spain and Morocco.
One of these academics was Ismael Diadie Haidara who founded the organization that issued the manifesto.
Zakhor, or the Timbuktu Association for Friendship with the Jewish World, began as an informal, unpublicized association in 1993. Then the manifesto came out, and Jews of Mali became international news.
The group went public in 1995-96.
Gold translated the manifesto from French to English and distributed it to academic, black and Jewish Internet groups.
A historian at the documentation center in Timbuktu, Haidara had discovered 19th century trading documents that referenced links between Jews running the caravan route from southern Morocco and Jews in Timbuktu. These documents, written in Arabic, had Hebrew script around the margins, a sort of “code” to let people know the documents were authentic, according to Gold. The trading documents referred to three families in particular: the Kehath family (Ka’ti) that came from southern Morocco and converted with the rest of the population in 1492; the Cohen family descended from the Moroccan Jewish trader al-Hajj Abd al-Salam al Kuhin, who arrived in the Timbuktu area in the 18th century; and the Abana family, which came in the first half of the 19th century.
“We are Jews because our ancestors were Jews, whose genes are found in all our families,” state the members of Zakhor in the manifesto. In the process of discovering descendants of these three families in Timbuktu, Gold said, Haidara also realized his own Jewish heritage, descended from Moroccan Jewish traders of the Abana family.
What happened to these Jewish families over the years that made them lose their Jewish identity and caused them to convert?
According to Gold, Timbuktu was important from the 12th to 16th centuries because of salt, gold and Islam. It was ruled by a series of empires including Ghana, Mali, Senegal and Morocco.
Under the Moroccan Empire, which controlled Timbuktu and the trade between Morocco and Timbuktu for some 300 years beginning in the late 1500s, Gold said Jews had a monopoly on the caravan route.
Rabbi Mordechai Abi Serour came from Morocco in 1860 to be a trader in Timbuktu. As a Jew, he couldn’t set up his trading business, so he appealed to the emperor and negotiated dhimmi, or protected people, status. He brought enough Jews with him from Morocco to have a minyan and establish a synagogue. A Jewish cemetery from Serour’s time remains.
Jews also came to Mali from Spain after the Inquisition in 1492. The leadership at the time accepted Jews from Europe with open arms, and allowed them to live relatively peacefully until a new leader came to power and forced them to convert.
The Jews who remained Jews in Timbuktu were dhimmis, allowed to practice their religion silently while continuing to pay taxes to the Empire.
Zakhor’s objective is to reassert its members’ Jewish ancestry — to promote the redevelopment of a Jewish identity in Timbuktu — but not to seek conversion to Judaism. The Jews of Timbuktu have been living under Islam since the ascension of Mohammed Askia in 1492 , and are just now starting to rediscover their roots, explained Gold.
Zakhor’s other objectives include making links with Jewish communities around the world, learning Hebrew and seeking development assistance to improve their daily lives.
Gold and Kulanu have helped them meet some of their objectives. Not only has Gold brought the Malian Jewish community to the attention of Americans through the Internet, but he also helped Zakhor gain access to Jewish, Hebrew and French books and other resources.
Nowadays, Gold gives speeches for organizations like Kulanu to spread the word about the existence of Mali’s lost Jews, as well as to urge outreach to the community.
Gold envisions sending people to teach basic Judaism and Hebrew. “We don’t need to send rabbis. the people are just beginning to learn about it (their Jewish heritage).” We need to educate them first, he said.
Gold stays in touch with Zakhor over the Internet, continuing to send information on subjects such as Halacha. Although, Haidara, the “brainchild” behind Zakhor, divides his time between Timbuktu and Grenada, Spain, his wife is the main contact for the organization in Mali.
“Anyone who wants to can make a connection with Zakhor.” The phone number (223-92-11-27) really does work, he said.
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