PRETORIA – The South African University of KwaZulu-Natal hosted this week a
unique conference on black Judaism around the globe, with a special emphasis on
black Jews in Africa.
The conference followed an earlier initiative by
Dr. Edith Bruder, a professor at the French national research institute, to
establish the International Society for the Study of African Jewry. Bruder said
she hopes that the conference, which took place on Wednesday and Thursday, will
not only generate international interest in the black Jewish communities, but
will also help the communities themselves in discovering each other and in
researching more about their culture and past.
Over the last century, a
growing number of tribes and communities in Africa claim to have rediscovered
Jewish origins, and are readopting a Judaic religious identity. The Igbo people
of Nigeria, a tribe of approximately 30,000 people, are at the center of
Dr. Bruder’s research. According to Bruder, pre-colonial archeological
findings at ancient sites suggest that the tribe might have come into the arms
of Judaism earlier than the arrival of the Portuguese to the region in the 15th
Less well known perhaps are the Lemba tribes in Zimbabwe, South
Africa and, to a smaller extent, also in Mozambique and Malawi, which were also
represented at the conference. These tribes believe that they have specific
religious practices and beliefs similar to Judaism.
According to their
oral traditions, their ancestors were Jews who left Judea approximately 2,500
years ago, and settled in the Arabian Peninsula – probably in the Jewish village
of Sanaw in Yemen.
Later on, in their search for gold, they migrated to
northeast Africa, where they received the name of Lemba, meaning “non-African,”
or “respected foreigners.”
Among the participants at the conference were
academics from Israel, France, Congo, UK and the US, including Professor Shalva
Weil, a renowned anthropologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Weil
has been working with Ethiopian Jews for many years, and chairs the Society for
the Study of Ethiopian Jewry – a research group affiliated with the
International Society for the Study of African Jewry.
Talking to The
Jerusalem Post, Weil emphasized that Ethiopian Jews do not associate themselves
with the African tribes proclaiming Jewish origins, like the Yibir people or the
“These tribes often describe themselves as ‘Israelites,’ and are
not recognized in any way by Israel as Jews,” she said.
course, the Ethiopian Jews, who are a natural part of the Israeli people in
Weil’s speech at the conference, which was titled “Black
But Not Beautiful,” examined the situation of Israelis of Ethiopian origins
Weil said she intended to bring to the fore in her talk the
incidents that Ethiopian Israelis are sometimes confronted with, and the story
of their encounter with Israeli society.
Weil remarked that the
conference was exciting, in that it brought together researchers of different
ethnic groups from all over the world.
The conference took place under
the umbrella of the KwaZulu-Natal University, which canceled a lecture by an
Israeli diplomat a few weeks ago. This time, the feeling was that Weil was a
honored and awaited guest.
“I am ‘mainstream’ here,” she told the Post,
“especially when I talk about Ethiopian Jews. For the audience at the
conference, the Ethiopian Jews are heroes. It is actually very refreshing.”