S. African university hosts conference on black Jews

Gathering at South African University of KwaZulu-Natal focuses on African tribes who claim to have Jewish origins.

June 22, 2012 04:47
2 minute read.
Int'l Society for Study of African Judaism [file]

Int'l Society for Study of African Judaism 370 . (photo credit: Courtesy Kulanu)


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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.

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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 century.

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 Lemba.

“These tribes often describe themselves as ‘Israelites,’ and are not recognized in any way by Israel as Jews,” she said.

“Unlike, of course, the Ethiopian Jews, who are a natural part of the Israeli people in every sense.”

Weil’s speech at the conference, which was titled “Black But Not Beautiful,” examined the situation of Israelis of Ethiopian origins these days.

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.”

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