The Black Jews of Africa: History, Religion, Identity

The Black Jews of Africa: History, Religion, Identity

The Black Jews of Africa: History, Religion, Identity

The Black Jews of Africa: History, Religion, Identity

Synopsis

The last several decades have seen the emergence of a remarkable phenomenon: a Jewish "rebirth" that is occurring throughout Africa. A variety of different ethnic groups proclaim that they are returning to long-forgotten Jewish roots, and African clans trace their lineage to the Lost Tribes of Israel. Africans have encountered Jewish myths and traditions in multiple forms and various ways. The context and circumstances of these encounters has gradually led, within some African societies, to the elaboration of a new Jewish identity connected with that of the Diaspora. This book presents, one by one, the different groups of Black Jews in western, central, eastern, and southern Africa and the ways in which they have used and imagined their oral history and traditional customs to construct a distinct Jewish identity. It explores the way in which Africans have interacted with the ancient mythological sub-strata of both western and African ideas of Judaism. It particularly seeks to identify and to assess colonial influences and their internalization by African societies in the shaping of new African religious identities. The book also examines how, in the absence of recorded African history, the eminently malleable accounts of Jewish lineage developed by African groups co-exist with the possible historical traces of a Jewish presence in Africa. This elegant and well-researched book goes beyond the well-known case of the Falasha of Ethiopia, examining the trend towards Judaism in Africa at large, and exploring, too, the interdisciplinary concepts of "metaphorical Diaspora," global and transnational identities, and colonization.

Excerpt

In 1921 a band of self-proclaimed black South African “Israelites” drew up in formal military formations against armed white police: the “Israelites” were armed with knobkerries, assegais, one or two antiquated guns, and knives; the police had modern rifles as well as machine guns. Throughout the lengthy negotiations the Israelites were given the opportunity to surrender, but they refused, proclaiming, “We will fight and Jehovah will fight with us.” The Israelites fought courageously, but the outcome was never in doubt. The massacre horrified both black and a good deal of white public opinion. Nelson Mandela, representing the ANC at the Conference of the Pan African Freedom Movement in Addis Ababa in January 1962, picked out the Bulhoek Massacre as perhaps the single worst atrocity in the history of South Africa. It is still remembered. A Bulhoek Massacre Heritage Memorial was unveiled with due ceremony on 27 May 2001.

The impact of “Israelite identities” upon Africans has not always been as dramatic as this. However, Black Africa, even now in 2008, contains a growing number of groups that identify completely with Jews or Israelites: in Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere. In recent years the ancient narratives of such groups as the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and the Lemba of southern Africa have received wide popular and scholarly attention. The history of other Judaising African societies, the first manifestations of which date back to the beginning of the twentieth century, has received, up to now, scant academic attention.

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