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Some Jewish communities in Africa are among the oldest in the world, dating back more than 2700 years. African Jews have ethnic and religious diversity and richness. African Jewish communities include:
Although not all African Jews are religious, some of their practices are Orthodox.
Largely unknown in the West until quite recently are communities of the African Jews such as the Lemba (located in present-day Malawi, Zimbabwe, and northern South Africa). Some among the Igbo of Nigeria, the Annang/Efik/Ibibio of Akwa Ibom State and Cross River State of Nigeria, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea) claim descent from East Africa and Jews in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Egypt, which were trading partners from ancient times.
In the seventh century, many Spanish Jews fled persecution under the Visigoths to North Africa, where they made their homes in the Byzantine-dominated cities along the Mediterranean coast. Others arrived after the expulsion from Iberia. Remnants of longstanding Jewish communities remain in Morocco, Tunisia and the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla. There is a much-diminished but still vibrant community on the island of Djerba in Tunisia. Many Jews from North Africa emigrated to North America in the early 20th century. Since 1948 and the civil war to establish Israel, which aroused hostility in Muslim lands, most other North African Jews emigrated. They went to Israel, France and Spain.
Of the seventh century immigrants, some moved inland and proselytized among the Berber tribes. A number of tribes, including the Jarawa, Uled Jari, and some tribes of the Daggatun people, may have converted to Judaism. Ibn Khaldun reported that Kahina, a female Berber warlord who led the resistance against the Arab invaders of North Africa in the 680s and 690s, was a Jew of the Jarawa tribe. With the defeat of the Berber resistance, none of the Jewish communities was initially forced to convert to Islam.
In 1975, the Israeli religious authorities and government recognized the Beta Israel of Ethiopia as legally Jewish. Hundreds of persons who wanted to emigrate to Israel were air-lifted under the leadership of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Significant immigration to Israel continues into the 21st century. Begin had obtained an official ruling from the Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi (or Rishon LeTzion) Ovadia Yosef that the Beta Israel were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. Rabbis believed they were probably descendants of the Tribe of Dan; rabbinical responsa discussing issues related to the people date back hundreds of years.
Due to certain aspects of Orthodox Jewish marital laws, Rabbi Yosef ruled that upon arrival in Israel, the Beta Israel had to undergo a pro forma conversion to Judaism. They had to declare their allegiance to a halachic way of life and the Jewish people, in conformity with practices followed by Orthodox Rabbinical Judaism. He did not demand the normal formal requirements that the halacha imposes on potential gentile proselytes, (such as a brit milah or immersion in a mikveh). Few Ashkenazi rabbinic authorities consider the conversions to be actual conversions, not pro forma.
Over time, due to their community's isolation from those in Europe and the Middle East, the practices of the Beta Israel developed to differ significantly from those of other forms of Judaism. In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel community was for the most part isolated from the Talmud. They did have their own oral law. In some cases, they had practices similar to those of Karaite Judaism, and in others more similar to rabbinical Judaism.
In many instances their religious elders, or priestly, class known as kessim or qessotch, interpreted the Biblical Law of the Tanach in a way similar to the rabbinite Jewish communities in other parts of the world. In that sense, the Beta Israel had a tradition analogous to that of the Talmud, although at times at variance with the practices and teachings of other Jewish communities.
One significant difference is that the Beta Israel lacked the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah, probably because they branched off from the main body of Judaism before these non-Biblical holidays began to be commemorated. Today, most members of the Beta Israel community living in Israel do observe these holidays.
They are a community in transition. Some of the kessim accept the rabbinic/Talmudic tradition that is practiced by non-Ethiopian Orthodox Jews. Many of the younger generation of Ethiopian-Israelis have been educated in yeshivas and received rabbinical ordination (semikha). A certain segment of traditionalist kessim insist on maintaining their separate and distinct form of Judaism, as it had been practiced in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Many of the Ethiopian Jewish youth who have immigrated to Israel or been born there have assimilated either to the dominant form of Orthodox Judaism, or to a secular lifestyle.
Beit Avraham In Ethiopia the community known as Beit Avraham has some 50,000 members. This community also claims Jewish heritage. Several scholars think that they broke off from the Beta Israel community several centuries ago, hid their Jewish customs, and outwardly adopted Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.
Beit Avraham have traditionally been on the lower rungs of Ethiopian social life. They have held occupations similar to those of the Beta Israel, such as crafts. Recently, the Beit Avraham community has attempted to reach out to the world Jewish community. They formed the Ethiopian North Shewa Zionist Organization in an attempt to save their Jewish identity. This group identifies as the Falashmura. As they do not have reliable proof of Jewish ancestry, Israeli religious authorities and other religious Jewish communities require them to complete a formal conversion to be recognized as Jews. Those who do so are considered converts.
The Yibir (also spelled Yeber) are a tribe that lives in Somalia, eastern Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and Djibouti. Though they have been Muslim for centuries, they assert they are descendants of Hebrews who arrived in the Horn of Africa long before the arrival of Somali nomads. They say that Yibir means "Hebrew" in their language.
The Lemba are a Jewish people in southern Africa. Although they speak Bantu languages similar to their neighbours, they have specific religious practices similar to those in Judaism and other Semitic traditions. They also have a tradition of being a migrant people, with clues pointing to descent from Yemeni Jews.
They have endogamous marriage patterns and restrictions against intermarriage with non-Lemba. It is difficult for male non-Lemba to become part of the community. A significant number of individuals carry a genetic signature on the Y chromosome known as the Cohen modal haplotype, indicative of a Semitic patrilineal ancestry. Amongst Jews, this Y chromosome trait is particularly associated with the Kohanim or priests, a distinct subgroup of Israelites. It can also be found in the Y-DNA Haplogroup J of non-Jewish populations across the Middle East and beyond.
Though the Lemba are descended from Jewish ancestors, they have not practised Judaism for many centuries. Like the eastern and western Jews who see no difficulties in claiming Jewish heritage but do not practise the religion, the vast majority of Lemba see no contradiction in proclaiming their Hebrew heritage while practising Christianity or Islam.
According to the 17th century Tarikh al-Fattash and the Tarikh al-Sudan, several Jewish communities existed as parts of the Ghana, Mali, and later Songhay empires. One such community was formed by a group of Egyptian Jews, who allegedly traveled by way of the Sahel corridor through Chad into Mali. Manuscript C of the Tarikh al-Fattash described a community called the Bani Israel; in 1402, it lived in Tindirma, possessed 333 wells, and had seven princes as well as an army.
Another such community was that of the Zuwa ruler of Koukiya (located at the Niger River). His name was known only as Zuwa Alyaman, meaning "He comes from Yemen". According to an isolated local legend, Zuwa Alyaman was a member of one of the Jewish communities transported from Yemen by Abyssinians in the 6th century CE after the defeat of Dhu Nuwas. Zuwa Alyaman was said to have traveled into West Africa along with his brother. They established a community in Kukiya at the banks of the Niger River downstream from Gao. According to the Tarikh al-Sudan, after Zuwa Alyaman, there were 14 Zuwa rulers of Gao before the rise of Islam in the second half of the eleventh century.
Other sources stated that other Jewish communities in the region developed from people who migrated from Morocco and Egypt; others later came from Portugal. Some communities were said to have been populated by certain Berber Jews, like a group of Tuareg known as Dawsahak or Iddao Ishaak ("children of Isaac"). They speak a language related to Songhay, live in northeast Mali in the region of Menaka and were formerly herders for Tuareg nobles. In addition, some migrated into the area away from the Muslim rule of North Africa.
The Igbo Jews of Nigeria are among the Igbo ethnic group. According to another hypothesis, they descended from Syrian, Portuguese and Libyan Israelites who immigrated into West Africa. Historical records show that this migration started around 740 C.E.
Certain Nigerian communities with Judaic practices have been receiving help from individual Israelis and American Jews who work in Nigeria, outreach organizations like Kulanu, and African-American Jewish communities in the United States. Jews from outside Nigeria helped found two synagogues in Nigeria, which today are attended and maintained by Igbos.
Because no formal census has been taken in the region, the number of Igbos in Nigeria who identify as either Israelites or Jews is not known. The community has 26 synagogues of various sizes. An estimated 30,000 Igbos were practicing some form of Judaism in 2008.
RE-EMERGING: The Jews of Nigeria, a documentary film on the Igbo Jews, portrays several communities. It explores the possibility of an ancient Igbo/Hebrew connection. It also follows the Igbo through the Atlantic Slave Trade, revealing new information about the Igbo presence in North America.
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The Annnag, Efik and Oron and Ibibio people of Akwa Ibom and Cross River States of Nigeria have had ancient religious practices that strongly resembled some of the Jewish Torah. These include their traditional sacrifice of animals (rituals) by the presiding male of each village, or of a group of villages, for purification, especially during times of sickness. According to Nair (1975), in the early history of Nigeria, the Efik people were often referred to as Efik Eburutu. Eburutu was a gloss on "Hebrew" and Ututu. Ututu was one of the early settlements of the Efik people in the coastal southeastern Nigeria. The Efik/Ibibio/Annang people were known in early history as being of Hebrews who settled in Ututu. The people are believed to be descendants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, who left before the Babylonian captivity and migrated to the Efik/Oron/Ibibio/Annang land of Nigeria from Egypt via Ethiopia, Sudan and Cameroun. They have active synagogues in the area. Synagogue services (Shabbat Services) of this region of Nigeria can be watched online.
European Catholic missionaries arriving in this region in the early 15th century called their religious practices "traditional religion". However, the people identify their religious practices and heritage with the Jews. The missionaries established the first formal schools (Hope Wadel in Calabar and Methodist Boys High School in Oron) in these regions.
Rabbi Yisrael Oriel, formerly Bodol Ngimbus-Ngimbus, was born into the Ba-Saa tribe. He is one who says there were historically Jews in the area. The word Ba-Saa, he said, is from the Hebrew for 'on a journey' and means blessing. Rabbi Oriel claims to be a Levite descended from Moses. Reportedly, Rabbi Oriel made aliya in 1988 and was ordained as a rabbi by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi and appointed rabbi to Nigerian Jews.
Rabbi Oriel claims that in 1920 there were 400,000 'Israelites' in Cameroon, but by 1962 the number had decreased to 167,000 due to conversions to Christianity and Islam. He said these tribes had not been accepted halachically. But he believes that he can prove their Jewish status from medieval rabbinic sources.
The father of Yaphet Kotto, an American actor, was a Cameroon Jew. Kotto identifies as Jewish.
Bankon (Abaw, Abo, Bo, Bon) is a tribe related to Basaa and Rombi groups, located in the north of Douala city, Abo subdivision, Bonalea commune, in the Littoral region of Cameroon. The word Ban-Kon means "son of prince" in Assyrian, an Aramaic dialect. In her works The Negro-African Languages, the French scholar Lilias Homburger concluded that Bankon language is Kum. The word Kum means "arise" or "get up!" in Hebrew; the Assyrians called the House of Israel by the name of Kumri.
The largest influx of Jews to Africa came after the Spanish Inquisition after the Fall of Granada and the end of Islamic Spain. The mass exodus and expulsion of the Iberian Jews began in 1492, Sicilian Jews were affected soon afterwards. Many of these Sephardic Jews settled in North Africa under Muslim and Ottoman patronage. Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt became home to significant Jewish communities. These communities were later incorporated into the Ottoman millet system as Africanized Ottoman Jews, bound by the laws of the Talmud and Torah but with allegiance to the Caliph of Constantinople.
Additionally, King Manuel I of Portugal exiled about 2,000 Jewish children to São Tomé and Príncipe around 1500. Most died, but in the early 17th century "the local bishop noted with disgust that there were still Jewish observances on the island and returned to Portugal because of his frustration with them." Although Jewish practices faded over subsequent centuries, there are people in São Tomé and Príncipe who are aware of partial descent from this population. Similarly, a number of Portuguese ethnic Jews were exiled to Sao Tome after forced conversions to Roman Catholicism.
There are several thousand people of undoubted Jewish ancestry in Timbuktu, Mali. In the 14th century many Moors and Jews, fleeing persecution in Spain, migrated south to the Timbuktu area, at that time part of the Songhai Empire. Among them was the Kehath (Ka'ti) family, descended from Ismael Jan Kot Al-yahudi of Scheida, Morocco. Sons of this prominent family founded three villages that still exist near Timbuktu—Kirshamba, Haybomo, and Kongougara. In 1492, Askia Muhammed came to power in the previously tolerant region of Timbuktu and decreed that Jews must convert to Islam or leave; Judaism became illegal in Mali, as it did in Catholic Spain that same year. As the historian Leo Africanus wrote in 1526: "The king (Askia) is a declared enemy of the Jews. He will not allow any to live in the city. If he hears it said that a Berber merchant frequents them or does business with them, he confiscates his goods."
The Kehath family converted with the rest of the non-Muslim population. The Cohens, descended from the Moroccan Islamicized Jewish trader El-Hadj Abd-al-Salam al Kuhin, arrived in the Timbuktu area in the 18th century, and the Abana family came in the first half of the 19th century. According to Prof. Michel Abitbol, at the Center for the Research of Moroccan Jewry in Israel, in the late 19th century Rabbi Mordoche Aby Serour traveled to Timbuktu several times as a not-too-successful trader in ostrich feathers and ivory. Ismael Diadie Haidara, a historian from Timbuktu, has found old Hebrew texts among the city's historical records. He has also researched his own past and discovered that he is descended from the Moroccan Jewish traders of the Abana family. As he interviewed elders in the villages of his relatives, he has discovered that knowledge of the family's Jewish identity has been preserved, in secret, out of fear of persecution.
The House of Israel community of Sefwi Wiawso and Sefwi Sui in the Western Region claim that their Sefwi ancestors are descendants of Jews who migrated south through Côte d'Ivoire. The continuous practice of Judaism in this community, however, dates back to only the early 1970s.
A relatively small emergent community has been forming in Laikipia District, Kenya, abandoning their Christian beliefs in exchange for Judaism. There are an estimated 5,000 of them at the present time. This group has connections to the Black Hebrews movement. Although at first Messianic, they concluded that their beliefs were incompatible with Christianity and are now waiting to be instructed in traditional Judaism. Some of the younger children of this community have been sent to the Abayudaya schools in Uganda to be instructed in Judaism and other subjects. There are also some amongst the ethnic groups in Kenya that claim to be one of the lost tribes of Israel.
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In addition to the established Jewish communities in Nigeria described above, other communities are forming Messianic congregations. Unlike other places, where Messianic Judaism leads Jews away from their faith by believing in Jesus, in Africa, Messianic Judaism is often the first step in the path towards normative Judaism, as Messianic communities gradually abandon their belief in Jesus.
In a relatively new movement, the Abayudaya of Uganda have converted to Judaism in surprising numbers since 1917, influenced by the American William Crowdry, who said that African Americans were descended from the Jews.
The Zimbabwe Jewish Community was ethnic European, many of British citizenship, and established with the first white colonists in the 1890s. At its peak in the early 1970s, it numbered some 7,500 people (80% were of Ashkenazi descent), who lived primarily in the two communities of Salisbury and Bulawayo. Smaller rural communities also existed for short periods in Que Que, Umtali and Gatooma. The community declined in part due to age, but most ethnic European-Zimbabwe Jews left after violence and social disruption. In 2007 the white Jewish community had declined to 270. The community had strong links with Israel. In 2003, the Bulawayo Shul was burnt down in an anti-Semitic act of violence.
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