Since Biblical times, the Jewish people have had close ties with Africa, going back to Abraham’s sojourns in Egypt, and later the Israelite captivity under the Pharaohs. Some Jewish communities in Africa are among the oldest in the world, dating back more than 2700 years. Today, Jews and Judaism in Africa show an ethnic and religious diversity and richness almost unparallelled on any other continent. African Jewish communities include:
Scattered African groups which have not maintained contact with the wider Jewish community from ancient times, but which assert descent from ancient Israel or other connections to Judaism.
- Groups which observe Jewish rituals, or rituals bearing recognizable resemblance to Judaism. Although there are a number of such groups, only the Beta Israel of Ethiopia are generally recognized as historically Jewish by the majority of world Jewry.
- Groups such as the Lemba (not regarded as Jewish, primarily as a result of their embrace of Christianity), which exhibit genetic traits regarded as linking them to the main body of the Jewish people.
- Sephardi Jews and Mizraḥi Jews living in North Africa, especially in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia although many of these have now emigrated, mostly to Israel and France, with substantial numbers also emigrating to Brazil, Canada and the USA.
- The South African Jews, who are mostly Ashkenazi Jews, descended from pre-Holocaust immigrant Lithuanian Jews.
Although not all African Jews are religious, most of the practices found in African Jewish communities are Orthodox in nature, enabling the communities to remain strong and united in spirit and belief.
Ancient Jewish communities
The most ancient communities of African Jews known to the Western world are the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews of North Africa. Communities which were largely unknown in the West until (in most cases), quite recently, are the many so-called “Black [African] Jews”, such as the Lemba (Malawi, Zimbabwe, region of Venda in South Africa) and the Beta Israel (Ethiopia). Some among the Igbo (Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea) claim descent from East African Jewish communities.
Main articles: History of the Jews in Algeria, History of the Jews in Tunisia, History of the Jews in Morocco, History of the Jews in Libya, and History of the Jews in Egypt
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. Some, however, moved further inland and actively proselytized among the Berber tribes. A number of tribes, including the Jarawa, Uled Jari, and some tribes of the Daggatun people, converted to Judaism. Ibn Khaldun reported that the Kahina, a female Berber warlord who led the resistance against the Arab invaders of North Africa in the 680’s and 690’s, was a Jew of the Jarawa tribe. With the defeat of the Berber resistance many of the Jewish tribes were forced to convert to Islam. Remnants of longstanding Jewish communities remain in Morocco, Tunisia and the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, with a much-diminished but still-vibrant community on the island of Djerba (Tunisia). As in the rest of the Arab world, however, as a result of increased persecution since the founding of the state of Israel, most have emigrated, primarily to Israel, France and Spain.
The Beta Israel of Ethiopia were recognized by the Israeli government as legally Jewish in 1975, and many of them were air-lifted to Israel during the time of Prime Minister Menahem Begin; significant immigration continues into the 21st century. Begin had obtained an official ruling from the Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi (or Rishon LeTzion) Ovadia Yosef that they were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes, probably from the Tribe of Dan, as there are rabbinical responsa that discussed issues concerning them going back hundreds of years; however, historical and DNA evidence suggest different origins. Rabbi Yosef ruled that upon arrival in Israel they must undergo a pro forma conversion to Judaism, and declare their allegiance to a halachic way of life and the Jewish people in conformity with practices followed by Orthodox Rabbinical Judaism, but didn’t demand the normal rigid requirements the halacha imposes on potential gentile proselytes, (such as a brit milah or immersion in a mikveh). (Although some Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbis do require that members of Beta Israel undergo a formal conversion and regard them the same as converts without reliable proof of Jewish ancestry.) Many rabbinic authorities consider the conversions to be actual conversions, not pro forma.
The practices of the Beta Israel differ significantly in some areas from those of other forms of Judaism. Since in Ethiopia the Beta Israel community was for the most part unaware of the Talmud. They did however have their own Oral Law, which in some cases was similar to the practices of Karaite Judaism. However, their religious elders, or priestly class known as kessim or qessotch, interpreted the Biblical Law of the Tanach in a not completely dissimilar way to that used by other rabbinical Jewish communities in other parts of the world. In that sense the Beta Israel had an analogous tradition to that of the Talmud, although at times at variance with the practices and teachings of other Jewish communities throughout the world. Today, they are a community in flux; some of the kessim accept normative Judaism, i.e., the rabbinic/Talmudic tradition that is practiced by other Orthodox Jews, and many of the younger generation of Ethiopian-Israelis have been educated in yeshivas and received rabbinical semikha, while a certain segment of traditionalist kessim insist on maintaining their separate and distinct form of Judaism as practiced in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Many of the Ethiopian Jewish youth who have immigrated to Israel have assimilated to the dominant form of Orthodox Judaism as practised in Israel, while others have assimilated to a secular lifestyle in Israel. One significant difference is that they lack the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah. This might be because they branched off from the main body of Judaism before these holy days were developed. Today, most members of the Beta Israel community who have migrated to Israel do observe these holidays.
There also exists a community in Ethiopia, of some 50,000 members known as Beit Avraham. This community claims Jewish heritage, and it is believed by several scholars that they broke off from the Beta Israel community several centuries ago and hid their Jewish customs by adopting Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. However, they have traditionally been on the lower rungs of Ethiopian social life and have held occupations similar to the Beta Israel, such as craftsmanship. Recently, the Beit Avraham community has made attempts to reach out to the world Jewish community and has formed the Ethiopian North Shewa Zionist Organization in an attempt to save their Jewish identity.
Jews of the Bilad el-Sudan (West Africa)
According to the Muslim records the Tarikh el-Fettash (16th cent.) and the Tarikh el Soudan (17th cent.) there were several Jewish communities that existed as a part of the Ghana, Mali, and later Songhay empires. One such community was formed by a group of Egyptian Jews, who traveled by way of the Sahel corridor through Chad into Mali. Manuscript C of the Tarikh el-Fettash describes a community called the Bani Israeel that in 1402 CE existed in Tirdirma, possessed 333 wells, and had seven princes as well as an army.
Another such community was that of the Zuwa ruler of Koukiya (located near the Niger river), whose name is only known as Zuwa Alyaman (meaning “He comes from Yemen”). According to local legends Zuwa Alyaman was a member of one of the Jewish communities transported from Yemen by the Abbysinians in the 6th century C.E. after the defeat of Dhu Nuwas. Zuwa Alyaman is said to have traveled into West Africa along with his brother, and eventually established a community in Kukiya near the Niger River. According to the Tarikh el-Soudan, there were 14 Zuwa rulers of Kukiya after Zuwa Alyaman before the rise of Islam in the region.
Other sources say that other Jewish communities in the region were formed by migrations from Morocco, Egypt, Portugal, and possibly Gojjam, Ethiopia. Some communities are said to have been populated by certain Berber Jews like a group of Kal Tamasheq known as Iddao Ishaak that traveled from North Africa into West Africa for trade, as well as those escaping the Islamic invasions into North Africa.
The Lemba or Lembaa are a group of people in southern Africa. Although they speak Bantu languages similar to their neighbours, they have specific religious practices similar to those in Judaism, and a tradition of being a migrant people with clues pointing to an origin from Yemeni Jews.
They have restrictions on intermarriage with non-Lemba, with it being particularly difficult for male non-Lemba to become part of the tribe. The presence of a disproportionate number of particular polymorphisms on the Y chromosome known as the Cohen modal haplotype suggests an ancestral link to the Kohanim or priests, a distinct subgroup of Israelites. This Y chromosome marker is present in 50% of Jewish men while it was found that roughly 85% of Lemba men had the Cohen modal gene-marker.
While it is certain that the Lemba are descended from Jewish tribes, they have not practiced Judaism for many centuries. Although the vast majority of Lemba do not see a contradiction in proclaiming their Hebrew heritage while practicing Christianity or Islam, there has been a movement as of late to shift towards mainstream Judaism, and outside sources have been aiding in their desire to become full members of the world-wide Jewish community.
Igbo (Ibo) Jews
The Igbo (Ibo) of Nigeria are one of the Jewish components of the Igbo (Ibo) ethnic group who are said to be descended from North African or Egyptian Hebraic and later Israelite migrations into West Africa. Oral legends amongst the Igbo state that this migration started around 1,500 years ago. According to the Igbo lore of the Eri, Nri, and Ozubulu families, Igbo ethnic groups with Israelite descent are comprised of the Benei Gath, Benei Zevulun, and Benei Menashe lineages.
Igbo oral legends also state that certain Nri families may be descendants of Levitical priests who migrated from North Africa. These oral legends state that the ancestors of the Igbo were made up of familiar clans of Israelites who left the northern kingdom of Israel before and during the Assyrian and Babylonian sieges. This might explain how their current oral traditions contain the specific tribes these clans originated from.
Groups called Godians and Ibrim maintained much of the Hebraic traditions of the Igbo people. These groups maintained the Jewish traditions that the majority of the communities lost over time, due to their isolation from the rest of Nigerian society. Certain Nigerian communities with Judaic practices have been receiving help from individual Israelis and American Jews who work in Nigeria, out-reach organizations like Kulanu, and African-American Jewish communities in America. Two synagogues in Nigeria were founded by Jews from outside Nigeria, and are maintained by Igbos in Nigeria.
Because no formal census has been taken in the region, it is unknown how many Igbos residing in Nigeria identify themselves as being either Israelites or Jews. There are currently 26 synagogues of various sizes, and some estimate the possibility of as many as 30,000 Igbos practicing some form of Judaism.
The Bnai Ephraim are different from other Nigerian Israelite groups in that they live among the Yoruba rather than the Igbo people.The Bnai Ephraim (“Children of Ephraim”) of Nigeria numbered in 1930 about 2000 people in 400 families in 20 small villages in the Ondo district of southwestern Nigeria. According to their traditions, they came to Nigeria by way of Morocco sometime in the 16th century after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Their language is a mixture of Moroccan Arabic with Yoruba, but with bits of Aramaic, such as ima for “mother.” In their aspect and most of their customs they cannot be distinguished from their Yoruba neighbors, but the Yoruba call them Emo Yo Quaim – the “Strange People.” They call themselves Bnai Ephraim and keep copies of portions of the Torah in their sanctuaries unlike the other African Israelite community in Nigeria, among the Igbo, who practiced a form of Ancient Hebraic way of life without torah. The Bnai Ephraim are unique in being among the Yoruba.
There are some who believe that a Jewish presence may have at one time existed in Cameroon via merchants who arrived from Egypt for trade. According to some accounts these communities observed rituals such as separation of dairy and meat products as well as wearing tefillin. There are also claims that Jews migrated into Cameroon after being forced southward due to the Islamic conquests of North Africa.
The claims of a Jewish presence in Cameroon are made by Rabbi Yisrael Oriel. Rabbi Oriel, formerly Bodol Ngimbus-Ngimbus, was born into the Ba-Saa tribe. 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 admitted that these tribes had not been accepted halachically, although he claimed to prove their Jewish status from medieval rabbinic sources.
The largest influx of Jews to Africa came after the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of the Jews in Spain in 1492, and Portugal and Sicily soon afterwards. Many of these Sephardic Jews settled in North Africa.
São Tomé e Príncipe
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 1600s “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.
Emergent modern communities
The House of Israel community of Sefwi Wiawso and Sefwi Sui in Western Ghana 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, Kenya, abandoning their Christian beliefs in exchange for pure 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 had realized that their beliefs are incompatible with Judaism and are now waiting to be instructed in pure 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.
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.
The Abayudaya of Uganda are a group which has enthusiastically embraced Judaism in relatively recent times—their practice of the religion dates only from 1917.
The Jews of Rusape, Zimbabwe claim ancient Hebrew tribal connections—in fact, they claim that most Black Africans (especially the Bantu peoples) are actually of Ancient Hebrew origin. However, the active practice of Judaism in the Rusape community dates back only to the early twentieth century; in this case, to 1903. (Despite the chronological proximity of the beginnings of observance in these two communities, a historical relationship between them should not be inferred: there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate the existence of any relationship between them, aside from their interest in Judaism.) This community, although no longer believing in Jesus as the Messiah like Christians do, does believe that Jesus was a prophet, however the community also believes that all people on Earth are prophets as well and so Jesus had no high or special status. Currently the community is moving towards more mainstream Judaism. This group believes that the majority of African peoples are descendants of the 12 lost tribes of Israel and that most Africans have Hebraic practices.
Modern communities of European descent
There is a substantial, mostly Ashkenazic Jewish community in South Africa. These Jews arrived mostly from Lithuania prior to World War II, though others have origins in Britain, Germany, and Eastern Europe. Connected to them were the small European Jewish communities in Namibia (South West Africa), Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia), Lesotho (Basutuland), Swaziland, Botswana (Bechuanaland), Zaire (Belgian Congo), Kenya, Malawi (Nyasaland), Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) all of which had synagogues and even formal Jewish schools usually based in the capitals of these countries. (See History of the Jews in South Africa.)
Historically, there was a Jewish community in Maputo, Mozambique but in the independence era nearly all left. The government has officially returned the Maputo synagogue to the Jewish community, but “little or no Jewish community remains to reclaim it.”