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Ancient African Jews

In my last article, I wrote about the new and growing friendship between Black Churches and Israel, even as the centre of gravity of Christianity shifts from the Northern to the Southern hemispheres. We also promised to write next about some of the ancient African Jewish communities and that is our topic today.


Some ancient African Jewish communities are well known, such those across Mediterranean North Africa as well as some of the Lemba in Ethiopia. Some recent scholarship has claimed Jewish Ancestry for several different groups of the Lemba, even as far further south as Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. These scholars believe that the traditions of people like the Lemba are pre-Second Temple Israelite and have a Southern Arabian (Yemeni) and Ethiopian origin.


Historically several other Jewish groups also existed in the Bilad el-Sudan of West Africa, as well as along the coast and islands of that region. Researchers have claimed the possibility that groups of the Igbo, Ibibio and Annang of South Eastern Nigeria, as well as several clusters in the Cameroon might also have Jewish ancestry. However whether or not this is the case, most of these groups have certainly become non-halachic over the centuries and many are now Christian or Muslim. Even where they have provable Jewish cultural practices, they have often had no access to the Talmud and no knowledge of the later feasts such as Purim and Chanukkah.


Other historical sources recorded Jewish Communities living in the ancient African Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and later Songhay empires for over eight hundred years between 790 and 1600. Some of these Jews had travelled south from Egypt through Chad. Some Jews were forcibly exiled to Africa from Europe, notably from Portugal and Spain. Still others were known to have come to Africa from as far away as Yemen, some originally as war captives.


Some Jewish communities began southward migrations from Morocco (and Egypt) in North Africa, and even from Portugal after Christian persecution of Portuguese Jews. Others were seeking to move away from the increasing Islamic rule in North Africa. Many Jewish groups remained in the Sahara and in Sub-Saharan Africa even after the rise of Islam, in addition to the better known groups in Eastern Central and Southern Africa.


This is a fascinating area of study and the records of Jewish communities in places like Timbuktu need to be preserved quickly before they are completely lost. DNA tracing may also reveal Jewish roots for several African communities hitherto unknown as having Jewish ancestry. Interestingly, outside of some parts of Islamized Africa, the type of Anti-Semitism known in Europe has almost never existed.


There are now other emergent modern communities of more recent Jewish converts in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Immigration from European Jewish Community has also produced modern Jewish communities of European descent particularly in Southern Africa.


Next we look at Jews and Africans in more modern times, including their relationship in the American Diaspora.


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Bishop Dr. Doye Agama is the Director of the Apostolic Pastoral Association, based in Manchester, UK. He regularly blogs for Travelujah about the black churches and Israel.


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