Professor Tudor Parfitt

The Becoming Jewish exchange, part 3: ‘Millions of Africans believe they are of Israelite ancestry’


Tudor Parfitt is distinguished professor and President Navon Professor of Sephardi and Mizrahi studies at Florida International University. He is also director of the Global Jewish Studies Program. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and corresponding fellow of the Académie Royale des Sciences d’Outre-Mer, Belgium. He was professor—now emeritus—of Modern Jewish Studies at SOAS. His latest books are In The Shadow Of Moses: New Jewish Movements In Africa And The Diaspora, ed. D. Lis, W. Miles and T. Parfitt (Africa World Press, 2016); Black Zion, ed. Ed. Bruder and T. Parfitt (Cambridge Scholars’ Press, 2012) and Black Jews in Africa and the Americas (Harvard University Press, 2013).

This exchange focuses on Becoming Jewish, a new book edited by Professor Parfitt and Dr. Netanel Fisher. Parts 1 and 2 (with Dr. Fisher) can be found here and here.

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Dear Professor Parfitt,

Becoming Jewish begins with a chapter you yourself wrote about people who are ‘re-joining’ the Jewish people in Africa, and the first strand of the book is dedicated to people “claiming descent from the ten lost tribes and forced converts.”

As we have seen in the previous rounds with Dr. Fisher, your book covers many different conversion and identity phenomana in the Jewish world. Why did you choose to start the collection with Africa? How big is the new African Jewish phenomenon, and what kind of effects can we expect it to have on the Jewish world?

Yours,

Shmuel

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Dear Shmuel,

It is conventional to start an edited book with the contribution of the editor(s). So the African example was not intended to be highlighted particularly in this book, as the clear intention of the editors was to present a picture of a remarkable global phenomenon. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that the number of Africans who self-identify as Jews or Israelites is very high and growing fast.

In purely numerical terms, the two continents with the highest number of people self-identifying as Jews are South and Central America and Africa. However, it is very difficult to put a figure on the numbers concerned on the African continent. If we were to take the least engaged category – which is to say people who believe they are of Israelite and perhaps Lost Tribes ancestry, but who do not practice Judaism in any great sense – the number would be very many millions and would include populations in Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Cameroon, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Kenya, etc. This general belief in an Israelite origin for certain tribes goes back to colonial times, but it is now developing into a more rounded identity with the addition of ritual practices, interconnection with other similar groups in Africa and elsewhere, and a shared sense of oppression. A number of scholars believe that some kind of Judaism viewed as a religion of freedom will compete very effectively in the African religious market place at a time when Christianity and Islam suffer from association with colonialism and the slave trade respectively.

If we were to peer into the future and consider the shape and complexion of the Jewish state in fifty years’ time, it is difficult to imagine that this powerful periphery of African Judaism and African Jews will be absent from the mix. Currently, however, these millions of Judaising Africans have no discernible interest in migrating to Israel. Some of them see Judaism as an African religion, one which is linked with Judaisms elsewhere, but which is destined to develop essentially in the African continent.

Many of these African Judaising movements emerge from Messianic Judaic – Christian religious movements. Much the same could be said of Central and South America where there is a remarkable shift in religious identification. A flexibility about religious affiliation is no doubt a central pillar of post modernity. In the United States more than half of those who self-identify as religious people are practicing a religion other than the one into which they were born. In Central and South America the movement is strongly from Catholicism to some kind of charismatic Christianity, frequently of a Messianic variety, which includes some aspects of Jewish praxis as well, very often as a conviction about Judaic origins – here not so much Lost Tribes associations as imagined descent from Spanish and Portuguese anousim or forced converts. One example would be in Nicaragua, where something like half the population now is charismatic where a generation back almost all Nicaraguans were Roman Catholic. Driving around Managua, the capital, it is easy to spot the charismatic/messianics: they have Israeli flag stickers on the back of the car and a growing number of them claim Sephardi ancestry. A similar phenomenon may be perceived in Papua New Guinea among a number of tribes who self-identify as Jewish or Israelite, through Lost Tribes models, and whose religious beliefs are a mixture of Christian and Jewish elements. On Israeli Independence Day in the capital Port Moresby you see more Israeli flags being carried by these ‘Israelite’ tribes than you would see in an Israeli town of similar size on the same day. It is difficult to know where these messianic movements may be leading. Over time they seem to become more and more Jewish and to adopt more and more Jewish rituals, and in some cases they emerge as new Jewish religions with a strong sense of Jewish historical origin with little or no Christian content. The spread of these massive religious movements as well as the wave of conversions described in detail throughout Becoming Jewish add up to a quite new phenomenon for Judaism. At a recent lecture, one of the contributors, Nathan Devir, the author of a remarkable book, The Changing Face of Global Jewry: New Jewish Groups from the Developing World, which will be published this summer, observed:  ‘the history of the Jews in the twentieth century was dominated by the holocaust. Jewish life in the twenty first century will be dominated by the unprecedented spread of Judaism, globally, and how the state of Israel and the Jewish world respond to this phenomenon.’

Tudor Parfitt