Greetings to InI
More than 2,700 years ago, on a tiny strip of fertile land on the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean, a small band of farmers, metalworkers and merchants lost a war and, at least temporarily, their land. A haughty Assyrian army swept in from the north, and as they advanced through Sameria they ravaged the communities of Hebrews who dwelled there. The Hebrews fought to protect their homes but in the end they had no choice but to flee. Some took their families and escaped to the east, disappearing into unfamiliar Asian nations. Others fled south into Africa, through the desert that their people had crossed in the other direction five hundred years before while escaping enslavement Egypt. A tiny group of Hebrews did remain in nearby Judea, but a century later the Babylonians conquered them, laying waste to their capital city, Jerusalem, and their most sacred structure – the Temple at which they worshipped God. The Hebrew people were homeless, wandering as they had through the Sinai, taking root, as they had become accustomed, in foreign lands.
Such devastation would have marked the end of most peoples, but the Hebrews did not allow their defeat to finish them. Perhaps their Jewish religion made them different enough from the people who conquered them that they had to cling to one another to retain it. Perhaps those who opened their lands to the Hebrews distrusted, disliked or feared them enough to keep them separate. Whatever quirks of culture and history allowed them to maintain their identity, the Jewish people were able to survive domination by Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Romans, as well as Muslim conversions, Catholic Crusades, centuries of Inquisition, even the Nazi Holocaust.
Though Jews maintained their own religious beliefs, rituals and core customs through these tribulations, they did not remain entirely separate from the people whose lands they inhabited. In fact, Jews often intermarried with other peoples, bringing local genetic characteristics (and often local cultural traits) into their community. When the Jewish people began their journey they were dark-skinned people, like any other tribe that originated in the so-called "Fertile Crescent," who spoke Hebrew and dressed in the robes and fabrics of the region. In the Diaspora, some Hebrews found themselves in Asian and African countries; over centuries, their collective skin darkened, they began to speak local languages and live, work and dress in a local fashion. As they developed over centuries into a substantial European population, the Jews there became white as their fellow countrymen, adopting their languages and day-to-day culture. This wandering nation may have maintained its identity through shared history, core beliefs and religion, but it could not reliably define itself by superficial characteristics like skin color, language or style of clothing.
Even today, when more than three quarters of the fourteen million Jews live in North America, Europe, and the largely white nation of Israel, one certainly does not have to have white skin and be identifiable as a "European" to be Jewish. In fact, there are more then a hundred thousand people self-proclaimed Jews in Africa today. Some of the Jews of Africa are white as their Western cousins, but others are dark-skinned as other North Africans, or as black as any African dwelling in the heart of the continent. They dress and speak like their neighbors, live in the same kind of dwellings, work the same type of jobs – upon a cursory glance one might not be able to tell that they are different.
But they are different – religiously different from other Africans, culturally different from the Jews who live in other parts of the world and substantially different from one another, for each Jewish community in Africa has its own history, character and view of what exactly "being Jewish" means. Many African Jews are "transplanted" Jews, those who have come to Africa from European nations. Some of them, like the Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition who arrived in North and West Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, have intermingled with the local community so entirely that one can no longer call them "European." Others, like the clearly European Jews of Mozambique, seeded a Jewish community which remained when the political climate of the nation became unfavorable to non-Africans. Still others, like the white Jews of South Africa, have built their community on the African land but, so far, have retained their European identity.
There are "Jews by choice," such as the Abayudaya in Uganda and the Jews of Rusape, Zimbabwe and of Sefwi Wiawso and Sefwi Sui in Ghana, Africans who acknowledge their non-Jewish lineage but in recent years have chosen to practice Judaism. Some of them want Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinate to accept them as Jews, others do not seek others’ recognition of their faith. These Africans find solace in Judaism and identify with some aspect of the rituals, history or culture of the Jewish people.
There are Jews by lineage, black Jews who some researchers call, "African Hebrew Israelites," such as the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and the Lemba of Southern Africa, who still practice some Jewish rituals of the ancient Hebrews or Jewish traders who they claim seeded their communities. There are also Moroccan, Tunisian and Egyptian communities which have been practicing Judaism continuously since the ancient Hebrews fleeing Babylonian or Roman domination founded them almost two thousand years ago.
While the variety of Jewish communities in Africa today may confound those who have a narrow concept of Jews and Judaism, such a variety is only natural considering that the history of Jewish influence on Africa is a complex, often contradictory jumble of roaming tribes, crusading traders and proselytizing marauders who crisscrossed the continent imposing their own way of life.
According to some historians, Jews first crossed into the Nile Valley nearly two thousand years before the birth of Jesus, perhaps in some relationship with the Hyksos "Shepherd Kings" who may have originated in ancient Canaan. The Hyksos arrived in Egypt in the Second Intermediate period in the 17th century B.C. and roamed the Northeastern region of Africa for centuries. There is scant archaeological evidence to verify the Jews’ wanderings, but there is a general agreement that a substantial number of Israelites settled in ancient Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs. The Exodus from Egypt led by Moses most likely took place during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II (1279-1212 BC). After the Jews fled Egypt they settled in Canaan. The twelve tribal families of Hebrews unified under the Kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon in the 10th and 9th centuries B.C. The Hebrew kings were powerful rulers who expanded their empires’ influence by trading throughout North Africa, Egypt, the Arab Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.
By the 7th century B.C. the Jewish state had already split into the two kingdoms of Judea in the south and Samaria in the north. The Assyrians attacked this divided kingdom in the 6th and 7th centuries B.C. defeating the ten tribes that comprised Israel and scattering them so widely that no one, not political leaders, historians, anthropologists, theologians nor even the true believers, all of whom have claimed to have known their whereabouts to suit their own purposes or satisfy their own needs, has been able to prove to have found them.
The Babylonians destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the southern Hebrew kingdom in the 8th century B.C. Some of the defeated Hebrews settled in Babylonia itself, others set up Jewish communities all around the Mediterranean, including Egypt, where they set up a Temple in Elephantine, and on the North African coast, especially in the Tunisian city of Carthage and on the island of Djerba. The Jews used these footholds as a base from which they could explore (and, in some cases, exploit) African tribes further inland and into the Sahara. There are recorded accounts of Jewish traders in ancient Ghana, Tekrur and Tuat in the first centuries after the birth of Jesus. Some historians believe that in this period Jews from either Elephantine or Yemen moved into present-day Ethiopia and gave root to the Beta Israel, and perhaps into the Bantu lands of Southern Africa that are home to today’s Lemba. Many of Jewish merchants moved further inland as Muslims conquered North Africa in the 7th century -- Jews were in Tamentit by then; one can still see traces of Jewish architecture today. By the 8th century there were also reports of Jewish merchants in the Saharan regions of Mzab, Tafilalet and Sijilmasa. In this time Jews (and with them, through intermarriage and some proselytizing) influenced nomadic Berber tribes in the Atlas Mountains both economically and culturally. The Spanish-born, 12th century geographer al-Idrisi, 13th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, and the 16th century historian Leon Africanus, wrote extensive tomes about Berber and black Jews they encountered in their research and travels in Africa. The Jewish population in North Africa, Cape Verde and the Guinea coast swelled in the 15th and 16th centuries as both Jews fleeing the Inquisition and those who had "converted" to Catholicism, many of whom still practiced Judaism secretly, settled there. The Jewish communities thrived, especially in North Africa, and though they faced repeated waves of persecution at the hands of Muslim rulers, there were Jews throughout the region until the 20th century. Today most former Jews – especially those in the Sahara and West Africa – have long since converted to Islam or Christianity, leaving only travelers’ legend, tribal lore and the odd artifact of their centuries of Jewish observance. A substantial number of the Jews in Africa, especially those in Northern Africa, emigrated to Israel after 1948. The Beta Israel followed suit in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, leaving only a portion of the community in Ethiopia. Even many white South African Jews have left Africa for Israel or the West.
Despite nearly two millennia of persecution, forced conversion and the constant drain of migration, once can still find Jews in most every part of Africa. Perhaps the Jews have been so determined to stay in Africa because they penetrated the continent slowly – they chose Africa as their land with purpose, and have struggled to remain there because, after all, over centuries Africa became their home.
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