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The Forgotten Diaspora — AFRICA

Clive Lawton
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Published: 23 October 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

In the second of his three-part series, CLIVE LAWTON looks at the diverse, often quirky tapestry of Jewish life on the vast African continent

THE STORY OF THE JEWS OF AFRICA is so geographically diverse that for reasons of scope and length, this article will focus on Sub-Saharan countries. (The Jews of north Africa would require a long article of their own). And given my association with the Commonwealth, it will be somewhat biased towards the Anglophone countries rather than the Francophone ones. This distinction has long characterised most African countries.

The first story relates to the Jews who came to southern Africa to escape the depredations of life in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. While we know that most Jews who left Russia/Poland headed West, aiming for the United States, a fair number headed south, to the promised land of Africa that had opened up to Europeans, who were grabbing land and wealth with apparent impunity.

When the Jews arrived at the southern tip of Africa, they found a paradise – if you could survive it. Famously, they worked the gold mines, developed ostrich farms and sold the feathers for fortunes, and mined diamonds, feeding into the already established Jewish diamond dealing of the Low Countries. Along with other European pioneers they pushed north and arrived in countries such as modern day Zambia, Kenya and  Zimbabwe.. They built communities and synagogues and played their part in the life and politics of their adopted land.

Not surprisingly, they tended to be on the side of the underdog and the part that Jews played in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa was mirrored in other countries. In the former British colony of Kenya, Israel (“Issy”) Somen (1903-1984) was a well-loved liberal and the last mayor of Nairobi before independence. As the names of colonial oppressors were removed from the city’s signs and buildings, his remained. While the community has shrunk over the years, it retains a magnificent campus of Jewish buildings in the centre of town (not very helpful given Nairobi traffic) and punches well above its weight in relationships with academic, Church and city authorities.

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In Zambia, another ex-British colony, Simon Zukas, still very much with us, was a member of the resistance movement that secured the country’s independence  and has served as a minister in the Zambian government. Also in Zambia, the Galaun family played their part in the meat and dairy  industries; and  a few years ago provided funding for public health research between Zambia’s Copperbelt University and the University of Tel Aviv.

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In Zimbabwe, the  communities of Harare and Bulawayo, formerly bustling and dynamic centres of Jewish life, have shrunk, but they’re still going. In Harare, they even have the Jewish leisure to tussle between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim, with separate shuls still but at least now with a little co-operation. (The Sephardim mostly came from the Greek island of Rhodes, after which they named their community hall. Recently, though, not wanting trouble, they renamed the hall with the Greek pronunciation, so Rhodes Hall has become Rodos Hall, in case people felt they were enthusing about Cecil.) The Jewish school in Harare has few Jewish pupils but has Jewish governors and the curriculum reflects the school’s Jewish history.

South Africa, of course, had by far the largest community, with major centres in each of the main towns but also small communities dotted around the country reflecting the pioneering tendency of early 20th century South African Jews and their readiness to live on farms and near the outposts of their industrial and commercial activity. That has been reduced to a few cities, notably Johannesburg and Cape Town, but there are still several tiny country communities sprinkled around the Veldt.

In each of these communities, along with the tiny ones to be found in Mozambique, Mauritius, Lesotho, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), Botswana and Namibia, the as yet unachieved trick is to get the many expat Israelis to be found all over the continent to hook into the Jewish communities and bolster them.

It’s already happening in Zambia, where the community was on the brink of shutting up shop. It had sold off its buildings, established a lovely little Jewish museum and the remnant was being led by the redoubtable Simon Zukas. A group of local Israelis picked up the reins and are organising services and dreaming of a vibrant Jewish community in Zambia. Watch this space.

There’s another African Jewish story.

Most Jews know of the Jews of Ethiopia, not least due to the dramatic airlift to Israel of so many out of the catastrophic famine of the 1980s. How these Jews came to be Jews is still disputed.

Elsewhere in Africa there are other apparently indigenous tribes and groups asserting their Jewish identity or pursuing their Jewish aspirations. To many a born Jew, this is a mystery. Why would anyone want to be Jewish?

These groups range across the imaginable spectrum, from people who are determinedly Christian but insist on their Israelite origins and demonstrate some Jewish practices, to groups who have undergone Orthodox conversion and have trained their own rabbis in yeshivot in Israel or the US.

In Nigeria, the Ibo, most of whom live in the southern province of Biafra, include several thousand, perhaps even tens of thousands, of people who believe themselves to be Jews, either because they are descended from one of the “lost tribes” or because they have sincerely adopted adherence to the Torah and identification with the Jews. In the region there are said to be about 70 “synagogues” but the rituals you will encounter in many of these buildings are unlikely to be recognisable to most other Jews.

However, interaction with Jews over the past few decades has helped these people to align their practices with contemporary Jewish behaviour. Similarly, there are people in Ghana, in Cameroon, and among the Tutsis in Rwanda (the victims of the Rwandan genocide), who claim their descent to be substantially the same as that of the Ethiopian Jews.

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In South Africa and Zimbabwe, there is a large tribe called the Lemba who, within their numbers, manifest all the options that an African might demonstrate when seeking some kind of identification with Jews, from standard Jewish practices to some who have no desire to throw their lot in with the Jewish people but ”know”’ they are descended from God’s people.

There is a small group of Jews in Arusha, Tanzania’s fourth largest city, who had kept a low profile till now, afraid of persecution, but confidently claim their descent from Jewish Yemenite traders.

And in Uganda, there’s the Abayudaya, which means “Lovers of Judah”. They number   several thousand and most live an agrarian village life. About 100 years ago their chief decided that the New Testament didn’t work for him – some say it’s because he felt betrayed by the British, others that the  Tanakh speaks  more directly to practical realities of daily life than the New Testament. Either way, he converted his whole clan and they “became Jews”. Not that he had a clue what that might mean. That didn’t stop them being persecuted by Idi Amin as Jews.

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Since then, one of their leaders, who is also a member of the Ugandan parliament (and the only member allowed to cover his head in the house) has become a Conservative rabbi (he studied in the US), and another recently got his semikhah from an Israeli yeshiva. With both Conservative and Orthodox bits in the community, they must be Jewish!

Until you’ve heard the young women in the Conservative minyan in Kampala leyn with all the right notes and in a manner that puts to shame most of the young Jewish women we  know, you haven’t had one of the biggest shots in the arm that contemporary Jewry can give you.

But why? Why do they want to be Jewish? Is it to somehow get immigration status to Israel? If that’s the plan, it’s not working. Israel’s authorities seem far more resistant to those coming from Africa, however sincere their apparent motive, than accommodating people with all sorts of distended connections with citizens of the former Soviet Union

I found they were perfectly happy where they were. They are proud and passionate Nigerians or Ugandans or whatever. They just love Jewish stuff. And maybe we should listen to them and learn how great it is.

ON TUESDAY: The Jews of the Caribbean

Photo: Man carries the Torah during prayers at the new Stern Synagogue in Mbale, in eastern Uganda (Stephen Wandera/AP)


About the author

Clive Lawton

British-born Clive Lawton is co-founder of Limmud worldwide, and an internationally renowned educator in diversity issues and interfaith activity. He is currently CEO of the Commonwealth Jewish Council and was CEO of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks' Jewish Continuity initiative.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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