The 2012 International ISSAJ Conference,
Black Judaism, Twenty First Century Perspectives
took place at the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa on 20th and 21st June 2012
Wednesday, June 20th
8.30 am – 9.00 am Registration
9.00 am – 9.15 am Introduction and welcome Mr Lucas Thobakgale, Vice President Lemba Cultural Association ( LCA) and Professor Magdel Le Roux, University of Pretoria, South Africa
9.15 am Welcome from Dr. Edith Bruder, President of ISSAJ, SOAS and French National Centre for Scientific Research
– Session 1 Black Judaism in the Twenty First Century
Chair Magdel le Roux
9.30 am-10.00 am Dr. Marla Brettschneider (University of New Hampshire, USA) African and African Heritage Jewry in Global Context: Modernist and Western Framing of Encounters and Academic Research
10. am-10.30 am Dr Eva Shaw-Taylor (The Institute for Diasporan & African Culture ,USA) The Voicelessness of Black Judaism
10.45 am-11.15 am Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, (African Hebrew Israelites, Israel) The Jewish Identity Crisis: “At the Crossroads of Lithuania and Limpopo
11.15-11.45 am Rabbi Jo David (Berkeley College, New York, USA) A Vision for the Development of a Strong Africa-Wide Jewish Community
– Session 2 African Jewish Communities
Chair John Jackson
14.30 pm-15.00 pm Edith Bruder (SOAS, UK, CNRS, France) The Igbo: The Jews of Africa. From Igbo Ethnogenesis to Hebrew Ethnogenesis
15.00 pm-15.30 pm Shalva Weil (Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel) “Black but not-so beautiful”: the Case of Ethiopian Jews
15.30 pm-16.00 pm Break
16 pm-16.30 pm Aurélien Mokoko Gampiot (GSRL, EPHE-CNRS, France) The transnational dynamics of Black Jews in France
16.30 pm-17.00pm Mesfin Assefa (Beta Avraham, Ethiopia) Revitalization of Bet-Avraham Jews in Ethiopia: Their hidden agenda reveals their Jewish Identity
18.00 EXHIBITION The African / Edenic Museum presented by Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda,
Thursday, June 21st
– Session 3 Studies in African Judaism
Chair Shalva Weil
9.30 am-10.00 am Jaap van Slageren, Protestant University of Brussels, Belgium Jewish Influence in Africa
10.00 am-10.30 am Magdel le Roux (UNISA, South Africa) Lemba Traditions: An Indispensable Tool for Teaching and interpreting the Old Testament in Africa
10.45 am- 11.15 am John L. Jackson, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania, USA) Why the Blackness of Jesus Does and Doesn’t Matter: Anti-Racialism and Anti-Religiosity among the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem
11.15 am-11.45 am Jay A. Waronker, University of Adelaide, Australia The Synagogues of the Black African Communities: their Architecture, History, Context and Meanings.
Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, African Hebrew Israelites, Israel The Jewish Identity Crisis: “At the Crossroads of Lithuania and Limpopo”
Perhaps no other issue is quite the minefield that “Jewish identity” constitutes.
“Who is a Jew” is the subject of a long-standing and often contentious debate. How does the definition of a “Jew” intersect, depart from, or otherwise involve African communities which identify with Judaism/Hebrewism and the State of Israel? I aim to demonstrate that the very paradigm by which the subject of Jewish identity is approached – through what is essentially a Eurocentric cultural prism – is fundamentally biased, woefully inappropriate and existentially flawed, leading to confusion, ill-will, suspicion and misguided policies. Western cultural anthropology long ago acknowledged these social-Darwinist flaws in their approach to studying the “otherness” of peoples outside of the realm of their experience and exposure. Yet they remain firmly intact as a defining element in African-Jewish and African-Israeli relations.
This can be seen, for example, in the language by which we address the issue: African communities are seen to have “adopted,” “co-opted by association” or (in a reference to the Lemba) even to have come by their adherence to Judaic principles via “the invention of an Israelite identity in the southern African context”. Clearly, the tendency has been to marginalize or otherwise dismiss such claims. Even when landmark DNA studies appeared to validate their links, there have been very few attempts to bring these “lost members” into the fold of Israel’s borders.
I will examine how the “Jewish” landscape might appear through a corrective lens and will conclude by suggesting a new worldview which focuses less on the form – and more on the function – of what constitutes “Jewish-ness”. It is a revision that is important, indeed essential, since these definitions influence our thoughts, actions and policies, and even the very makeup of the institutions which ostensibly exist to assist those who have “answered the call of Zion”.
Dr Prof. Marla Brettschneider, University of New Hampshire, Durham, USA “African and African Heritage Jewry in Global Context: Modernist and Western Framing of Encounters and Academic Research”
Western Jewish Studies research on African and African diaspora Jewish and Jewishly related communities is a rapidly growing field. Exploring trends in this burgeoning area of study can clarify aspects of changing power dynamics central to the developing identities of these groups, but also in “mainstream” Jewish communities. As academics we must hold ourselves accountable to aspects of power and privilege in the ways knowledge production participates in identity formation, both to understand new research but also for broader implications.
In examining trends in research agendas and methodological approaches, this paper articulates the ways that academic work on African and African heritage Jews and Jewishly related communities is often unselfconsciously grounded in aspects of both western and modernist scientific discourses.
Many scholars in the field appear unaware of the particularities of our own status as Westerners, trained in specific methodologies which privilege certain truth claims over others. Thus scholars can participate in and perpetuate re-creating power differentials amongst those claiming membership in am yisrael in ways reflective of modern global dynamics between first and third world peoples, those with greater and lesser material and political resources.
Dr Edith Bruder, SOAS, University of London; CNRS, France The Igbo: “The Jews of Africa”, from Igbo Ethnogenesis to Hebrew Ethnogenesis
Nowadays, the Igbo people are regarded—and regard themselves—as a people with a common culture and a shared history going back centuries. In fact, as a cultural and socio-political area with a common ethnic consciousness and administrative boundaries, Igboland and the emergence of Igbo identity are a creation of the twentieth century. In pre-colonial times, Igbo identity was defined by divergent cultures, dialects, interests, and aspirations, given the extent and the diversity of people involved by the term Igbo and the decentralised character of Igbo society.
In this paper, I will pay special attention to the interlacing between the emergence of Igbo identity and Hebrew/Jewish identity. I will briefly describe how at the early stage of Igbo ethnogenesis, the cultural elements of the Old Testament spread by Christian missionaries influenced the formation of the cultural framework upon which Igbo people?who had lost their own religious traditions and spiritual heritage?could search for a shared history and perspectives. This paper will describe how the emergence of Igbo identity led them on a search for origins that gave them back a common past and allowed them to overthrow colonial racism’s hierarchy of values. Identification with the mythical fate of the Hebrew people was enticing for the non-centralised Igbo societies and cultures, which did not own a common history or a common language. I will examine the simultaneity between the creation of a larger community identified as a cultural entity by Igbo people, ostensibly out of numerous local ones, and the appropriation of Hebrew history.
Rabbi Jo David, Berkeley College, New York, USA A Vision for the Development of a Strong Africa-Wide Jewish Community
The emergence of new indigenous African Jewish communities on the African Continent is an exciting development in the history of the Jewish people. While there may be some resistance to the inclusion of these communities in the Jewish world, those of us who understand that there are many paths to religious connection can only be heartened by this trend.
This African Jewish religious and spiritual renaissance and the issues that it raises for all African Jewish communities is very much like the situation that re-emerging Reform Jewish communities in Germany faced in the late 1990’s. At that time, the German government invited Jews living in Russia to immigrate to Germany. While there were those who opposed a revival of Judaism in Germany, a diverse consortium of world-wide Jewish leaders used a variety of strategies and organizational techniques to create a renewed Reform German Jewish community which is flourishing and widely accepted today.
I was one of the architects of that renewal. I have a strong interest in helping the African indigenous communities become full members of the mainstream Jewish community. In my paper, I will describe and analyze the unique challenges the African Jewish communities face and propose a complete program for meeting these challenges.
Aurélien Mokoko Gampiot, Ph.D, GSRL, EPHE-CNRS, France The transnational dynamics of Black Jews in France
In France, Jews of Sub-Saharan African descent as well as Black converts to judaism are gaining visibility even though they are not yet integrated as Black Jews in the makeup of the French Jewish community, let alone the wider French society. An organization called Fraternité Judéo-Noire (FJN, which stands for Jewish-Black Brotherhood) has recently risen to prominence with the explicit aim of making French Black Jews as visible as their fellow Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, who have so far been the only two socially recognized ethnic subgroups within the Jewish community in France. My paper will focus both on fieldwork conducted within the framework of community actions and events set up by this organization, and on individual interviews with Black Jews who shared their life stories with me. My point is to depict the religious and ethnic parameters of French Black Jews’ experiences in France, in Israel and in the USA. What led them to publicly profess their Judaism in France, where the media image of Black people increasingly stigmatizes them as the standard-bearers of new forms of anti-Semitism? How do they appropriate French Judaism and combine it with their cultural baggage as Africans, West Indian, or biracial persons? How do they gain acceptance as Black Jews within the Jewish community in France, and within the wider French society as visibly Jewish Blacks?
Prof. John L Jackson, University of Pennsylvania, USA Why the Blackness of Jesus Does and Doesn’t Matter: Anti-Racialism and Anti-Religiosity among the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem
This presentation exams how the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (AHIJ), a transnational spiritual community currently based in southern Israel and originally founded by a group of African-American expats who left the Southside of Chicago in the late 1960s, frame their “revitalization movement” (an ambitious project aimed at re-creating Afro-Diasporic cultural practices throughout Africa and the Americas) in terms that actively reject the notion of “religion” as a valid framing device for their adamant invocations and interpretations of Yah’s commandments. The AHIJ conceptualize their re-readings of sacred texts, rewritings of conventional histories, and refashionings of Africana cultural practices in contradistinction to conventional notions of religiosity, preferring to proffer their interventions in decidedly culturalist and nationalist idioms. Moreover, this anti-religiosity is linked to an explicitly social constructionist take on race, a social constructionism that has evolved out of the group’s earlier commitments to racial absolutism as one of the constitutive features of their politico-spiritual efforts. I exam how and why the AHIJ’s vernacular anti-racialism and anti-religiosity emerged while also demonstrating what their ideological and interpretational transformations explain about the group’s prescient effort to universalize and globalize a message that began in more separatist and particularist registers.
Prof. Magdel, Le Roux, UNISA, South Africa Lemba Traditions – an Indispensable Tool for Teaching and Interpreting the Old Testament in Africa
The Lemba in Southern Africa are a very specific group with unique traditions regarding their Israelite extraction. Their claims have been tested, in a number of ways, by other scholars and provide interesting additional data, which makes this group special and interesting for the study of oral cultures. A comparative study between Lemba and proto-Israelite customs and beliefs, without verifying or falsifying Lemba claims to an Israelite origin, delivered noteworthy results. It is comparison in aid of cross-cultural interpretation, as is now forcefully stated in more recent studies in religion. It is through comparison that the strange and exotic become intelligible and describable. The aim is to investigate the functioning of oral traditions in a pre-industrial society in respect of the relation between “facts” and “history” – currently a highly fashionable trend in New Archaeology, History of Religion and Old and New Testament Studies – and, by doing so, to find a contemporary counterpart to an understanding of the Old Testament and early Israel. Certain cultural groups in Africa with similar practices and institutions could serve as additional sources – “living sources” to help clarify certain aspects in the Old Testament. The study of the Lemba is secondary to the point of any convergence that their culture might have with Old Testament customs and traditions, and to how this information can affect the interpretation of the Old Testament texts as well as the teaching of the Old Testament in Africa.
Mesfin Assefa, Ethiopian North Shewa Zionist Organization, Ethiopia Revitalization of Bet-Avraham Jews in Ethiopia, “Their hidden agenda reveal their Jewish Identity”.
After long centuries of terrible struggles to survive, at the end of sixteen century, Ethiopian Bet Israelites defeated by the Christian rulers of Ethiopia. Following their (Bet – Israelites) defeats, the Christian kings of Ethiopia gave them two inseparable choices. To die or accepting Christianity.
According to evidence of Jacques Faithlovic an early advocate for Ethiopian Jews, other scholars and travelers :- From the large sects of Bet-Israel who survives from long years of war , death and humiliation located in the province of Denbya , Gonder ; some groups of Jews sect Journey and settled to the North Shewa parts of Ethiopia. These sects of community called Bet Avraham Jews community.
It was there, the Bet – Avraham Jews became under direct influence of Christian kings and surrounding. As a survival mechanisms and to be under the law of Christian rulers of Ethiopia, “Conversation” have been forced or simply a means to survive in the mainstream society to elude discrimination and persecution.
Therefore, on that terrible times they converted outwardly on some way or practice Christianity to pretend as to be converted. But through all times they retained their forefathers ancient Jewish practice for almost three centuries under an eyes of Ethiopian Christians by establishing more than 40 hidden synagogue at the far remote countryside of North Shoa Province. Why? When? How and How? This mysterious survival strategy preserves the very ancient Mosaic Judaism practices and now it reveals their black Jews identity to the 21 century survivals.
Dr. Eva Shaw-Taylor, The Institute for Diasporan and African Culture, USA The Voicelessness of Black Judaism
The great Exodus of the Jewish nation, which is documented in the Old Testament, is a well-known historical event. The general belief is that the great Exodus brought the “Africans Jewish Communities” into the different locations in Africa. If ways of life are dictated by religion and culture and these Africans have been living “like Jews” for most of their lives with no contact with any Jewish State until recently, how did the “African Jews” develop their way of life? This paper will try to show that the awareness of Black Jewish movements is partly due to globalization and the notion that the world is getting smaller because of technology. Technology has “exposed” these “pockets” of “Black Jews” to the world at large. This paper will also look at the relations within Africa between different “African Jewish communities”; between the different African Jewish communities and other Jewish countries; between the African Jewish communities within their society and country; and show the voicelessness that these communities experience because of their way of life. That perhaps this voicelessness has contributed to their need and will to be a part of “mainstream Judaism”.
Dr Jaap van Slageren, Protestant University of Brussels, Belgium Jewish influences in Africa
It is generally acknowledged that on the one hand decolonization and on the other hand secularization did have and still has great influence on Christian mission in Africa. The ongoing process of decolonization has diminished and even almost vanished European influence in Africa. Secularization in Europe has considerably reduced the interest for and activity of missionary organisations in Africa. And also the meaning of that history is not longer understood. For that reason we need other tools and keys to unravel the scope and the extent of that history. One of these tools and keys is the fact of Jewish influence in Africa. This influence has its origin in pre, during and after Old and New Testament times and had impact on the history of Africa, the way in which its society and living was organized and their way of thinking, believing and acting was conceived. It has not less affected the way Christian faith and actions have taken form. But to really understand the impact of the Jewish influence in the course of history on Africa, we need to distinguish between early Semitic influences on African life and the origin of Jewish African tribes and communities, and also the effect of the Old Testament preaching of christen missions and the African Christian thinking.
Jay A. Waronker, University of Adelaide, Australia The Synagogues of the Black African Communities: Their architecture, history, Context, and Meanining
A curiosity about why buildings look the way they do and how they generate certain responses from society are issues of intrigue and fascination. Addressing this concept of cross- cultural representation through the built form, my research focuses on a specific building genre: the synagogues of sub-Saharan Africa serving both the African and European Jewish communities. Over time, a kaleidoscope of forces and faiths helped shape the development and identity of this large region. Religious institutions, native leaders and visiting imperialists built countless structures, several of them important architecturally, which in turn influenced more modest buildings, including synagogues. The Jews normally did not build proper synagogues immediately, electing to use private homes, simple structures, or temporary facilities early on. A look at the Jewish architecture that was eventually built reveals much about Jewish life in this expansive region over an extended period of time and the relationship between the societies at large and their respective communities of Jews.
Synagogues have rarely if ever conformed to stylistic rules anywhere in the world or, as a building type, been resolved in unique or recognizable terms. Those in sub-Saharan Africa are no exception, and they vary considerably. Some are grand and of historic Western styles, a handful nearly pure, the others more eclectic. A few include vernacular buildings traditions. Many of the small to mid-sized synagogues, with architecture than cannot neatly be categorized, are unassuming buildings more international in visual orientation. There are also the modest yet beautiful mud and straw/metal hut synagogues found in such places Ethiopia and Nigeria. This architecture is by no means a neatly categorized and strictly delineated building genre, and what was built is diverse and individual. This project calls for the first-ever documentation via careful interior and watercolor renderings, color photography, select scaled drawings, a written architectural history, and a description of the buildings and their locations. This research will include all existing and former synagogues in the Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritius, and Eritrea. The results will be traditionally and electronically published and exhibited by the Center for Jewish History in New York City in 2012-13.