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History of the Jews in Africa

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Title: History of the Jews in Africa  
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Subject: African Jews, Jews and Judaism in Africa, History of the Jews in Nigeria, History of the Jews in Zambia, History of the Jews in Mauritius
Collection: African Jews, Jews and Judaism in Africa
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

History of the Jews in Africa

Proportion of Jewish population in Africa

African Jewish communities include:


  • Ancient communities 1
    • Ethiopia 1.1
    • Somalia 1.2
    • Bilad el-Sudan 1.3
  • Medieval arrivals 2
    • North Africa and the Maghreb 2.1
    • Mali 2.2
    • São Tomé e Príncipe 2.3
  • Modern communities 3
    • Cameroon 3.1
    • Ghana 3.2
    • Kenya 3.3
    • Nigeria 3.4
    • Uganda 3.5
    • Zimbabwe 3.6
      • European-Zimbabwe Jewish community 3.6.1
    • Mauritius 3.7
  • Modern communities of European descent 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes and references 6
  • Further reading 7
    • General 7.1
    • Northern Africa 7.2
    • Nigeria 7.3
    • Cape Verde and Guinea Coast 7.4
    • Ethiopia 7.5
  • External links 8

Ancient communities

The most ancient communities of African Jews are the Ethiopian, Sephardi, and Mizrahi Jews of North Africa and the Horn of Africa.

In the seventh century, many Spanish Jews fled persecution under the Visigoths to North Africa, where they made their homes in the Byzantine-dominated cities along the Mediterranean coast. Others arrived after the expulsion from Iberia. Remnants of longstanding Jewish communities remain in Morocco, Tunisia, and the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla. There is a much-diminished but still vibrant community on the island of Djerba in Tunisia. Since 1948 and the civil war to establish Israel, which aroused hostility in Muslim lands, most other North African Jews emigrated to Israel.

Of the seventh century immigrants, some moved inland and proselytized among the Berber tribes. A number of tribes, including the Jarawa, Uled Jari, and some tribes of the Daggatun people, converted to Judaism.[1] Ibn Khaldun reported that Kahina, a female Berber warlord who led the resistance against the Muslim Arab invaders of North Africa in the 680s and 690s, was a Jew of the Jarawa tribe. With the defeat of the Berber resistance, none of the Jewish communities was initially forced to convert to Islam.[2]

See also: Jewish exodus from Arab lands.


In 1975, the Israeli religious authorities and government recognized the Beta Israel of Ethiopia as legally Jewish. Hundreds of persons who wanted to emigrate to Israel were air-lifted under the leadership of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Significant immigration to Israel continues into the 21st century. Begin had obtained an official ruling from the Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi (or Rishon LeTzion) Ovadia Yosef that the Beta Israel were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. Rabbis believed they were probably descendants of the Tribe of Dan; rabbinical responsa discussing issues related to the people date back hundreds of years.

Due to certain aspects of Orthodox Jewish marital laws, Rabbi Yosef ruled that upon arrival in Israel, the Beta Israel had to undergo a pro forma conversion to Judaism. They had to declare their allegiance to a halachic way of life and the Jewish people, in conformity with practices followed by Orthodox Rabbinical Judaism. He did not demand the normal formal requirements that the halacha imposes on potential gentile proselytes, (such as a brit milah or immersion in a mikveh). Few Ashkenazi rabbinic authorities consider the conversions to be actual conversions, not pro forma.

Over time, due to their community's isolation from those in Europe and the Middle East, the practices of the Beta Israel developed to differ significantly from those of other forms of Judaism. In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel community was for the most part isolated from the Talmud. They did have their own oral law. In some cases, they had practices similar to those of Karaite Judaism, and in others more similar to rabbinical Judaism.

In many instances their religious elders, or priestly, class known as kessim or qessotch, interpreted the Biblical Law of the Tanach in a way similar to the rabbinite Jewish communities in other parts of the world.[3] In that sense, the Beta Israel had a tradition analogous to that of the Talmud, although at times at variance with the practices and teachings of other Jewish communities.

One significant difference is that the Beta Israel lacked the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah, probably because they branched off from the main body of Judaism before these non-Biblical holidays began to be commemorated. Today, most members of the Beta Israel community living in Israel do observe these holidays.

They are a community in transition. Some of the kessim accept the rabbinic/Talmudic tradition that is practiced by non-Ethiopian Orthodox Jews. Many of the younger generation of Ethiopian-Israelis have been educated in yeshivas and received rabbinical ordination (semikha). A certain segment of traditionalist kessim insist on maintaining their separate and distinct form of Judaism, as it had been practiced in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Many of the Ethiopian Jewish youth who have immigrated to Israel or been born there have assimilated either to the dominant form of Orthodox Judaism, or to a secular lifestyle.

The Beit Avraham of Ethiopia have some 50,000 members. This community also claims Jewish heritage. Several scholars think that they broke off from the Beta Israel community several centuries ago, hid their Jewish customs, and outwardly adopted Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.

Beit Avraham have traditionally been on the lower rungs of Ethiopian social life. They have held occupations similar to those of the Beta Israel, such as crafts. Recently, the Beit Avraham community has attempted to reach out to the world Jewish community. They formed the Jewish identity.[4] This group identifies as the Falashmura. As they do not have reliable proof of Jewish ancestry, Israeli religious authorities and other religious Jewish communities require them to complete a formal conversion to be recognized as Jews. Those who do so are considered converts.


The Yibir are a tribe that lives in Somalia, eastern Ethiopia, Djibouti, and northern Kenya. Though they have been Muslim for centuries, they assert they are descendants of Hebrews who arrived in the Horn of Africa long before the arrival of Somali nomads. They say that Yibir means "Hebrew" in their language.[5]

Bilad el-Sudan

Today you will find the descendants of these Jews in the West African countries such as: Sierra Leone, Liberia,Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, and many other areas. According to the 17th century Tarikh al-Fattash and the Tarikh al-Sudan, several Jewish communities existed as parts of the Ghana, Mali, and later Songhay empires. One such community was formed by a group of Egyptian Jews, who allegedly traveled by way of the Sahel corridor through Chad into Mali. Manuscript C of the Tarikh al-Fattash described a community called the Bani Israel; in 1402, it lived in Tindirma, possessed 333 wells, and had seven princes as well as an army.

Another such community was that of the Zuwa ruler of Koukiya (located at the Niger River). His name was known only as Zuwa Alyaman, meaning "He comes from Yemen". According to an isolated local legend, Zuwa Alyaman was a member of one of the Jewish communities transported from Yemen by Abyssinians in the 6th century CE after the defeat of Dhu Nuwas. Zuwa Alyaman was said to have traveled into West Africa along with his brother. They established a community in Kukiya at the banks of the Niger River downstream from Gao. According to the Tarikh al-Sudan, after Zuwa Alyaman, there were 14 Zuwa rulers of Gao before the rise of Islam in the second half of the eleventh century.

Other sources stated that other Jewish communities in the region developed from people who migrated from Morocco and Egypt; others later came from Portugal. Some communities were said to have been populated by certain Berber Jews, like a group of Tuareg known as Dawsahak or Iddao Ishaak ("children of Isaac"). They speak a language related to Songhay, live in northeast Mali in the region of Menaka and were formerly herders for Tuareg nobles.[6] In addition, some migrated into the area away from the Muslim rule of North Africa.

The well-known 16th Century geographer Leo Africanus - an Andalusian Berber convert to Christianity - mentions a mysterious small village of African Jews southwest of Timbuktu, who traded in exotic spices, weapons, and poisons.

Medieval arrivals

North Africa and the Maghreb

The largest influx of Jews to Africa came after the Spanish Inquisition after the Fall of Granada and the end of Islamic Spain. The mass exodus and expulsion of the Iberian Jews began in 1492, Sicilian Jews were affected soon afterwards. Many of these Sephardi Jews settled in North Africa under Muslim and Ottoman patronage. Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt became home to significant Jewish communities. These communities were later incorporated into the Ottoman millet system as Africanized Ottoman Jews, bound by the laws of the Talmud and Torah but with allegiance to the Caliph of Constantinople.


In the 14th century many Moors and Jews, fleeing persecution in Spain, migrated south to the Timbuktu area, at that time part of the Songhai Empire. Among them was the Kehath (Ka'ti) family, descended from Ismael Jan Kot Al-yahudi of Scheida, Morocco. Sons of this prominent family founded three villages that still exist near Timbuktu—Kirshamba, Haybomo, and Kongougara. In 1492, Askia Muhammed came to power in the previously tolerant region of Timbuktu and decreed that Jews must convert to Islam or leave; Judaism became illegal in Mali, as it did in Catholic Spain that same year. As the historian Leo Africanus wrote in 1526: "The king (Askia) is a declared enemy of the Jews. He will not allow any to live in the city. If he hears it said that a Berber merchant frequents them or does business with them, he confiscates his goods."

The Kehath family converted with the rest of the non-Muslim population. The Cohens, descended from the Moroccan Islamicized Jewish trader El-Hadj Abd-al-Salam al Kuhin, arrived in the Timbuktu area in the 18th century, and the Abana family came in the first half of the 19th century. According to Prof. Michel Abitbol, at the Center for the Research of Moroccan Jewry in Israel, in the late 19th century Rabbi Mordoche Aby Serour traveled to Timbuktu several times as a not-too-successful trader in ostrich feathers and ivory. Ismael Diadie Haidara, a historian from Timbuktu, has found old Hebrew texts among the city's historical records. He has also researched his own past and discovered that he is descended from the Moroccan Jewish traders of the Abana family. As he interviewed elders in the villages of his relatives, he has discovered that knowledge of the family's Jewish identity has been preserved, in secret, out of fear of persecution.[7]

São Tomé e Príncipe

King Manuel I of Portugal exiled about 2,000 Jewish children to São Tomé and Príncipe around 1500. Most died, but in the early 17th century "the local bishop noted with disgust that there were still Jewish observances on the island and returned to Portugal because of his frustration with them."[8] Although Jewish practices faded over subsequent centuries, there are people in São Tomé and Príncipe who are aware of partial descent from this population. Similarly, a number of Portuguese ethnic Jews were exiled to Sao Tome after forced conversions to Roman Catholicism.

Modern communities


Rabbi Yisrael Oriel, formerly Bodol Ngimbus-Ngimbus, was born into the Ba-Saa tribe. He is one who says there were historically Jews in the area. The word Ba-Saa, he said, is from the Hebrew for 'on a journey' and means blessing. Rabbi Oriel claims to be a Levite descended from Moses. Reportedly, Rabbi Oriel made aliya in 1988 and was ordained as a rabbi by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi and appointed rabbi to Nigerian Jews.

Rabbi Oriel claims that in 1920 there were 400,000 'Israelites' in Cameroon, but by 1962 the number had decreased to 167,000 due to conversions to Christianity and Islam. He said these tribes had not been accepted halachically. But he believes that he can prove their Jewish status from medieval rabbinic sources.[9]

The father of Yaphet Kotto, an American actor, was a Cameroon Jew. Kotto identifies as Jewish.

Bankon (Abaw,[10] Abo, Bo, Bon[11]) is a tribe related to Basaa and Rombi groups, located in the north of Douala city, Abo subdivision, Bonalea commune, in the Littoral region of Cameroon. The word Ban[12]-Kon[13] means "son of prince" in Assyrian, an Aramaic dialect. In her works The Negro-African Languages, the French scholar Lilias Homburger concluded that Bankon language is Kum.[14] The word Kum means "arise"[15] or "get up!"[16] in Hebrew; the Assyrians called the House of Israel by the name of Kumri.[17]


The House of Israel community of Sefwi Wiawso and Sefwi Sui in the Western Region of Ghana claim that their Sefwi ancestors are descendants of Jews who migrated south through the Ivory Coast. The practice of Judaism in this community, however, dates back to only the early 1970s.


A small emergent community has been forming in Laikipia County, Kenya, abandoning Christianity in exchange for Judaism. There are an estimated 5,000 of them at the present time. Although at first Messianic, they concluded that their beliefs were incompatible with Christianity and are now waiting to be instructed in traditional Judaism.[18] Some of the younger children of this community have been sent to the Abayudaya schools in Uganda to be instructed in Judaism and other subjects.[19]


The Igbo Jews of Nigeria are among the Kulanu.[20]

The number of Igbos in Nigeria who identify as Jews is not known. The community has 26 synagogues of various sizes. An estimated 30,000 Igbos were practicing some form of Judaism in 2008.[21]


In a relatively new movement, the Abayudaya of Uganda have converted to Judaism since 1917, influenced by the American William Saunders Crowdy, who said that African Americans were descended from the Jews.[22]


The Lemba, many of whom practice Christianity but have preserved some rituals and customs believed to be Jewish in origin, has been found to have genetic traits in common with other Jewish groups, supporting their claims to ancient Jewish ancestry. Recent DNA testing on the Lemba by the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) tested both South African Ashkenazi Jews and Lemba for the extended Cohen Model Haplogroup (CMH). Although the 24 individuals, (10 Lemba,14 SA Jews) were identified as having the original Cohen Model Haplogroup, only one South African Jew harboured the extended CMH. However, this study does not support earlier claims of their Jewish genetic heritage.

European-Zimbabwe Jewish community

The Zimbabwe Jewish Community was of British citizenship, and established with the first white colonists in the 1890s.[23] At its peak in the early 1970s, it numbered some 7,500 people (80% were of Ashkenazi descent), who lived primarily in the two communities of Salisbury and Bulawayo. Smaller rural communities also existed for short periods in Que Que, Umtali and Gatooma. The community declined in part due to age, but most ethnic European-Zimbabwe Jews left after violence and social disruption. In 2007 the white Jewish community had declined to 270. The community had strong links with Israel. In 2003, the Bulawayo Shul was burnt down in an anti-Semitic act of violence.[24]


According to the 2011 census carried out by Statistics Mauritius,there are 43 Jews in Mauritius.

Modern communities of European descent

  • South Africa has a substantial, mostly Ashkenazi Jewish community. They and their ancestors arrived immigrated mostly from Lithuania prior to World War II, although some immigrated from Britain, Germany, and Eastern Europe. To a lesser extent, Sephardic Jews, primarily originating from the Island of Rhodes, also settled in sub-Saharan Africa, in territories such as the Belgian Congo. Subsequently, members of these Jewish communities migrated to South Africa.
  • Small European Jewish communities developed historically during the colonial years in Namibia (South West Africa), Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia), Lesotho (Basutuland), Swaziland, Botswana (Bechuanaland), Zaire (Belgian Congo, mostly Sephardim[25]), Kenya, Malawi (Nyasaland), and Zambia (Northern Rhodesia). The communities, usually based in the capitals of these countries, established synagogues and often formal Jewish schools. (See History of the Jews in South Africa.)
  • There was a Jewish community in Maputo, Mozambique but, after the independence of the country, most left. The government has officially returned the Maputo synagogue to the Jewish community, but "little or no Jewish community remains to reclaim it."[26][27]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Hirschberg, Haim Z. "The Problem of the Judaized Berbers," Journal of African History 4, no. 3 (1963): 317.
  2. ^ Ausbel, Nathan. Pictorial History of the Jewish People. New York: Crown, 1953. 225–227.
  3. ^ שרון שלום, מסיני לאתיופיה: עולמה ההלכתי והרעיוני של יהדות אתיופיה, כולל "שולחן האורית" - מדריך הלכתי לביתא ישראל, עורך אברהם ונגרובר, ידיעות ספרים, 2012
  4. ^ "Ethiopia: Beit Avraham", Black Jews Official website, visited 22 November 2006
  5. ^ Bader, Christian. Les Yibro: Mages somali, Paris 2000, 129–144
  6. ^ People-in-County Profile: Dawsahak; D. J. Philips, Peoples on the Move, Pasadena, CA, 2001.
  7. ^ The Renewal of Jewish Identity in Timbuktu by Karen Primack, on Kulanu's website. Viewed 22 November 2006.
  8. ^ J.P. Sand's São Tomé é Príncipe page. Visited 22 November 2006.
  9. ^ "Jews in Cameroon", Haruth, accessed 22 November 2006
  10. ^ ''Abaw'': English-Aramaic & Aramaic-English Dictionary by Rev. David Bauscher. Google Books. 20 October 2008. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  11. ^ ''Bon'': English-Aramaic & Aramaic-English Dictionary by Rev. David Bauscher. Google Books. 20 October 2008. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  12. ^ ''Ban'': The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1. Google Books. 6 November 2006. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  13. ^ ''Kon'': Pantologia: A new cyclopaedia, comprehending a complete series of essays ... by John Mason Good et al. Google Books. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  14. ^ ''Kum'': The Negro-African Languages. Google Books. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  15. ^ ''Kum'': The Jewish study Bible: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation. Google Books. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  16. ^ ''Kum'': Hebrew-English & English-Hebrew dictionary and phrasebook, by Israel Palchan. Google Books. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  17. ^ ''Kumri'': The House of Glory: Prophecies And Allied Messages of the Holy Bible And the ... by Worth Smith. Google Books. 15 October 2004. Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  18. ^ Kenyan Hebrew converts celebrate Easter in style from the Kenyan Sunday Times newspaper. Accessed 22 November 2006.
  19. ^ "Kenyan political exile finds Jewish home, soul in S.F.", accessed from on 22 November 2006.
  20. ^ Kulanu website, especially relevant is the Nigeria page, which treats the Igbo question more extensively.
  21. ^ Bruder, Edith (2008). The Black Jews of Africa: History, Religion, Identity. Oxford University Press. p. 143.  
  22. ^ Henry Lubega, "Mbale's Jews", Uganda Mission, accessed 22 November 2006.
  23. ^ Barry Kosmin, MAJUTA, Mambo Press
  24. ^ "A Shtetl in Africa", JPost, 12 June 2008
  25. ^ "The Virtual Jewish History Tour: Republic of Zaire". Retrieved 15 November 2011. 
  26. ^ J.P. Sand's "Dispersed communities", Viewed 22 November 2006.
  27. ^ J.P. Sand's "Mozambique", Viewed 22 November 2006

Further reading


  • Blady, Ken: Jewish Communities in Exotic Places, Jerusalem, Jason Aronson.
  • Bruder, Édith: Black Jews of Africa, Oxford 2008.
  • Kurinsky, Samuel: Jews In Africa: Ancient Black African Relations, Fact Paper 19-II.
  • Dierk Lange: "Origin of the Yoruba and the "Lost Tribes of Israel", Anthropos, 106, 2011, 579–595.
  • Primak, Karen: Jews in Places You Never Thought of, Ktav Publishing, ISBN 0-88125-608-0.
  • Rosenthal, Monroe and Isaac Mozeson: Wars of the Jews: A Military History from Biblical to Modern Times, New York, Hipporcrene Books, 1990.
  • Williams, Joseph J.: Hebrewisms of West Africa: From Nile to Niger With the Jews, Ney York, The Dial Press, 1931.
  • History of the Zimbabwe Jewish Community

Northern Africa

  • Jews in Africa: Part 1 The Berbers and the Jews, by Sam Timinsky (Hebrew History Federation)
  • Tarikh es Soudan, Paris, 1900, by Abderrahman ben-Abdall es-Sadi (trad. O. Houdas)
  • The Jews of Timbuktu, Washington Jewish Week, 30 December 1999, by Rick Gold
  • Les Juifs à Tombouctou, or Jews of Timbuktu, Recueil de sources écrites relatives au commerce juif à Tombouctou au XIXe siècle, Editions Donniya, Bamako, 1999 by Professor Ismael Diadie Haidara


  • Remy Ilona: Igbos, Jews in Africa?, (Volume 1), Mega Press Limited, Abuja, Nigeria, 2004.
  • Charles K. Meek: Northern Tribes of Nigeria, Volume 1, Oxford, p. 66.
  • Kannan K. Nair: Origins and Development of Efik Settlements in Southeastern Nigeria. 1Ohio University, Center for International, 1975.
  • Eze Okafor-Ogbaji: Jews of Nigeria: The Aro Empire,

Cape Verde and Guinea Coast

  • Richard Lobban: Jews in Cape Verde and on the Guinea Coast, Paper presented at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, 11 February 1996.


  • Stigma "Gojjam": The Abyssinian Pariah Orits, Guihon Books, University of Geneva, 1993, by Muse Tegegne

External links

  • Gorin, Howard (Rabbi): Site about travels Amongst Nigeria's and Uganda's Jews
  • Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce: Jews and Berbers,
  • Sand, Jay: Site about African Jews
  • ISSAJ – International Society for the Study of African Jewry
  • Scattered Among The Nations
  • The Awakening & In-Gathering of The Ibos
  • History of the Jewish community in Ghana
  • Shabbat in Ghana
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