Many people are surprised to learn that Judaism has a rich history on the African continent. Unique Jewish communities can be found in almost every country, and while each practices its own traditions, all share common attributes based in Judaism. Here are 10 things you didn’t know about Judaism in Africa.
Sources: Cambridge.org, The Forgotten Diaspora: Jewish Communities in West Africa and the Making of the Atlantic World (Peter Mark, José da Silva Horta); AmIJewish.info/Africa; Haaretz.com; Wikipedia.org
As Iberian, Sicilian, and Sephardic Jews left Europe during the Spanish Inquisition, a mass exodus fled to North and West Africa, particularly Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and Senegal. Those countries under Muslim and Ottoman patronage had developed a reputation for protecting Jews who entered their borders, accounting for the large influx.
Prior to World War II, South Africa experienced a large influx of Ashkenazi Jews, mainly from Lithuanian, accounting for its heavy Ashkenazi Jewish population today. Apart from Lithuania, South African Jews have origins in Britain, Germany, and various countries across Eastern Europe.
Due to their recognized origins from Yemeni Jews, the Lemba people often claim their Hebrew heritage. Studies have shown genetic similarities between the Lemba and the Kohanim or priests, showing ancestral linkage to Israelites. Judaism is not often practiced among the Lemba people. Most choose to follow Christianity or Islam, but a more recent movement has begun in which some have begun to shift towards Jewish traditions.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin opened immigration to the Beta Israel people of Ethiopia after 1975, and significant immigration occurred in the 20th century. The Israeli Sephardi chief rabbi had ruled that the Beta Israel were descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes, leading Israel to open its borders to them. Many were airlifted to Israel.
Years ago, it is thought that a group of Judeans emigrated to Yemen looking for gold, and put down roots. Though the tribe is not recognized by the international Jewish community, it still claims its Hebrew heritage.
During the uncertainty of the independence era in Mozambique, many Jews left the country. Since then, the Mozambique government has officially returned the Maputo synagogue to the Jewish community. However, due to the significant flight, few remain to reclaim it.
The plan was proposed in 1940, shortly before France was defeated. It called for France to cede its colony in Madagascar so it could be used by Germany as a deportation ground for Polish Jews. The plan was abandoned after a task force determined that a maximum of 5,000 families could be accommodated in Madagascar. The island was thought by the Nazis to have minimal capacity to support life.
As Jewish and Egyptian merchants traveled to Cameroon for trade, a Jewish community grew. Historically, Cameroonian Jews followed many aspects of Judaism including keeping kosher and wearing tefillin (Torah verses worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers). It is also thought that many North African Jews fled to Cameroon as Islamic conquests drove them south.
Descendants of North African Jews who migrated to West Africa, the Igbo Jews in Nigeria share many traditional Jewish practices due to their relative isolation from the larger Nigerian society. There are more than 25 synagogues in Nigeria that cater to Igbo Jews and others, and it is considered one of the largest Jewish populations on the continent.
During the Spanish Inquisition, Mali — then part of the Songhai Empire — experienced a large influx of Jews fleeing persecution. However, when Askia Muhammed came to power in 1492, he forced the majority of these Jews to convert to Islam, and Judaism became illegal in the country. Fear of persecution persisted until modern times. It is only recently that these ancestral ties became the subject of discussion.