African and African Heritage Jews: Western Academic Perspectives

March 1, 2011
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Marla Brettschneider

Since the first large-scale aliyah of Ethiopian Jews to Israel about 30 years ago, popular Jewish interest in African Jewish communities has blossomed. Western Jewish academic research on African and African heritage Jewish and Jewishly related communities is a rapidly growing area of study. The field offers tremendous possibilities for research into questions of Jewish identity. All too often, however, we find the academic lens reflecting the observer, rather than the phenomenon observed.

The Jewish African Diaspora is as large as its moniker implies, with communities crossing a wide range of life experience and geographic locales. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, Jewishly identified and related communities include the Abayudaya of Uganda, the Igbo in Nigeria, the Sefwi Wiawso in Ghana, the Lemba in Southern Africa, and the Beta Israel in Ethiopia. In the United States, communities of interest to scholars include various groups of Hebrew Israelites, the Commandment Keepers in New York City, the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of Chicago, and Debra Bowen’s Temple Beth El of Philadelphia.

With such diversity, the range of questions academics could ask is broad: How has Jewish practice in a given community adopted aspects of local culture, and, likewise, how has the local culture been changed by the community’s Jewish practices? How does local language impact liturgy? How has a community’s identity grown and shifted, given its geographical context in history, and what new insights does that offer for understanding other, more commonly studied, communities? What kinds of stories do communities tell about their Jewish heritage? And how are the stories and practices of these communities similar or not to those of other such communities, and why?

Yet, to date, asking and exploring the above questions does not reflect the trends in this growing academic field. Instead, Western academics tend to act as gatekeepers, primarily asking: Is “x” group (“truly”) Jewish? That this is usually the first question asked also impacts the arc of the broader research agenda that follows as well as methods employed.

Community members are asked to prove their Jewishness while explaining how they came to live in regions outside the areas that mainstream Jews generally associate with Jewish history. The stories of origin given by African and African heritage communities are expected to fit into existing narratives of Jewish exile, and to embody the tropes of Jewish history, migration patterns, and ritual observance common to that of larger, more established Jewish communities.

By framing our questions under the rubric of “being like us,” we are perpetuating a belief that our Judaism is the “right” kind. It puts into play a power differential not dissimilar from other race and gender dynamics. The kindest way to account for the current approach is that most contemporary Jewish studies scholars lack a sense of self-consciousness about our own status as Westerners and do not see how our methodologies tend to privilege truth claims that make sense only in “our” kinds of Jewish communities. In the process, we forfeit a deeper understanding of our global Jewish heritage.

As scholars, we need to be aware that our work has direct policy implications. The insistence on questioning whether these communities are truly Jewish raises policy issues such as: Can members of these communities claim their right, as Jews, to Israeli citizenship? Is Israel (and the Jewish community writ large) responsible for support they may request? How might accepting these communities as “truly” Jewish impact the delicate balance of Israeli political relations with the often unstable governments in their home countries? We must be aware of our own place within the organized Jewish community, and how the kinds of questions we ask and the methods we utilize in our research may impact our understanding of the emergent communities we study. Most of all, it is incumbent upon Jewish scholars to explore the assumptions we bring to such studies, for the benefit of the communities we research, but also for our understanding of ourselves.

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Marla Brettschneider, PhD, is a professor of political philosophy and feminist theory at the University of New Hampshire. She has a joint appointment in the departments of political science and women’s studies, where she serves as coordinator. Her most recent book is The Family Flamboyant: Race Politics, Queer Families, Jewish Lives.


  1. The Questions at the bottom are the most interesting to me…the first being the necessity to categorize who is and who is not a Jew. Its seems odd to me that the Orthodoxy in charge of Judaism in Israel aren’t from Israeli ie North African heritage. These Jews, who some believe are part of the tribes of Judaism, may be the “real” Jews. When we read Torah we read the names of countries on the continent of Africa, not Poland or Russia, let because of the world-wide preference for lighter skin somehow Russians and Poles who migrated to Israel after the Shoah are all of a sudden in charge of a land that was, might I add, already occupied by a people.

    Some of my issues around Israel are my issues with America. While I’m proud to be an American and call myself one I’m not lost on the fact that people lived here before Columbus set foot on the land.

    I think it’s silly and pretty disrespectful for us to ask these questions. If the people have been living Jewish lives, they have the right to make alliyah, and no one really has the right to say who is and is not a Jew. Yet, that is the world we live in…

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  2. it is only a couple of tribes that have kept account of the entirety of jewish history, and we don’t really know what happened to most of the others who dispersed. and we have become influenced by non-jewish culture, no matter how much we try to shield ourselves from it. right down to the racially based narrow minded theories about certain types of people. there are many ways to become assimilated outside of mixing blood.
    i am more interested in the african roots of the jewish identity than i am of the later diaspora. we are so old i believe that we grew as a people from the soil of an african world.
    i’m convinced that there is a deeper history for the other religions as well as judaism and that it can only add to the amazing tale of who and what we are.

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