Millions of African citizens could come knocking on Israel's door in the next few years, demanding to be recognized as Jews, warns Dr. Shalva Weil. According to Weil, the past 15 years have seen a sharp rise in the number of tribes throughout Africa who are "rediscovering" their Jewish heritage.
Weil, from the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is an anthropologist and expert on Ethiopian Jewry who has spent years studying the Ethiopian community and its acclimation into Israeli society.
Weil recently gave a series of talks throughout South Africa and took part in a conference on African Jews hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, where she spoke about racism toward Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
The conference was the second one to be devoted to Black Judaism, after the establishment of the International Society for the Study of African Jewry (ISSAJ) by Dr. Edith Bruder of France. This year's event was held not only to encourage research on the issue, but also to allow representatives of the different communities to meet each other.
Weil explains that every one of the African groups has a unique story. For example, the Lemba people of South Africa, Zimbabwe and in Mozambique and Malawi numbers some 70,000 Christians, but its leaders claim that they are the descendants of Yemenite Jews who migrated to South Africa. The Lemba people are seeking recognition as the descendants of Jews and have even appealed to the South African Jewish community for financial support to build synagogues.
Or take the Igbo Jews of Nigeria, who claim that they are descended from Syrian and Portuguese Jews who moved to Africa centuries ago. The Igbo Jews observe the laws of niddah and kosher slaughter, and circumcise their sons eight days after they are born, as well as observing the major Jewish holidays. The Igbo Jews have already built three synagogues that serve some 30,000 members.
Each such group has its own narrative, but they all want to strengthen their Jewish identity and hope that Israeli and Jewish institutions will recognize them as Jews.
Weil says that from an academic perspective, Black Judaism is a varied and exciting field. But she feels that the Israeli establishment is not aware of the phenomenon or its ramifications.
"It's important that in Israel people understand that millions of people throughout Africa consider themselves Jewish. Some declare themselves 'Jewish according to halacha.' As far as they are concerned, they are the sons of the lost tribes, and are certain that the Promised Land awaits them."
Rina bassist is Kol Israel's correspondent in Africa