Munich Personal RePEc Archive

On the history of Jews in Sub-Saharan Africa: The case of South Africa, Nigeria, DR Congo and Ethiopia

Kohnert, Dirk (2024): On the history of Jews in Sub-Saharan Africa: The case of South Africa, Nigeria, DR Congo and Ethiopia.

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Jews in Africa have a long history. Africans have encountered Jewish myths and traditions in different forms and situations, leading to the development of a new Jewish identity linked to that of the Diaspora. Different groups of black Jews from western, central, eastern and southern Africa used and imagined their oral traditions and traditional practices to construct a distinct Jewish identity. The adoption of Judaism by black Africans was a form of liberation from Anglo-Christian authority. Blacks and Jews are the two marginalised and stigmatised minorities in Western culture. Since ancient times they have maintained a complex relationship of identification, cooperation and rivalry. The Igbo of Nigeria, for example, were at the forefront of a normative Jewish movement that included several other ethnic groups. The rhetoric of the Holocaust, Zionism and the external features of Judaism were exploited by the Biafran neo-secessionists for their own ends. The majority of African Jews live in South Africa. However, most of them are white. The South African Jewish community numbered more than 120,000 in the mid-1970s. After several large waves of emigration at the end of the apartheid regime, the number fell to just over 50,000. However, the Jewish claim to South African citizenship is controversial. The South African host society distinguishes between the Jewish diaspora and South African citizenship. Since the early 1990s, the second-largest Jewish community in sub-Saharan Africa has developed in Nigeria, which previously did not appear on any map of the Jewish world. Nine out of ten Nigerian Jews are Igbo. Estimates range from 3,000 to 30,000 Jews. Israel, however, refuses to recognise them as a Jewish population. In the DR Congo, a small Jewish community has held a special position since colonial times. Many Jews were among Leopold II's close advisers and agents in his Congo Free State (1885-1908). Jews also played an important role in Katanga Province in the 20th century, when the first mines were opened there and a railway line to South Africa was built. However, Mobutu's Zairisation (1973) and the looting of 1991 forced most Jewish entrepreneurs to leave the country. Ethiopia could be considered the cradle of Judaism, including the ancient kingdom of Sheba, mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and the Koran, and Beta Israel. Today, however, the harsh reality faced by Ethiopian Jewish immigrants in Israel reveals the racism that is deeply rooted in Israeli society.

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