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Reviews of Jews and Judaism in African History

“Judaism to this day still holds a very strong presence in African culture. Jews and Judaism in African History discusses Judaism and its impact on the African continent — an influence which many people commonly ignore despite its prominence. For thousands of years Judaism has had a strong showing on Africa, and to this day a good portion of Judaism’s followers still reside there, breaking the stereotype that all Jews are white. Jews and Judaism in African History brings to light an important aspect of African history.”
Midwest Book Review

“This book fills a gap in the broad history of Jews in Africa. Hull (NYU) teaches courses on the topic, about which he marshals an impressive body of literature in succinct prose with balanced judgments, providing an eminently readable summary of key themes. Six chapters cover the chief areas of Jewish presence: classical antiquity; North Africa from Arab conquest to 1600 and then 1600-present; Jews and converts in the West/Central African slave trade; South Africa; and Central/Eastern Africa. Important themes include traders in North Africa, Jewish involvement in slave trades, the contrast of South African Jews fighting or accommodating apartheid, and intriguing histories of Ethiopian Falasha and Southern African Lemba. There is no conclusion; the book ends abruptly after recounting the expulsion of Jews from Libya. Maps are not always clear, and some citations are not included in the bibliography, which lacks a few expected sources, such as Mendelssohn’s The Jews of Africa (1920). If not particularly detailed — conceded by the author — this will be useful for students of all levels and as a text for teaching, in conjunction with Edith Bruder’s The Black Jews of Africa (2008). Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries.”
— P. C. Limb, Michigan State University

[The following piece is a joint review of Hull’s Jews and Judaism in African History and Edith Bruder’s The Black Jews of Africa.]

“Were it not for the books offered for this review, I would not be spending this Hanukkah in Abuja, Nigeria. Yet so compelling are the historical and contemporary accounts of Jews in Africa, and of African Jews, in these volumes by Edith Bruder and Richard Hull, that I could not resist (admittedly in a ‘use it or lose it’ university research grant environment) skipping out on final exam week to arrive in time for the first candle lighting in one of the two (yes, two) synagogues of Jubos (my term for ethnic Igbo Jews) in Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory.

“I originally had intended to begin this review by relaying my early Hebrew School discovery of ‘Falashas,’ and the consternation it gave my Ashkenazi mother when I announced (before Bar Mitzvah age, no less) that I would marry an Ethiopian Jewish girl. But enough about me: it is Hull and Bruder who are true experts on the subjects, and need to be given just due.

“Despite the similarly-sounding titles and themes, these are very different books. Hull, an American at New York University, is a veteran historian who brings several decades’ worth of research, publication, and teaching experience to the (writing) table. Bruder, a Francophone research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, turned her 2006 SOAS doctoral dissertation into The Black Jews of Africa. Both books strongly bear the hallmarks of their authors’ backgrounds, and their associated virtues.

“For university undergraduates – presumably a target audience for Jews and Judaism in African History – Hull’s book is the more accessible of the two books. Hull writes in short, clear senteneces, with nary a footnote. (His comprehensive referencing is in MLA style – perhaps as a model for students to adopt in their papers?) His approach – as befits a classical historian – is basically chronological.

“Launching his account from classical antiquity (Elephantine, Ptolemic, and Alexandrian Egypt), Hull takes us up until the seventeenth century in North Africa, relating how Jews fared under successive Muslim regimes (Fatimid, Mamluk, Almoravid, Ottoman, etc.). He then deviates slightly from his dateline, bringing us back to the fifteenth century and the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade. Hull deals with the potentially provocative topic of Jews’ involvement in African slavery in a non-polemical, ‘just the facts’ manner. Jewish participation in the construction of South Africa is the next theme, followed by Jewish immigration to eastern, central, and southern Africa. In his concluding chapter, Hull returns to the north to assess how Jews of the Maghreb and Egypt have fared from the seventeenth century until after the establishment of Israel. There is no concluding chapter as such, something which this reviewer missed. The half dozen maps, and as many illustrations, greatly enhance the reader’s ability to follow spatially and visually the Jewish thread in Africa.

“In contrast with Hull’s non-interpretative historiography, Edith Bruder’s work is infused with theoretical perspectives that invoke sociology, theology, psychology, and anthropology at a level more appropriate for graduate students and beyond. It is helpful, for instance, to be already familiar with Mircea Eliade, Michel Foucault, Rollo May, and Edward Said. This more eclectic approach lends itself to a structure that is at least as thematic as it is historical. In Part I, Bruder grapples with the mythic dimension of African Jewry: Lost Tribes of Israel, King Solomon and Queen of Sheba, etc. Part II explores colonial (most prejudicial) framing of Jewish and African peoples and religion and the relationship between them. The concluding section describes various Black African ethnicities and communities who, either through descent or conviction, stake their claim to Judaism. A nicely rounded epilogue synthesizes the whole with respect to the otherwise paradoxical finding of ‘Judaism as a source of black identity.’

“Perhaps the most important difference between the works relates to their respective ethnic foci. Whereas Hull emphasizes Sephardi and Ashkenazi migration throughout what used to be caricatured as the ‘Dark Continent,’ Bruder’s interest lies more with sub-Saharan peoples with an abiding identification with Israelite origins, Judaism, or both. For some groups, such as the Ethiopians, the identification is longstanding and descent-based; for others, such as the Abayudaya of Uganda, it is relatively recent, and entirely faith-based; and for yet others, such as the Igbos of Nigeria, the Hebraic faith and descent are being (re)discovered. The Jewish credentials of Hull’s subjects are rarely in doubt; but even Bruder feels bound to place cautionary quotation marks around some of them, as indicated in her section heading ‘Africa, Judaism, and African “Jews”.’ For sure, Hull does provide a comprehensive section on Ethiopian Jewish history; his treatment of the Lemba, in southern Africa, is cursory. (Professor Tudor Parfitt, Bruder’s doctoral supervisor, has written extensively about the Lemba, and the attention they receive in her book is not surprising.)

“Or perhaps the difference in emphasis is less one of ethnicity than historicity: whereas Hull is intent on providing a comprehensive historical account of the Jewish presence on the African continent, Bruder is more concerned with explaining contemporary dynamics in the formation of Jewish identity in Africa. ‘Why is it,’ she asks, ‘that this particular period of African history should witness the rise of Judaizing movements?’ (p. 187) If Hull provides the foundation for appreciating the longstanding presence and contradictory roles of Jews in African society, Bruder gives us the springboard for assessing the revitalization of, and attraction to, Judaism in Africa today.

“Both books constitute important additions to the growing literature on the historical and contemporary interstices between Africana and Judaica, be it in Israel, Africa, or in their respective diasporas. Neither author sufficiently addresses the question of why s/he has been drawn to this particular comparative venture, although intimations of interest in shared status as minority groups at the global level seem to undergird both works. Speaking to different audiences, with different thematic emphases and heuristic aims, Bruder and Hall nevertheless converge in successfully binding between their respective covers two peoples whose destinies have overlapped in ways that neither Hebraicists nor Africanists have generally appreciated.

“To return to my mother, and matrimony: in the end, I did not wind up marrying a woman from Africa, Ethiopian or otherwise. But my West Indian bride does have some African ancestry – as well as a certificate of Jewishness – and became as close to my mother as a daughter-in-law can possibly be. Evolution in Mother’s tribalistic feelings mirrors somewhat the expanded notion of Jewishness within North American and Western European Jewry. These fine books by Edith Bruder and Richard Hull are reflections of, and important contributions to, this heightened consciousness.

“For their follow-up research, perhaps Bruder or Hull might wish to consider investigating Jews of the African diaspora, including the perception of their romances with other Jewish diasporics. If so, they may begin by interviewing Mom: telephone number upon request.”
— William F.S. Miles, Africa Quarterly

“Evidence of trade with ancient Egypt shows that Jews have been actively engaged in Africa for more than 5,000 years. Given this long and multifarious involvement, the fact that the book under review is the first overview of the topic is both shocking and exciting. The volume developed from a course the author teaches regularly at New York University on ‘Jews and Judaism in Africa since Antiquity,’ and consolidates a wealth of historical information concerning Jews’ involvements across the continent.

“The broad scope of Hull’s gaze in both time and space is one great strength of the book. Few historians nowadays would contemplate tackling 5,000 years of history across a vast continent — but the underdeveloped scholarship on Jews in Africa invites such an ambitious undertaking. As such, the book should quickly find its way to both scholars and students seeking an overview of the topic. The six chapters organize around crosscutting regions and time periods: Jews in North Africa (5,000 B.C.E. through the 1st and 2nd centuries; 18th-20th centuries); West and Central Africa (15th-18th centuries); South Africa (15th-20th centuries); and Central and Eastern Africa (19th-20th centuries). As the sweep of these chapters imply, Hull has read widely on diverse places and eras, thus he includes a plethora of intriguing and stereotype-challenging data. For example, Hull documents Jews proselytizing others (contra the popular image that Jews have tended to keep to themselves and have avoided missionizing); he records Jews as effective soldiers, even mercenaries (contra the popular image of Jews as intellectuals and traders); unlike most histories of Africa, Hull gives the two tiny but historically significant islands of Sao Tomé and Principe their due; and he writes of Jews serving as advisors to African rulers at key points in their mutual encounters.

“Sephardim (Jews with known ancestry in Iberia) occupy center stage in much of Hull’s narrative, providing a welcome corrective to the Ashkenazi-centric perspective (emphasizing northern and eastern European origins) taken by many U.S. and European scholars of Jewish history; Hull also explores ties between these two Jewish groups that reveal them as less distinct than many assume. A related contribution lies in the inclusion of the continent of Africa as a whole. Gone is the scholarly tendency to disconnect North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa, based on unrealistic (and perhaps unconsciously racialized) assumptions about the ways in which the Sahara divided the northern and southern portions of the continent. Many traders and explorers — including Jews — regularly crossed the Sahara, and Hull makes crystal clear how the scholarly convention of dividing the continent vis-à-vis the Sahara unacceptably distorts the continent’s history.

“A book of this wide scope inevitably provides uneven coverage; in that sense, its strength also proves its weakness. For example, readers might have enjoyed learning of the major, early role of Jews in peopling the Cape Verde islands (fleeing the Iberian Inquisitions), and of the nineteenth-century exodus of Jews from Morocco to Cape Verde, combining to provide a compelling case study of an especially intriguing locale of Jewish activity; and more nuanced discussion of Jews’ roles in the South African and other liberation movements in the mid-twentieth century across Africa would have interested many readers (in places, Hull’s discussion of South Africa reads more like a list of famous South African Jews than a full analysis of the range of lives of Jews in that nation). Moreover, South Africa is treated somewhat independently; although we know that both trade and kinship networks often linked Jews across the continent, Hull does not connect his discussion of South African Jews with the lives of Jews elsewhere in Africa. The reader is tantalized by mentions of other fascinating bits of information that could have been further analyzed: brief mention of ‘Judaized Berbers,’ for example (p. 40); the textually oriented sect of Karaite Jews (p. 232); or a troubling point about Ethiopian Jews having to ‘re-convert’ to gain citizenship in Israel (p. 206).

“The European orientation of Jews in Africa is also uneven. While he more than gives Sephardim their due, Hull by far privileges Spanish over Portuguese Jews, despite the rich history of Portuguese Jews in Africa that is beginning to be well documented by historians such as Tobias Green, José da Silva Horta, Peter Mark, and others. When he does discuss Jews in Portugal, he overlooks key historical realities such as the fact that the Inquisition continued actively into the nineteenth century. Beyond Iberia, the role of the Crusades (mentioned briefly) also bears more discussion.

“In some sense, despite the unorthodox subject, this is a somewhat conventional history. Men’s lives, and military and political events, are privileged over social or intellectual history; one finds little on women’s perspectives, ordinary people’s lives, aesthetic history, or religious experiences, for example. Accordingly, analytic themes are implicit but rarely developed. Thus Hull hints tantalizingly at the relationship between the Iberian Inquisitions and the European maritime explorations of the world beyond Europe (pp. 88-89), but does not explicitly develop that theme (cf Edward Kritzler, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean; New York: Doubleday, 2008). Perhaps the major issue that looms large over the book concerns the ethical foundation of Jews’ relations to Africans in general, and during the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in particular. Hull’s narrative documents both Jews who acted and/or spoke in explicitly racist ways, and Jews who actively challenged racist stereotypes. A theoretically founded comparison of these two distinct groups could have offered a provocative and nuanced portrait breaking down the larger category of ‘Jews in Africa.’ As a people who themselves endured slavery and, since their liberation recorded in the book of Exodus, have celebrated annually that joyous moment during the Passover Seder, Jews have often worked hard in sympathy with oppressed peoples elsewhere; historical research in West Africa is also now disclosing many Jewish men who married African women with whom they raised legitimate children. So the contrasting scenario — contexts in which Jews have fallen on the side of the perpetrators of oppression, as with the involvement of some Jews in the slave trade — begs for an engaged discussion of that disturbing irony.

“On that point, one is reminded of the thoughtful essay on ‘Fear and Atlantic History: Some Observations Derived from the Cape Verde Islands and the African Atlantic’ (Atlantic Studies 3, 1 [2006], 25^2) in which British historian Tobias Green suggests that the history of Jews in Africa has deliberately been sidelined by historians precisely to avoid dealing with the disquieting implication of some Jews in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and to avoid further enflaming troubled relations between contemporary Jews and African-Americans in the wake of (unjustified) accusations that Jews were entirely responsible for that trade (as popularized, for example, by the infamous The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, published by the Nation of Islam in 1991). Writing more openly about the ethical issues involved in studying the history of Jews in Africa (perhaps using the Green piece as a jumping-off point) could have provided Hull with an opportunity for a thoughtful discussion. …

“Hull has provided a tremendously useful and long-overdue compendium of information about Jews in Africa. Historians of Judaism will learn much about a long-neglected locus of activities in Africa, while historians of Africa will learn much about a long-neglected group long active in Africa. Bringing both sets of scholars into conversation with one another would be a welcome gift resulting from this volume more generally (and may help us move beyond holding Jews singularly responsible for the nefarious slave trade era in recent history, as some irresponsible authors have done). Beyond engaging scholars, the book should make a provocative text in undergraduate-level courses in the History of Africa as well as the History of Comparative Judaisms. It may well both presage and inspire a new round of scholarship dedicated to further filling in the details of the broad outlines Hull has sketched in this overview.”
— Alma Gottlieb, University of Illinois, International Journal of African Historical Studies

“Hull’s intention is to fold African Jews and Judaism into the larger discourse. He achieves this goal admirably, neither tokenizing nor objectifying Jews in Africa, but rather painting them smoothly into the larger canvas of the continent’s history. In six detailed chapters, he demonstrates the extent to which keeping Jews on the borders of … African scholarship renders the picture incomplete. Each chapter illustrates the interplay, cultural exchanges, and influence of Jews in various locales and under differing historical pressures, paralleling the better known narratives of Africa’s past while also linking and conflating the two. In this way Hull is able to underscore how Jews in Africa undeniably ‘played a colossal role in the history of the continent, one that is hugely disproportionate to their numbers.’

“His work, therefore, is a helpful complement to other historical text on Africa, and any student of African history will be able to use Hull’s book as a source of tantalizing information demanding future study … This is a valuable source for all students of Jewish and of African History.”
African Studies Review