Daniel Lis, William F. S. Miles and Tudor Parfitt (eds), In the Shadow of Moses: new Jewish movements in Africa and the diaspora.
Once an obscure and marginal topic, the study of African Judaism and black Jewish movements has evolved quickly over the last decade, and the collection under review is a testament to the methodological and conceptual diversity that now characterizes the field. The title is a reference to Ali Mazrui's 'ancient triple heritage' thesis that suggests that African societies have been shaped by a combination of indigenous, Semitic and Graeco-Roman influences. Mazrui argues that behind African Islamic and Christian traditions was always 'the shadow of Moses'--Jewish and Hebraic influences. The collection builds on Mazrui's observation by exploring the long history and contemporary growth of Judaism in African countries and among black communities.
The book is divided into three sections, each comprising three or four chapters and one illustration by French graphic novelist Jeremie Dres. Miles's introductory chapter focuses on the recent rise of black Jewish communities in African countries and the (African) diaspora, presents some broad observations about the sociological, economic, political and theological aspects of this phenomenon, and stresses that it should be studied vis-a-vis other emerging religious and spiritual movements in sub-Saharan Africa.
The first section, 'Euro-African encounters', opens with Parfitt's essay on the European preoccupation with the black Jewish community in the West African Kingdom of Loango between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. While very little was known about it, Parfitt shows how external interest reflected European anxieties and concerns about race, colour and the consequences of miscegenation. Lis explores the role of Basel-educated missionaries during the nineteenth century in the construction of Jewish identities among communities in Ghana, Ethiopia and Nigeria. Mokoko Gampiot and CoquetMokoko fast forward to contemporary France, showing how black French Jews created community organizations in the face of discrimination in order to achieve 'greater visibility' and recognition among members of the predominantly white French Jewish community.
The importance of transnational encounters in the evolution of African Judaism is also reflected in the second section, which focuses on new African Jewish movements. Devir's engaging chapter on the 'internet Jews' of Cameroon discusses a community that has adopted Judaism solely based on information gleaned from the internet. Devir shows how the community has used the internet to create links with Jewish groups in North America, drawing their support and achieving wider recognition and greater visibility for themselves. Soi discusses the history of Judaism in Uganda while Brettschneider provides an overview of Jewish communities in Cote d'lvoire and Gabon. Both highlight the extent to which the emergence of Jewish identities is dependent on wider local, national and international dynamics. Levi's chapter focuses on the House of Israel community in Ghana and its use of rituals to build a collective memory in order to link itself with precolonial Jewish communities in West Africa.
Israel always had an ambiguous relationship with black Jewish communities. It is telling that the first two sections make few references to the Jewish state. It is much more present, however, in the third section on 'Newly invented diasporas', which looks more closely at questions of identity, home, belonging and repatriation. Gellar's chapter surveys the Israeli reaction to the arrival of (non-Jewish) Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers in the country, showing how Israel's identity as a Jewish state informed the heated debates around its harsh policies towards them. Lyons explores the trend among Israeli Ethiopian Jews to return to Ethiopia for family visits, business and travel. Such returns, he suggests, are driven by discrimination and marginalization in Israel, and reflect a broader effort to reassert Ethiopian identities and to reconcile them with Israeli ones. Konighofer's final contribution traces the similarities between the African Hebrew Israelites, a predominantly African American group that traces its origins to biblical Israel and established a community in southern Israel in the 1970s, and the Rastafarians, a group that similarly aspires to 'return' to Ethiopia and establish a model community there.
In the Shadow of Moses is a diverse collection that deals with a range of historical periods and geographical locations. It sometimes feels too eclectic, and contributions vary in quality and style. Yet what its expansive scope highlights is the richness of the field and the genuine complexities associated with demarcating its boundaries and determining its frame of reference. The book pushes forward existing debates on African Judaism where it presents new empirical material on communities that scholarship has largely ignored until now, and in particular contemporary ones such as the 'internet Jews' of Cameroon. Perhaps future comparative scholarship that situates the recent emergence of Judaic identities within the broader context of new African spiritual movements and their global connections will offer new perspectives for thinking about contemporary black Jewish experiences.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2019|
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