Tracing the Ties that Bind Blacks and Jews in History and Myth

Tudor Parfitt, once described as “a sort of British Indiana Jones,” writes in Black Jews in Africa and the Americas that he first encountered black Jews “in any form” in late 1984, when he’d traveled to the Sudanese border with Ethiopia. He’d been sent to the border’s refugee camps to investigate reports that the Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) there were being mistreated by the Christian Ethiopians, all of whom were fleeing the year’s famine. Though their status as Jews was being contested, Parfitt was present for what he describes as “the first stages of the Israeli attempt to save thousands of these impoverished and desperate people from famine and persecution.”

Not long after, while speaking in South Africa about the Ethiopian Jews, Parfitt met another group of black Jews, this time from the Lemba tribe. The Lembas explained to Parfitt that they were blood relatives of the Ethiopian Jews, and that the Israeli acceptance of the Ethiopians should also legitimize their own Judaism, hitherto difficult to claim. Despite being intrigued by the notion that the people he’d met in the Sudan were now acting as a “proof community” for others, Parfitt found the idea of any connection between the Beta Israel and the Lemba of Soweto doubtful.

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