Are the Black Jews Jewish?

Sep 4, 2015 by

[A recent discussion of the “Lost Tribes” prompted me to repost this piece below, originally published on GeoCurrents in July 2012]

The South African University of KwaZulu-Natal has recently hosted a conference on black Judaism around the globe, with a special emphasis on black Jews in Africa. The conference was attended by academics from Israel, France, Congo, UK and the US, including Professor Shalva Weil, a renowned anthropologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who chairs the Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry. Weil told The Jerusalem Post that she was pleased to participate, especially after the university canceled a lecture by an Israeli diplomat a few weeks earlier.

Also among the participants was Dr. Edith Bruder, a professor at the French national research institute who studies the so-called Igbo Jews of Nigeria, a 40,000-strong segment of the mostly Christian Igbo people, who number 15 to 30 million. Bruder claim that the group adopted Judaism before the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century. This theory is, however, highly controversial, as the Igbo people speak a Niger-Congo language and used to follow their traditional Igbo religion. Igbo Jewish religious practices include circumcision eight days after the birth of a male child, observance of kosher dietary laws, separation of men and women during menstruation, wearing of the tallit (prayer shawl) and kippah (cap), and the celebration of holidays such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. In recent times, Igbo Jewish communities have also adopted holidays such as Hanukkah and Purim, which were instituted only after the diaspora. However, the State of Israel has not officially recognized the Igbo as a “Lost Tribe.”

Another African group that claims Israelite origin is the Yibir, a small clan in Somalia, whose numbers are estimated anywhere between 1,300 and 25,000. Much like the Gypsies in Europe, the elusive Yibir people subsist mostly as itinerant soothsayers and magicians. They speak a local Somali language, and like the Somali population in general, overwhelmingly adhere to Islam; few of them know anything about Judaism. However, authors such as Christian Bader hold the Yibir to be descendants of Israelites and derive their name from the word for “Hebrew”. According to Professor Weil, such tribes are not recognized by Israel as Jews.


Other Black Israelite groups that are not recognized as Jewish by Orthodox Judaism include the Abayudaya of Uganda and the House of Israel Community in Ghana. The name Abayudaya translates from the Luganda language as “People of Judah”, analogous to Children of Israel. This community of approximately 1,100 subsistence farmers lives near the town of Mbale in Uganda. Prior to the persecutions of the Idi Amin regime, their numbers were closer to 3,000. Although the Abayudaya are not genetically or historically related to ethnic Jews, they are devout in their practice of the religion, keeping their version of kashruth, and observing Shabbat. They are also well-known for a particular style of music and singing. In Ghana, the House of Israel Community claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, but they too are not recognized as Jewish by mainstream Judaism. This community was evidently established in antiquity through migrations into western Africa by Jewish traders, merchants, and others, which are documented by Arab, Jewish, and European travelers and historians. These migrations crossed the Sahara desert into Mali, where there has been a documented Jewish community in Timbuktu (this community has long ceased to exist due to migration and assimilation). From Mali, Jewish migration continued though the Ivory Coast and into Ghana. For centuries, Ghanaian Jews observed such customs as avoidance of pork, observance of a day of rest on Saturdays, male circumcision eight days after birth, and the separation of man and woman during female menstruation. In the late 20th century, the Jewish community in Ghana has established ties to worldwide Jewry.


The two best-known groups of Black Jews are Beta Israel of Ethiopia and Lemba of Zimbabwe. Beta Israel, also known as Falasha, is a community of more than 130,000 people. They too claim descent from one of Ten Lost Tribes, namely that of Dan. By now, nearly 85% of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community has emigrated to Israel, mostly during two rescue operations: Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991. The Falasha are not to be confused with the Falasha Mura, who are the descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity. Some members of this group now returning to the practices of Judaism, but their status is very controversial in Israel today. Some people even doubt that Falasha proper are truly Jewish. Unsurprisingly, a number of genetic studies have been conducted to clarify the status of the Falasha people. Already in the early 1990s, an examination of Y-DNA and mtDNA of Ethiopian Jews, conducted by a team headed by Batsheva Bonne-Tamir (Zoossmann-Disken et al. 1991), found that:

“Ethiopian Jews cluster with other Ethiopian tribes and occupy a central position on a principal component map between African and Asian populations.”

A further study by Lucotte & Smets (1999) came to a similar conclusion. Although the authors do not doubt the Jewish practices of Falasha, they dispute their claim of descent from the tribe of Dan:

“… the distinctiveness of the Y-chromosome haplotype distribution of Beta Israel Jews from conventional Jewish populations and their relatively greater similarity in haplotype profile to non-Jewish Ethiopians are consistent with the view that the Beta Israel people descended from ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia who converted to Judaism.”

Similarly, a later study by Bonne-Tamir’s team (Hammer et al. 2000) found Beta Israel to be an exception to the general commonality of the “paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population”. Their conclusion is that the Falasha are “affiliated more closely with non-Jewish Ethiopians and other North Africans”.

But in 2001, an interesting twist appeared in the story of the Falasha: a study by the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University found a possible genetic link between eleven Ethiopian Jews and four Yemenite Jews. So are Ethiopian Jews related to other Jewish groups worldwide by blood after all? Probably not: the more likely explanation proposed by the Stanford researchers is a historical flow of genes flow between Ethiopian and Yemenite Jewish populations, or perhaps even between Jewish and non-Jewish populations of both regions. Thus, it is not that the eleven Ethiopian Jews studied are related to other Jews by blood, but rather that the four Yemenite Jews are related to Ethiopians; perhaps they are descendents of reverse migrants of African origin who crossed the Red Sea from Ethiopia to Yemen.

All the abovementioned studies examined Y-DNA, which traces paternal descent. But since in most forms of Judaism today maternal lineage is crucial in determining one’s Jewishness, a more recent study, reported in Thomas et al. (2002) looked at the mtDNA of Ethiopian Jews. According to their results, the most common mtDNA type found among the Ethiopian Jewish sample was present only in Somalia, which further supports the view that most Ethiopian Jews are of local, Ethiopian origin.


Another fascinating Jewish group in Africa is the Lemba, or Lembaa, who number 50,000-70,000 in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and the South African region of Venda. According to their legends, Lemba ancestors came by boat from a northern town called Sena. It is not entirely clear where that legendary town is located as towns with similar names abound in Israel, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Yemen, but the latter seems the most likely possibility (see map). Unlike Ethiopian and Yemenite Jews who speak Semitic languages distantly related to Hebrew, the Lemba are speakers of Bantu languages closely related to those spoken by their neighbors. Historically, the Lemba had various religious practices and beliefs similar to those in Judaism, which have been transmitted orally through the generations. Today, many Lemba are Christians, though they seem to maintain several Jewish-like practices such as observance of a holy day of rest similar to the Jewish Shabbat, considering themselves a chosen people, and practicing male circumcision. The Lemba also refrain from eating pork or other foods or food combinations forbidden by the Torah; they also practice a form of animal slaughter, which makes meats fit for their consumption (resembling the Jewish Shechita). Lemba tombstones are decorated with Stars of David. Like other Jewish groups, Lemba encourage endogamy and have specific conversion practices for non-Lembas. Although the Lemba themselves claim descent from one of the Lost Tribes, there are two alternative explanations for their adherence to these Jewish practices: first, the Lemba might have read parts of the Hebrew Bible and adopted some of the practices; second, they may have absorbed Jewish traditions from traders on the east coast of Africa.

A number of genetic studies have been conducted on the Lemba. In 1996, Spurdle & Jenkins showed that more than 50% of the Lemba Y-DNA is Semitic in origin, approximately 40% is sub-Saharan African, and the ancestry of the remainder cannot be resolved. Perhaps surprisingly, a parallel study of mtDNA exhibited a very different pattern: practically no evidence of female ancestry from the Middle East can be found, as the female forebears of the Lemba were overwhelmingly African. Such findings indicate that the Lemba descend from the intermarriage of Semitic—though not necessarily Jewish—males and local African women.

A further study by Thomas et al. (2000) showed that a substantial number of Lemba men carry a particular polymorphism on the Y-chromosome known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH). This genetic signature is associated with Jewish lineages that trace their descent from the priests, known as cohanim in Hebrew. According to the Jewish tradition, these men are direct male descendants of the Biblical Aaron, the younger brother of Moses. (While many of the Cohanim bear last names like Cohen, Kogan, Katz, and the like, the correlation between the last name and whether a given man is a cohen is far from perfect). Curiously, the priestly sub-clan within the Lemba, the Buba, carries most of the CMH found in the ethnic group. However, another study has shown that some 34% of men in Yemen also exhibit close similarity to CMH, despite being found not to be closely related when more microsatellite markers are taken into account. Therefore, a larger number microsatellite markers would need to be tested in order to verify whether the Lemba Y-DNA is indeed derived from Jewish cohanim rather than other possible Semitic ancestors.

The various groups discussed above raise intense debates in Israel and elsewhere as to who counts as a Jew. According to the halakhic (Jewish religious) definition, a person is Jewish if his or her mother is Jewish, or if he or she converts to Judaism. Israel’s Law of Return originally applied to Jews defined in that way, but in 1970 the Jewish Ancestry Amendment was adopted, extending “the rights of a Jew under [the Law of Return]… [to] a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew”—essentially, anyone who would be persecuted under the Nuremberg Laws. For groups that claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes, the presumed connection to the rest of the Jewish people is through male rather female lineage, and for groups such as Abayudaya a religious conversion at some point in history is assumed. Yet Orthodox Judaism and the State of Israel remain wary of the groups that claim to be Jewish but have no genetic links to other ethnic Jews.



Bader, Christian (2000). Les Yibro: Mages somali. Les juifs oubliés de la corne de l’Afrique. Paris.

Hammer M. F., Redd A. J., Wood E. T., Bonner M. R., Jarjanazi H., Karafet T., Santachiara-Benerecetti S., Oppenheim A., Jobling M. A., Jenkins T., Ostrer H., Bonné-Tamir B. (2000) “Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 97 no. 12, pp. 6769-6774.

Lucotte G, Smets P. (1999) “Origins of Falasha Jews studied by haplotypes of the Y chromosome”. Human Biology 71(6): 989-93.

Thomas et al. (2000) “Y Chromosomes Traveling South: The Cohen Modal Haplotype and the Origins of the Lemba—the “Black Jews of Southern Africa””. American Journal of Human Genetics 66 (2): 674.

Thomas, Mark G.; Michael E. Weale, Abigail L. Jones, Martin Richards, Alice Smith, Nicola Redhead, Antonio Torroni, Rosaria Scozzari, Fiona Gratrix, Ayele Tarekegn, James F. Wilson, Cristian Capelli, Neil Bradman, and David B. Goldstein. (2002) “Founding Mothers of Jewish Communities: Geographically Separated Jewish Groups Were Independently Founded by Very Few Female Ancestors”. American Journal of Human Genetics 70(6): 1411-1420.

Zoossmann-Diskin A, Ticher A, Hakim I, Goldwitch Z, Rubinstein A, Bonne-Tamir B. (1991) “Genetic affinities of Ethiopian Jews”. Israel Journal of Medical Sciences 27(5): 245-51.

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