Besides being blatantly racist, the assumption that the Children of Israel’s ancestors were white is fundamentally flawed, and can lead to confusion, misguided policies and worse.
Most Israelis would doubtless dissociate themselves from Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s spiteful declaration earlier this year, as reported by Maariv, that “this country belongs to us, to the white man.”
However, a widespread “presumption of whiteness” exists where Jewish identity is concerned, not just on the part of Israelis and Jews, but generally among most people in the world. Besides being blatantly racist, the assumption that the Children of Israel’s ancestors were white is fundamentally flawed, and can lead to confusion, misguided policies and worse.
Dispersed throughout Africa and the distant Americas are millions of Africans who claim Hebraic ancestry. While their practices and family heritage may not conform to halakhic standards, it is time for a more inclusive definition of Jewish identity, one sufficiently flexible to include them.
Unfortunately, a narrow and biased Eurocentric prism leads to such claims being marginalized or summarily dismissed. At best, African communities that assert their Hebraic heritage are accommodated with offers of rabbinical training and synagogues — European-style institutions that, from their perspective, only serve to reinforce Judaism’s “whiteness” and do not embrace the “peculiar” peoplehood that Israel’s patriarchs and prophets envisioned. Africans have always been an integral part of Israel’s landscape. In fact, Israel itself, being geologically situated as it is on the African tectonic plate, is a part of Africa. Never mind Eurovision and the Euroleague, Israel is surely not in Europe!
Whence this idea of not being part of Africa? From colonial-era conquests and subsequent mapmaking exercises. And as much as identity politics is an exercise in defining belonging and exclusion, the act of defining what Africa was also defined what Africa wasn’t. Accordingly, Israel is invariably situated outside of Africa, often alongside Egypt and the entire northern tier of African nations, as part of the imaginative geopolitical construct called the “Middle East.”
European scientists were part of the attempt to deny Israel’s African connection. Anthropologists were, as late as 1911, still investigating “the effect of climate upon white Jews,” as one writer put it at the time. Given that Africans were deemed incapable of authoring anything approaching civilization, there had to be some other explanation for the existence of Black Jews than that they were black to begin with. Despite DNA tests of the Lemba in southern Africa affirming their genetic links to Israel, a recent article alleged the Lemba to be “the descendants of white men.”
Decades of research and study have confirmed for me that the ancient Israelites were dark-skinned, and 400 years’ worth of Renaissance-era paintings haven’t convinced me otherwise.
Still, what’s the point? For the “Out-of-Africa” model of humanity’s origins suggests that we are all Africans! And if our links to Abraham were determined by genetics, wouldn’t we be in search of a Chaldean ancestry?
Theodor Herzl’s vision of the Jewish state as “a portion of the rampart of civilization against barbarism” (i.e., Africa and Asia ) was inherently flawed, steeped in the social Darwinism of the time. Some recognized this blemish early on. Zionist theorist A. D. Gordon warned in 1920: “If the Jewish people will only be dragged in the wake of others, if what is created here will be only a Hebrew translation of European life, it will not be sustainable.”
The coercing of Ethiopian kessoch into abandoning their white turbans and robes for black suits and fedoras and other European cultural trappings is patently absurd and rooted, again, in the presumed whiteness of ancient Israel. Observed psychiatrist Frantz Fanon: “There is a fact: White men consider themselves superior to black men. There is another fact: Black men want to prove to white men, at all costs, the richness of their thought, the equal value of their intellect.”
However, as the West struggles to stay economically viable and morally relevant, ascendant Africans are no longer out to prove anything. In fact, the proper course for them is not to mimic those who have failed so dismally. At the heart of the African’s “awakening” is his delinking of himself from a destiny defined by another. However unsettling this may be for Eli Yishai and the rabbinate matters not to the awakened African, for the “power to define” is ultimately his.
That said, I join with sociologist Eva Illouz, in declaring “enough of ethnicity”! This tiresome din about race distracts us from infinitely more pressing issues. I suggest a corrective lens, one that focuses less on the form, and more on the function, of what constitutes “Jewishness.” Be you a Hebrew? Cross over to an elevated understanding and be a blessing unto the human family! Be you an Israelite? Shine a light unto the nations that they might find their way out of darkness! Be you Jewish? Wake up and be the “praise” that Judah was to be by confronting the real evils of our time!
The seed of Abraham have a major role in the earth’s ultimate redemption. Yet, the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel ring true: “The Jewish people are a messenger who have forgotten their message.” A troubled world awaits an enlightened messenger, message and direction, that prophetically was supposed to come from Jerusalem, not Rio. The accelerating destruction of the planet and dehumanization of its people won’t wait for Rio +40.
Lost in the cacophony of racial angst surrounding the “migrant” issue is an urgent call for Israel’s reconciliatory return to her African roots. Israel’s psycho-geographical dislocation from Africa no doubt inhibits a more sensitive and measured response toward her neighbors to the south, be they “strangers” or full-fledged family members. But a cold indifference and inflammatory arrogance may yet pose her greatest existential threats.
Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda is a spokesman for the Hebrew Israelites in Dimona, and a member of the International Society for the Study of African Judaism. This piece was adapted from a presentation made at their conference earlier this year in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He can be reached at email@example.com