“As Western Jews continue to secularize in their lifestyles and belief systems, the increasing adoption of Judaism by committed practitioners of it in the Global South (including Africa) will parallel the transformation of Christianity,” according to political scientist William Miles of Northeastern University.
Miles, who shared a paper he delivered at the November conference of the African Studies Association with RW, notes that much of the growth of Judaism in the last 25 years in the Global South has taken place among West African communities in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon, some of whom claim Israelite ancestry through lost tribal descent.
There are also a growing number of African Jews in Israel, with Ethiopians being the largest immigrant group after Russians, Romanians and North Americans. There are also 300,000 migrant workers in Israel, and 60,000 are from Africa. While few of the job seekers from Asia and Africa embrace Judaism, “assimilation into the broader culture of the Jewish state inevitably will have repercussions in the religious sphere. This is particularly the case for their offspring who are born and raised in Israel.”
In contrast to the growth of cultural and secular Jews in the West, “Africans who embrace Judaism are no less fervent than their Christian (or Muslim) counterparts. It is the core of Judaism as a religion – the observance, the practice, the (theo)logic, the Torah (and increasingly Talmudic) study that draws them in,” Miles adds. The poverty of Global South Christians and Muslims also applies to these Jews, though they often find that “being Jewish and observing Judaism may have this secondary, material attraction.
It is not the principal motivator for the emerging African embrace of Judaism, but it would be analytically naïve to ignore the economic reality of Judaism’s new embracers in the Global South. Israel’s economic prowess is well recognized throughout the developing world, by her detractors as well as by her admirers. And the identification between Judaism and Israel is sharper in the minds of Africans (Muslim as well as Christian) than it is among Europeans and Americans,” Miles writes.
Like their Christian and Muslim counterparts, African Jews also struggle with applying local customs and whether they clash with authentic Judaism. But it is in their moral conservatism of these Jews in Africa and the Israeli diaspora that may cause similar conflicts in world Jewry as they have in Christianity. Miles finds in his study of Nigerian Jews (Jubos) that homosexuality is as taboo as it is among Nigerian Christians and Muslims. “Overseas non-Orthodox denominational policies that encourage gay and lesbian congregants, and accept L/G/B/T clergy, could become as internationally divisive for Nigerian Jewry as it has for Nigeria and other African Christian churches.”