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.
Out of curiosity he spent time with the Lemba, and while he came to consider it quite possible that their customs and traditions had something to do with the Semitic world he was unable to uncover any record of Jews having settled in southeastern or central Africa as far back as the Lemba’s oral tradition extended. Another year or two passed before, while researching a history of the Jews of the Yemen, Parfitt uncovered some evidence that could actually corroborate the Lemba’s story of their own heritage. “And it was at this point and rather out of frustration,” he writes in Black Jews in Africa and the Americas, “that I turned to genetics.”
In 1999 the findings of the Lemba’s genetic tests were front page news around the world, the subject of television documentaries such as NOVA’s The Lost Tribes of Israel, and even featured in a segment on 60 Minutes. As reported by the New York Times:
Several groups around the world practice Judaic rites or claim to be descended from biblical tribes without having any ancestral Jewish connection… But the remarkable thing about the Lemba tradition is that it may be exactly right. A team of geneticists has found that many Lemba men carry in their male chromosome a set of DNA sequences that is distinctive of the cohanim, the Jewish priests believed to be the descendants of Aaron. The genetic signature of priests—a hereditary caste, different from rabbis but with certain ritual roles—is particularly common among Lemba men who belong to the senior of their 12 groups, known as the Buba clan.
The discovery of the Lemba's Jewish ancestry has come about through the intertwining of two unusual strands of inquiry. One was developed by geneticists in the United States, Israel and England who wondered what truth there might be to the Jewish tradition that priests are the descendants of Aaron, the elder brother of Moses.
The other strand was provided by Dr. Tudor Parfitt, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Dr. Parfitt, who has done research among the Lemba for 10 years, says that he has discovered Senna—Lemba tradition maintains they came from that mysterious northern city—and that he can retrace their steps from Senna to Africa, maybe a thousand years ago.
Since that burst of coverage over a dozen years ago interest in the Lemba has been steady, and, coupled with the worldwide interest in the exodus of the Ethiopian Jews, there was evidence of an enduring fascination with the very idea of black Jews. For Parfitt, the intensity and duration of that fascination sparked a new series of questions:
Why did these stories generate such media interest? Was it because the stories were about Jews? Or because they were about blacks? Or both? Was it because, at some deep level in Western consciousness, Jews are actually assumed to be black and that therefore these stories about black Jews could be taken as a final vindication of an age-old presumption? Or was it that people believe that Jews are not black at all and cannot be black and therefore that the idea of black Jews appeared more than usually quixotic—and therefore good copy? Whatever the reason, this topic achieved worldwide coverage, and articles on the Lemba and Beta Israel have appeared in the world’s major newspapers with some regularity. The topic touched a nerve in a way that none of the work with which I had hitherto been engaged had done. Somewhere at the nexus of these issues of history, prejudice, and convention there seemed to me to nestle aspects of Jewish and black history that had not been fully studied before.
Black Jews in Africa and the Americas, our most thorough tracing of the ties that bind blacks and Jews in history and myth, is the result of Parfitt’s work to understand those histories.