Lost Israeli Tribes in Africa?

Johan Malan, Mossel Bay, South Africa (August 2016)

There are various theories on the existence of black Jewish tribes in Africa. Such people are erroneously described as descendants from the so-called “ten lost tribes of Israel”. Some of them now claim Israeli (or Jewish) identity, and this claim has already given rise to a significant migration from Africa to Israel. Increasing numbers of these “black Jews” now wish to relocate from struggling African states to the alleged “land of their fathers” in Israel. In the process Israel are causing a serious identity crisis to themselves as they are welcoming multitudes of non-Jews in terms of the myth of the “ten lost tribes” and offer full Israeli citizenship to them.

Even Jewish historians and religious leaders are giving credibility to this myth, thereby opening their gates to thousands of homeless opportunists from Africa who claim to be Jews. Because of this claim they qualify for extensive aid from the Israeli government to be relocated in the Jewish state and to become part of a rapidly developing society.

Ethiopian Jews in Israel

At this stage there are already more than 120,000 Ethiopian Jews (Falashas) in Israel. Since the 15th century they have been known in their country as “Falashas” (“landless wanderers”). Their origin is still shrouded in mystery. According to an unverifiable myth, two orthodox Jews migrated from nearby Yemen across the Red Sea to Ethiopia where they became the founding fathers of this nomadic people. They established Jewish traditions such as the circumcision of boys, the ritual slaughtering of animals, and a prohibition on the eating of pork. This myth survived for centuries and many different versions of it are related. At a certain stage this group became known as the House of Israel (Beta Israel), and after various requests many of them were relocated in Israel. According to a Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_Israel) major problems are experienced to assimilate them into Jewish society. Among others, the article says the following:

“The Ethiopian Beta Israel community in Israel today comprises more than 121,000 people. Most of this population are the Ethiopian immigrants and their descendants who came to Israel during Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991). Civil war and famine in Ethiopia prompted the Israeli government to mount these dramatic rescue operations. The rescues were within the context of Israel's national mission to gather Diaspora Jews and bring them to the Jewish homeland. Some immigration has continued up until the present day. Today 81,000 Ethiopian Israelis were born in Ethiopia, while 38,500 or 32% of the community are native born Israelis.

“Over time, the Ethiopian Jews in Israel moved out of the government owned mobile home camps which they initially lived in and settled in various cities and towns throughout Israel, with the encouragement of the Israeli authorities who grant new immigrants generous government loans or low-interest mortgages.

“Similarly, to other groups of immigrant Jews who made aliyah to Israel, the Ethiopian Jews have had to overcome obstacles to integrate into Israeli society. Initially the main challenges faced by the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel arose from communication difficulties (most of the Ethiopian population could not read nor write in Hebrew, and many of the older members could not hold a simple conversation in Hebrew), and discrimination, including manifestations of racism, from some parts of Israeli society. Unlike Russian immigrants, many of whom arrived educated and skilled, Ethiopian immigrants came from an impoverished agrarian country, and were ill-prepared to work in a developed industrialized country.

“Over the years there has been significant progress in the integration of young Beta Israelis into Israeli society, primarily resulting from serving in the Israeli Defense Forces alongside other Israelis their age. This has led to an increase in opportunities for Ethiopian Jews after they are discharged from the army.

“Despite progress, Ethiopian Jews are still not well assimilated into Israeli-Jewish society. They remain, on average, on a lower economic and educational level than average Israelis. Also, while marriages between Jews of different backgrounds are very common in Israel, marriages between Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians are not very common. According to a 2009 study, 90% of Ethiopian-Israelis – 93% of men and 85% of women, are married to other Ethiopian-Israelis. A survey found that 57% of Israelis consider a daughter marrying an Ethiopian unacceptable and 39% consider a son marrying an Ethiopian to be unacceptable. Barriers to intermarriage have been attributed to sentiments in both the Ethiopian community and Israeli society generally. A 2011 study showed that only 13% of high school students of Ethiopian origin felt ‘fully Israeli’.

“Discrimination and racism against Israeli Ethiopians is still perpetuated. In May 2015 Israeli Ethiopians demonstrated in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem against racism, after a video was released, showing an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent that was brutally beaten up by the Israeli police. Interviewed students of Ethiopian origin affirm that they do not feel accepted in Israeli society, due to a very strong discrimination towards them.”

The Lemba and other peoples

There are also other African peoples who claim Jewish descent. One of them is the Lemba of Vendaland (RSA) and adjacent parts of Zimbabwe. They live dispersed among other tribes and also practise various Jewish rituals and traditions. The Lemba number about 700,000.

The largest black tribe in Africa, the Ibo (or Igbo) of Nigeria, numbering about 35 million, has a similar tradition of Jewish descent. However, at present there is not a strong Zionist movement and claims in respect of Israeli identity and citizenship among them. If it does happen in future, the Middle East would be threatened by large-scale migrations from Africa.

The USA has millions of Afro-Americans who are the descendants of slaves from West Africa – many of them Ibo tribesmen from the present Nigeria. Even after staying in America for centuries they are still not fully absorbed in American societies of European descent. In the present stage of Afro-Israeli migration it is already obvious that Israel is faced with similar problems of fostering national unity in a heterogeneous society, particularly due to racial differences. Mere cultural and linguistic differences with Jews from other parts of the world have not proved to be insurmountable due to obvious similarities because of their common Semitic ancestry. However, the wide gap between modern Israelis and Negroid members of alleged “lost Jewish tribes” from Africa poses problems of another kind.

New claims from West Africa

According to an article in Breaking Israel News of 2 August 2016, African King With Jewish Roots to Convene Royal Gathering in Jerusalem to Praise the God of Israel (http://www.breakingisraelnews.com/73151/king-togo-bringing-hundreds-african-kings-praise-god-kotel-sukkot/#uAwf9HpiTjpVxWlE.99), there is presently a new awakening of a Jewish consciousness in West Africa. This article says:

“One of the more remarkable incarnations of the prophesied ingathering of the exiles is the discovery of Jewish roots in African tribes. The King of Togo, a country in West Africa, plans to strengthen that Messianic vision by bringing hundreds of African kings to the Western Wall in Jerusalem this Sukkot (Festival of Booths) to sing out their love of the God of Israel.

King Ayi was crowned in 1994 as King of the Ayigbe people of the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. The seat of this Kingdom was in Togo, although most historians confirm it started in Accra, Ghana. He presently lives in exile in the US. In 2002, at the second World Conference of the Counsel of Chiefs and Kings of Africa, King Ayi was crowned by his peers as head of the Organization of Kings and Queens of Africa, in the republic of Benin. At the following conference in 2005, he announced his desire to bring all 350 African kings to Israel, to recite the Shema, the Jewish declaration of faith, at the Kotel (the Western Wall in Jerusalem). His announcement was received with overwhelming enthusiasm.

“King Ayi explained this surprising reaction to Breaking Israel News: ‘At least half of the kings who are coming have a tradition that they are Jewish,’ King Ayi said. ‘Some of the kings, though, are Muslim imams. Even they wanted to come. They are coming with the intention of recognizing that God created the entire world.’ It has taken 11 years and many trips back and forth, but King Ayi’s vision is finally coming to fruition. The ceremony will take place in Jerusalem during Sukkot in October 2016 and has been organized in conjunction with the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry, headed by MK David Azulai.

“In the past, King Ayi has met with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, two major figures in Orthodox Judaism. His efforts are also supported by the Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) of Bnei Brak as well as the nascent Sanhedrin. The gathering is auspiciously timed, since the holiday of Sukkot has a strong multi-national element. The Talmud (Sukkah 55b) teaches, ‘Rabbi Eliezer said: Why are 70 offerings brought on Sukkot? For the [merit of the] 70 nations of the world. This is based on the prophecy in Zechariah: And it shall come to pass that every one that is left of all the nations that came against Yerushalayim shall go up from year to year to worship the King Hashem of hosts and to keep the Sukkot. Zechariah 14:16.’

“In addition to the religious mission, the visit will also be an opportunity to further the diplomatic connection between Israel and Africa. Educational seminars and tours will be interspersed with meetings with government officials. For King Ayi, this is the culmination of a long personal journey. He told Breaking Israel News it was always known in his family that they were descended from Jews: ‘We always refrained from foods deemed forbidden in the Torah,’ the King explained. ‘Circumcisions are performed on the eighth day, and we keep the laws of niddah (family purity). We are celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and blow shofar (ram’s horn)’.”


However, all these people who claim a Jewish ethnic identity are not Jewish by descent – they are only proselytes because some of their ancestors have converted to Judaism. This was a common phenomenon in the ancient world. In Acts 2:5-12 we read about Jews and proselytes who attended the Feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit was poured out. In verse 10 the visitors are specifically described as “Jews and proselytes” (see also Acts 13:43). The original Greek term is proselutos. Strong’s Concordance translates it as follows: “… an arriver from a foreign religion, i.e. an acceder (convert) to Judaism; a proselyte.”

These were people from other ethnic groups who embraced the Jewish faith. However, this move does not render them ethnic Jews, and therefore some of these proselytes now try to justify their conversion to Judaism by claiming that they are members of one of the “lost tribes” of Israel. They use this myth as a handy excuse to sneak in through the backdoor in an effort to obtain Jewish identity, which will give them the biblical right to be resettled in the land of Israel. However, these claims cannot be justified historically, and are just as far removed from the truth as similar claims by supporters of British-Israelism who allege that all the white people of the world are descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. Africa has its own version of these false claims.

The myth of the ten lost tribes

There was never a rigid division between the two and the ten tribes of Israel. During the 250 years of their existence, the northern ten-tribe kingdom of Israel was ruled by 19 apostate kings. There was not a single God-fearing one among them. Whenever a God-fearing king ruled in Jerusalem, a migration from the north occurred with great vigour. The dedication and positive reforms of King Asa had the same effect: “Then he gathered all Judah and Benjamin, and those who sojourned with them from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon, for they came over to him in great numbers from Israel when they saw that the Lord his God was with him” (2 Chron. 15:9; emphasis added).

In 721 BC, 27,290 Israelites were taken captive to Assyria. The largest part of the nation remained behind in Samaria. In 612 BC, Assyria was defeated by the Babylonians and incorporated into the Babylonian Empire. When the Babylonian exile of the southern kingdom of Judah occurred in 586 BC, the dispersed Israelites and the Jews again became integrated within the larger Babylonian territory. The prophet Ezekiel was taken captive to Babylon in 597 BC by Nebuchadnezzar. In Tel Abib, at the River Chebar, he met with the descendants of the Israelites who were taken captive more than 120 years earlier. God spoke to him about Israel who continued with their rebelliousness (Ezek. 2:3; 3:14-17).

A group of the ten tribes was in Assyria (later incorporated into Babylonia), a group of them remained in Samaria, while a large group had already migrated to Judah. Since the Babylonian captivity of Judah, the two houses of Israel (the ten tribes and the two tribes) had a common destiny. They again merged into one nation with twelve tribes and were subsequently mentioned together. There is no biblical or credible extra-biblical source which makes any mention of Israeli tribes who, at this early stage, migrated to Asia, Europe or Africa.

During and after the Babylonian captivity, early in the sixth century BC, the term ‘Jew’ (derived from ‘Judah’) became established as a synonym for ‘Israel’. One needs only to read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah to note how the terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Israel’ are used alternately to describe the same people. Ezra said: “Moreover I issue a decree as to what you shall do for the elders of these Jews for the building of this house… Then the children of Israel, the priests and the Levites and the rest of the descendants of the captivity, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. And they offered sacrifices at the dedication of this house… as a sin offering for all Israel twelve male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel… Then the children of Israel who had returned from the captivity ate together…” (Ezra 6:8, 16-17, 21; emphasis added). In Nehemiah 1:6 and 4:1 the names ‘Israel’ and ‘Jew’ are alternated in the same way.

In the New Testament, the ancient division between the two and the ten tribes is no longer recognised. The same people are 174 times described as ‘Jews’ and 70 times as ‘Israelites’. There is therefore no justification for the theory that ten of the tribes were “lost” somewhere in Europe or Africa. The big international dispersion of the Jews only occurred in the latter half of the first century (the Roman invasion of Israel in 70 AD) and early in the second century, between 132-135 AD, during and after the Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman domination. However, the Jews were not dispersed together as tribal groups but as individual families. In most cases they did not intermarry with non-Jewish people. It was a common practice among them to build synagogues and preserve their Jewish identity, and that is the reason why they still retain a Jewish identity after almost two millennia of the Diaspora. They did not change into Englishmen, Ibos, Falashas or Lembas. Those among them who intermarried with Gentiles lost their Jewish identity and became assimilated into other nations.

Semitic influence in Africa

Africa’s early history is poorly documented because the peoples concerned were preliterate and often also nomadic. Consequently, not much is revealed on their origin by archaeological excavations. From the various myths and folk tales, it is also impossible to reconstruct their origin. It is evident, however, that the Negroid race were initially hunters, gatherers and agriculturalists. Many of them inhabited West Africa as well as the East African region around the great lakes. In the environs of the lakes a very important process of ethnic fusion and acculturation occurred between Negroid and Hamitic peoples. The Hamites migrated from North Africa via the Nile Valley which led them through the Sahara Desert until they met the Negro tribes in the present Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

The great mystery about this fusion is the identity of the Hamites. Some people associate them with one of Noah’s sons, Ham. According to other sources it is more likely that the Hamites were Egyptians, which means that they rather descended from Shem and were therefore Semitic peoples (the Arabs, Jews, Assyrians and Babylonians are Semitic peoples). The Hamites (whoever they were) introduced livestock to sub-Saharan Africa, as well as advanced technology such as iron smelting. Their fusion with the vast majority of Negroid people was at a very unequal ratio; consequently, the Negro genes were still dominant among the offspring. However, some of the groups had a lighter complexion. The mixed groups later became pastoral societies (among them the Bantu-speaking peoples and the Nilo-Hamites), who also developed a higher level of technology. By this they were enabled to make better weapons, establish strong kingdoms and build up large herds of cattle. Wars to raid cattle became very common. Because of rapid population growth and overgrazing the Bantu-speaking tribes started a southward migration and during the course of many years populated Central and Southern Africa.

During the later history of Africa, notably between 500 BC and the early 18th century AD, strong Arab influences became noticeable, particularly in East Africa. Trading posts were established, further ethnic fusion occurred and a new language, Swahili, originated, which is a mixture of indigenous languages and Arabic. In large parts of East Africa, Swahili is used as an official language. After the establishing of the Islamic faith in the 7th century, the Arab presence in Africa was used to introduce this faith to many African countries, particularly in North, West, and Eastern Africa.

After the European colonisation of Africa, the Christian religion was established in large parts of the continent. Greater diversity has set in, and most people in Africa now associate either with Christianity, or with Islam, or with the indigenous religions of ancestor worship, divination and witchcraft. As mentioned above, there are also an increasing number of Jewish proselytes, but that clearly have no bearing on their biological descent. These people really have no hereditary claim to Israeli citizenship, for the same reason why Muslims in Africa cannot claim citizenship of Saudi Arabia.

The end-time situation

Israel are a covenant people who were used by God to reveal Himself to humanity. God’s Son, the Saviour of the world, was incarnated in this nation, and the largest part of the Bible (with the exception only of Luke and Acts) was written by Jews (Rom. 3:1-2). The Lord concluded various covenants with Israel which stipulate, among others, that the land of Israel would be their eternal abode (Gen. 13:14-15; Lev. 26:44-45).

The grace of the Lord for salvation is offered to all people of all nations, and we certainly do not have to become Jews to be recipients of this grace. The blessings which are promised to the faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus, i.e. to be members of His bridal congregation and to rule with Him in His kingdom (Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 5:9-10; 19:7-9), are unique and wonderful and should not be confused with the promise to Israel to be restored from their apostasy, to become a Messianic people and to return to the land of their fathers in the end-time.

We are therefore in a position to bless Israel because they were first a blessing to us (Rom. 11:11-12). It would be completely unfitting for us to try and change their identity in such a way that we can also be accommodated under the banner of Israel, as that would jeopardise their existence as an independent people with their own past, present and future. We would also harm ourselves spiritually in an extreme way if we would become Jewish proselytes by joining hands with a people who still largely (with the exception only of a relatively small group of Messianic Jews) deny Jesus as Messiah. This cannot and should not be done, and that is why the Falashas and others like them will not find rest for their souls in Israel and its synagogues.

After the rapture, the Lord will save the souls of 144,000 Jews – 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel (Rev. 7:4) – to be His special witnesses during the absence of the true church. This fact is another piece of evidence that Israel must survive as a distinct people until the end-time, so all God’s many promises to them can be fulfilled. In fact, the future survival of Israel as a people is more sure than the future of any other nation on earth (Jer. 31:31-40; 46:27-28). The twelve tribes of Israel refer to the entire Jewish people who are today known as Jews in the world, and not to Negro tribes or European nations who are not of Jewish (Semitic) descent, even though certain groups make various claims to try and prove Jewish ancestry.

It is unethical for proselytes to attach such unrealistic claims of Jewish identity and occupation of the Promised Land to their bond of friendship with Israel, because if the Jews yield to these demands they will endanger their own survival as a unique people in their God-given land. Paul said: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). After their salvation, a Jew remains a Jew and a Greek remains a Greek. A saved Greek does not become a spiritual Jew, and this principle applies to all saved people in all nations. Believers are indeed closely associated with one another, and also with Israel, but that does not lead to the loss of their own cultural identity. Gentile believers are certainly not commanded to pack their cases, move to Israel and then demand occupational and citizen rights in that land.