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The Origin of Hebrew Civilization is Afroasiatic

When I asked a Russian Jewish acquaintance how many European languages she knew, she listed English, Russian and HEBREW! Easily forgotten is the fact that Hebrew is NOT a European language. Hebrew is a Semitic language. It belongs in the same linguistic subfamily with modern Arabic, Amharic, Tigre and Tigrinya and some other East African and West Asian languages such as Ge'ez and Syriac.1 Amharic, Tigre and Tigrinya are used exclusively in black Africa.

Semitic languages are the languages of populations native to Africa and Asia, NOT Europe. Semitic languages in turn belong to a larger family of languages, the Afroasiatic. Afroasiatic has 5 branches -- Kushitic, Egyptian, Berber, Chadic, and Semitic.2 All these branches, except Semitic, are found only in Africa.3 Some scholars believe the Afroasiatic languages originated in Africa and then spread to the Asian continent.4 The Chadic branch is by far the largest subfamily, containing 150 African tongues and spanning a vast area of West Africa, including Nigeria and the Cameroons.5 Linguist Joseph H. Greenberg deduced that the original homeland of Afroasiatic speakers may be somewhere in Ethiopia. 6

So often do people associate Jewish identity with white European Jews that the rest of the Jewish world, and the very origin of the Jewish people, are forgotten. After all, the ancient Hebrews came out of North AFRICA (Egypt) into West ASIA (Israel). The vast majority of the world's Jewish population lived in North Africa and West Asia during the Middle Ages.7 The major centers of Jewish learning were once in Africa and Asia. 3rd Century BCE Alexandria (in Egypt), with its high Jewish population, was "the greatest city in the Jewish world".8 Between the 3rd and 5th centuries CE, the Jewish academies of Babylon (in present day Iraq) established the system of Biblical commentary that came to used by the entire Jewish world, with the Babylonian Talmud remaining an integral part of Jewish scholarship even in modern times.9 And yet the achievements and expanse of African and Asian Jewry are largely invisible to the rest of the world, even to fellow Asians and Africans.

I interviewed a few Chinese college students from China and Taiwan about their knowledge of world Jewry. Every one of them thought all Jews are from Europe and all Jews are white. None of them even knew that there were Jews in their own country, China! They didn't know that there are brown Jews and black Jews, all the way from Ethiopia to Yemen to Iran to India to China. As far as they were concerned, only white Jews were the "real" Jews. When I told them that Jews in China were West ASIAN immigrants of color, they exclaimed, "That can't be true!"

Many university systems outside Europe and America emulate the course content of European/American universities. The unfortunate consequence is that non-European/American students know more about Europe/America than about their own homeland and their own neighbors. It is particularly upsetting how students of color internalize a world view of white as prevalent, of white as normal, as evinced by the Chinese students' reaction to the idea of Chinese Jews.

I also interviewed a number of Israelis. Even those Israelis whose parents were from Africa or Asia feel closer to the Western world than to the surrounding Arab countries on the Asian continent. Given the current hostilities between Arabs and Jews, this is not surprising, but what is surprising is that Israel sees itself as a 'European' nation.10 Israel's claim to being 'European' is even more tenuous than Turkey's (at least part of Turkey sits on the European continent). Israel sends its basketball team to compete in the European championships.11 Less well known is the fact that Israel also sends contestants to the Miss Asia/Pacific contest.12

© CJ, first uploaded in 1999, last updated in 2009

  1. Wikipedia entry on Semitic languages - Present Situation
  2. Wikipedia entry on Afro-asiatic languages - Distribution and Branches
  3. Wikipedia entry on Afro-asiatic languages - Distribution and Branches
  4. Wikipedia entry on Afro-asiatic languages - original homeland and date
  5. Chadic Languages on Encyclopedia Britannica Online
  6. Joseph H. Greenberg, "Languages of Africa," International Journal of American Linguistics, Part II, vol 29, no. 1, January 1963
  7. Jews, almost extinct in Egyptian city Alexandria (USAToday, 2002)
  8. Jewish Communities of the World, 1998-1999 Edition, p192
  9. Jews in Babylon - the original diaspora community by Professor Isaiah Gafni, 'The Talmud' on Wikipedia
  10. Lieberman pushes Israel to join EU (Jerusalem post, Jan 31, 2007)
  11. Wikipedia entry on Euroleague
  12. Wikipedia entry on Miss Asia Pacific International

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All Bible quotations are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.