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African Jews

Many "educated" people outside the West know a lot about Europe but have less interest in peoples outside Europe, including their own people. Many Africans prize a "Western" education but know little of other Africans.

World knowledge of the Jewish diaspora is no exception to the Eurocentric rule. Most people (sadly including people of color) who have no contact with Jewish communities of color picture Jews as white Europeans. In actuality, the Jewish communities of Africa and Asia had dominated the Jewish intellectual and cultural scene in antiquity. During the time of Jesus, the largest Jewish community outside the land of Israel was in Alexandria, Egypt.1 It was Alexandria's Jewish community that produced Philo.2 The highly influential Septuagint was also translated there.3

The Talmud Bavli, composed by Jewish academicians in Babylonia (present day Iraq), Asia, is more comprehensive and influential than the Jerusalem Talmud.4 Similarly, Babylonia's Jewish community grew to surpass Israel's Jewish community in influence and prestige.5 The presidents of the Babylonian Jewish rabbinical colleges of Sura and Pumbedita (modern day Fallujah) were the generally accepted spiritual leaders of the Jewish community worldwide in the early medieval era.6

The following section focus on non-European-origin Jewish communities in Africa. Ashkenazi and Ladino-speaking Jewish communities on the African continent will not be covered in this article, except in relation to their association with African Mizrahi communities.

Jewish populations in Africa:


Before the modern age, Egypt of Africa, together with Iraq of Asia, were the world centers of Jewish learning and religious authority. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Bible, was produced in Egypt. Prominent religious leader and scholar Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam (1135-1203), served as nagid for the Egyptian Jews. He spent much of his life in Cairo as a Jewish scholar and as chief physician to the sultan.7

Israelite tribes first entered Egypt during the reign of pharoah Amen hotep IV (1375-1358 BCE) and migrated from Egypt in the Exodus around the year 1220 BCE. During the time of the Babylonian conquest of Israel, many Jews who were not deported to Babylon fled to Egypt, as recorded in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Large scale immigration began in 332 BCE when Egypt was under Greek rule.8

During the reign of the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir, a Jewish merchant Abu Sa'd al-Tustari held the main power in Egypt together with the Queen Mother, Rasad. The regent Rasad was variously reported as Nubian, Sudani or Abyssinian. Abu Sa'd was later allegedly assassinated by his political opponent, the vizier al-Fallahi, whom the Queen Mother's agents assassinated in turn.9


Ethiopian Jewry represents one of the oldest Diaspora communities.10 According to one theory of their origin, Jews were brought to Ethiopia as prisoners of war by Ptolemy I. Another tradition holds that they are the lost tribe of Dan. 11

In 1984 and 1985, Israel airlifted 10,000 Jews out from Ethiopia via Sudan. Media leaks led the Sudanese government to stop its cooperation, ending "Operation Moses". The remaining 15,000 were airlifted in Operation Solomon in 1992, when the Ethiopian government was on the verge of collapse.12

Libya, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia

The Jewish presence in North Africa west of Egypt dates back at least 2000 years. The community of Libya traces its roots back to the 3rd century BCE.13 During the Byzantine period, the Greek emperor's anti-Jewish edicts caused many Tunisian Jews to flee to Berber communities in the mountains and the desert.14 Several Berber tribes adopted Judaism. 15

By the 7th century, a Judeo-Berber tribe of Jarawa was already established in the Aures Mountains of Algeria. Their warrior-queen achieved brilliant victories over Arab invaders before dying in battle at the end of the 7th century.16

  1. The Jewish World of Jesus: An Overview
  2. Philo on wikipedia
  3. Septuagint on wikipedia
  4. Babylonian Talmud on wikipedia Talmud in JewishEncyclopdia
  5. Babylonian Talmud on wikipedia
  6. Geonim on wikipedia
  7. Dr Avi Beker (ed.), Jewish Communities of the World (1998-1999 edition) p192
  8. Jewish Communities of the World, p192
  9. Delia Cortese and Simonetta Calderini, Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam, p110
  10. Ethiopian Jews on wikipedia
  11. Jewish Communities of the World, p223
  12. Jewish Communities of the World, p224
  13. Jewish Communities of the World, p201
  14. Jewish Communities of the World, p210
  15. Jewish Communities of the World, p203
  16. Jewish Communities of the World, p190