THE JEWISH PHENOMENON IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA: The Politics of Contradictory Discourses

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This work is an exploration of Jewishness, Judaism, Jewish texts, and the history of the Jewish people as it relates to the millions of people in
sub-Saharan Africa. It analyzes the phenomenon of Jewish connectedness using a wide-range of conflicting and religious discourses to bring a fresh perspective to this complex paradigm.


" How one becomes Jewish is the theme of Mara Brettschneider’s important account of the idea of the “Jewish peoples” in modern sub-Saharan Africa. This is the first serious study to link the Judiazing strands of modern Christianity, the Talmudic discourse of the idea of a people, modern Zionist ideology with the increased importance of science,specifically genetics, in defining identity. Well written and documented, it reaches from post-Biblical commentaries to the laboratory to show how the various pieces fit together to shape, create, and respond to the Jewishly related identities of peoples such as the Lemba in South Africa. Becoming Jewish has always been complicated: Brettschneider shows how very complicated it has become in today’s world."
- Dr. Sander L. Gilman
Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences,
Emory University, Atlanta GA USA

“Given that Judaism has not always been a proselytizing religion, it is remarkable that the imprint of this ancient religion should be seen so clearly in so many parts of contemporary Africa… Sufficient academic spadework has now been produced to allow for a broader conceptualization of the phenomenon using some of the philosophical tools of political theory… The timing of this book by Dr. Brettschneider is perfect.”
-Dr. Tudor Parfitt,
Distinguished Professor in the School of International and Public Affairs,
Department of Religious Studies,
Florida International University,

“The manuscript is making an intervention in a field that is complex, and also dominated by particular views, some of which the author is contesting (in a very respectful, if even understated, way).
The central claim, as I understand it, is that there is a serious disjunction between the phenomenon (as Brettschneider understands it) and the way it is being perceived, addressed, and responded to by people (both scholars and activists) in the global north. An important part of the reason for this disjunction she finds rooted in the specific ways (discourses, or modes of thinking) that are being used by those in the global north, and which prevent us from engaging with the phenomenon on its own terms. Specifically, discourses of state, nation, rabbinics, science, patriarchy. Each of these different discourses (which have their origins in the development of north/west Euro-American history, a tale which the author explores very effectively) distorts the ways we view the phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa, and/or blinds us completely to what is happening here.
The primary effort of the book is to tease apart these discourses, explore how they developed, and how they affect the ways we (can) view the phenomenon."
-Dr. Martha Ackelsberg,
Jr. Professor of Government and the Study of Women and Gender,
Smith College

“Dr. Marla Brettschneider brings a fresh and constructive perspective to the study of Jewish and Jewishly-related communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Having herself been involved in this interdisciplinary field for a number of years, she acknowledges but stands back from the numerous published studies and reports about specific African communities and the “phenomenon” of their Jewish or Jewishly-related identities, In this book she turns her attention to the attitudes and methodology of non-African scholars and activists (herself included) who have been meeting with and writing about these communities. Drawing on her background in political science, critical race theory and Jewish multicultural studies, she identifies and analyzes five different and often conflicting scholarly and religious “discourses” about African phenomenon. Notably her expertise as a contemporary scholar of gender studies provides the grounding for a richly informative chapter on the ‘discourse of patriarchy,” including discussion of the gendered politics and assumptions, and the varied cultural practices and religious beliefs of both the African communities and their outside observers.
Throughout this book Brettschneider points out the wide-ranging political, cultural and ethical implications of these conflicting discourses and interactions, highlighting their power dynamics and their potential consequences for the Jewish and Jewishly-related African communities, as well as for the outside observers. Forthright in acknowledging her personal identity as an American Jew and her own participation in the processes that she is assessing, she is respectful throughout in her critique of fellow scholars and activists from the U.S., Europe and Israel – both Jewish and non-Jewish – expressing appreciation for their commitment and work while also holding up their work (and her own) to critical scrutiny. An inspiring model for scholars in many fields of inquiry!”
-Dr. Barbara C. Johnson,
Professor Emerita of Anthropology,
Ithaca College

"... takes on the contemporary manifestations of this legacy and offers a way forward for scholars and others who wish to engage with African Jewish communities in ways that work against colonial histories, cultural and religious imperialism, and rigidly orthodox and patriarchal interpretations of Judaism. ... Ultimately, this book serves as a call for future research that works against these tendencies, and it lays important groundwork toward that task."
Dr. Noah Tamarkin,
The Ohio State University

Table of Contents

Foreword by Tudor Parfitt
-A Wide Range of Relationships to the Jewishly Related Phenomenon
-The Field
-Analytic Terminology: Discourses and Global North/South
-Violence, Colonialism, and the Jewish Phenomenon in Sub-Saharan Africa
-Chapter Notes
Chapter 1: State
-Inspiration and Geopolitics
-Contemporary Israel – Africa Relations and the Phenomenon
-State Discourse
-Race, State, and Incommensurability
-State and Nation
Chapter 2: Nation
-The Nation, European Christianity, and Critical Race Studies
-Jewish Critical Race Theory; Jews, Blacks and What Is in a Name
-Impact on Rabbinically Related Black Jewish Communities in the Global North
-On Patriarchy and Racism
-The Peoples of Israel, Black Jews, and Jews of Color More Broadly
-Reinscribing Christianity
-Methodological Notes
Chapter 3: Rabbinic
-Northeastern Africa
-Many Jews in Africa, Many Perspectives
-Rabbinic Discourse
-Implications for Global North Jewry, the Beta Israel
-Racial Coding
-The Research
Chapter 4: Scientific
-Biology as Proof
-The Myth of Matrilineality
-DNA as Destiny
-Origin Stories
-Practices and Identity
Chapter 5: Patriarchal
-Gender Issues on the Ground in Sub-Saharan Africa
-Patriarchal Discourse and the Politics of Change and Stasis
-Customs and the Problem of Recognition
-Gender Differences and Jewish Transformations
-Naming and Countering Patriarchal Discourse

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