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Who are the Ghanaian Jews today ?

Ghanaian Jews, today, make up a small demographic in Ghana’s religious landscape and their interest in the global religion of Judaism varies. The oldest known community professing Judaism is the House of Israel, located in the western region of Ghana, near the Ivorian border. This community emerged in the late 1970s after their founder Aaron Ahotre Toakyirafa received a divine vision that the practices he was maintaining, that of his ancestors, was in fact Judaism. The Sefwi, his ethnic group not indigenous to Ghana, were believed to all be Jewish; although, only a few converted to the ancestral faith and formed the community now known as the House of Israel. Most of the Sefwi Jews suggest, through oral narratives, a past to medieval Jewish communities who traded and lived in West Africa, specifically Mali. Others have articulated a more ancient past to Israel after the destruction of the second Temple, hinting to a Lost Tribe dialectic. They believe that due to migration, war, and forced conversions their ancestors lost knowledge of their faith. However, the House of Israel maintains that their practices are in fact Jewish, and serve as the remnants of their ancestral religion. Due to the preservation of these practices, which align to Jewish and/or Mosaic rites (arguably Islamic too), many refuse to undergo conversion for the purpose of global recognition. According to oral histories, the House of Israel emerged after the founder’s vision, which led to a proselytizing effort to have fellow Sefwi return to the ancestral religion and therein deny the colonial import of Christianity. The early years of the community’s Jewish identity developed based on knowledge generated through oral histories and later supported by the non-profit and US based organization Kulanu who has played an influential role in “emerging” communities less known to house Jews. With this interaction, normative practices, Hebrew and Jewish education, as well as items of Judaica were incorporated in local understandings of what it means to be Jewish. The Jews of Ghana, today, are continually moving towards their own understanding of Jewishness, undeniably impacted by Jews from outside of Ghana and through technological mediums. However, members of the House of Israel have remained loyal to their oral history and are resistant in complying with hegemonic Jewish institutions that require performance of Judaism on their terms. This has resulted in tensions in the western region of Ghana between those who are motivated by global recognition versus those who want to “return” to ancestral practices.
Are there any other Jewish communities in Ghana?
More recently, there is a congregation developing in Accra, the capital of Ghana, which has become interested in Judaism due to its faith tenets. Due to this, they have gained the attention of Rabbi Alex Armah, who travelled to train with the Abuyudaya of Uganda and underwent an o orthodox conversion. Rabbi Armah has communicated and worked with the community in Accra to facilitate learning. This new congregation is unique to Ghana’s Jews as they do not claim a past lineage. Overall, the Accra community is more interested in normative Judaism and is open to conversion processes.
What does your research tell us about the historical construction of their Jewish identity?
The historical construction of Jewish identity in Ghana must be considerate of the expansive geographical and temporal scope of the legacy and history of Judaism in West Africa. First, the longue durèe of Jewish presence in West Africa needs to be contextualized. The history of indigenous religions and cosmological ideologies as well as the role of the two other Abrahamic faiths (Islam and Christianity) has received the majority of attention from Africanist scholars interested in religion, whereas the history of Judaism has proven to be a scholarly oversight. Histories addressing Judaism largely focus on North Africa, and often sequester its history as something separate from the rest of Africa, south of the Sahara. Histories of Jews who migrated to Africa after World War II, largely settling in southern African countries, has also received a fair share of attention. However it should be noted that most of these histories are penned by Jewish historians, and Africanists have yet to take the charge in studying the impact of Judaism: religiously, culturally, socially, and economically within the continent. From what has been written of medieval and early modern Jews operating along and within the Sahara, under and within Islamic rule, it can be assessed that Jews were learned and resilient. Their literacy, networks, and business acumen brought about success in the Saharan trade, so much so that it is arguably why they were ostracized and persecuted, leading to a ban on Jews in the Timbuktu region at the beginning of the 16th century. After centuries of being persecuted and living as a minority on the southern fringes of the Sahara, it is believed many were killed, opted to convert to Islam, or fled by the mid 16th century. Scholars can agree however, that the record goes silent at this time in West Africa and Jews simply were no longer present in the interior of West Africa (some suggesting they never inhabited the area but only had business there) with only a short-lived uptick of activity in the 19th century. That is, until now—with the House of Israel (Ghana) offering an explanation that situates their ancestors in Mali and accompanied by narratives of war and violence that caused them to flee further south from Mali. Thus, when discussing historical construction of Jewish identity in Ghana, research must engage with these oral histories that connect to geographical spaces where there was once a presence of Jews.
Secondly, research must continue to engage the colonial period and how the logic of Europeans may have infiltrated and impacted local understanding of practices as well as the reach of colonial agents. That is to say, many colonial ethnographies detail the practices of African groups encountered and often equate what they witness to Hebraic rites (largely dietary restrictions, rest on the Sabbath, birth rituals such as circumcision and naming, as well as hygiene laws regarding menstruation, death, and illness). Could it be that these external explanations provided a context to understand one’s own ancestral past and thus was incorporated into the oral narratives? Or, could Judaism simply be a way to reject Christian ideology that often came hand in hand with colonial rule? Further, Jews who had converted due to the Inquisition known both as “New Christians,” conversos, or crypto Jews (indicating their secret Jewish practice), also traversed along the coast doing the work of the colonial empire. Archival materials and archaeological remains from the 17th century provide record of these converted Jews still practicing Jewish rituals in these coastal spaces. Thus, new questions emerge as to the interaction between coastal populations with those in the hinterlands in a period when global trade intensified the extraction of labor and resources from the interior to the coast.
Lastly, but certainly not least, is to understand how the contemporary setting and connection with the outside Jewish world is shaping the House of Israel’s self-perception. When the community declared Judaism in the late 1970s, what was the degree of communication with the global Jewish community and Israel? Earlier mention of Kulanu provides an example of just one organization that has been involved with the development of the House of Israel. However, the founder wrote to the United Israel World Union, located in the United States, before Kulanu had made contact. Israeli activity in Ghana in the early years of independence may have also created a catalyst for the founder to have a vision that led to this epiphany of “Judaism” being the ancestral religion. Thus, whether the historical construction of Jewish identity in Ghana stretches deeper into the medieval period or to the last quarter of the 20th century, my research points to the oversight of the history of Jewish Africa which has led many scholars to metaphorically scratch their heads when it comes to black African Jewish communities emerging throughout the continent. The research projects aims to not answer how this and other communities understand Judaism per se, or how they perform it; rather, what was the historical precedent that led this community to identify as Jews? Secondly, is to recognize a Jewish past in Africa understandably noting that this is a controversial discussion regarding identitarian politics (Who is Jewish? And, on what terms?). Further, is to continually fight against the rigid boundaries constructed after the “scramble of Africa” in the late 19th century and the continual border building in the Independence era. These geographical perimeters distract from the cross-cultural milieu that existed across the Sahara, and throughout the interior, all of which facilitated movement and the exchange of ideas, peoples, and commodities, including Judaism.
Is the memory of Judaism still an important phenomenon in Ghana?
Memory is an integral part to this project, as it is memory of a past that strengthens the claim the Ghanaian Jews of the House of Israel assert. For this community, memory operates in three spheres: communal memory via oral history, physical sites, and quotidian practices/ritual. Like many communities in Africa, the Sefwi, who make up the House of Israel, kept their history orally. There are historians (trained to preserve history) just as there are in the West, skilled in recalling and orating the past with their voice rather than with a pen. Through this methodology, recounting past leaders of the Sefwi, historical events, and migration is possible. Secondly, lieux des mémoires (or sites of memory) via landscape and architecture trigger oral histories. For instance, a house for sequestering menstruating women recalls the hygiene practice being performed before the admission of Judaism. Lastly, daily habits serve as a mnemonic to a time before colonial and missionary interruption. In fact, it was performative memory—the maintenance of ancestral rituals by the House of Israel’s founder that led to the vision identifying his practice as Judaism. Today, maintaining ancestral rites from the past in addition to the practices taught by international Jewish visitors remain.

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