During the 1990s, Welsh professor Tudor Parfitt, known around the world as the “British Indiana Jones,” discovered evidence that the Lemba tribe in central Zimbabwe and northern South Africa has Jewish roots. He identified a genetic element in the male chromosomes of the tribe that comes from the Kohanim, the Jewish priestly line.
This year, Dr. Parfitt published his latest of 25 books, Black Jews in Africa and the Americas. He also joined the faculty of Florida International University (FIU) and led an expedition to Papua New Guinea to visit the Gogodala tribe, which like the Lemba claims to be of Jewish origin. Several FIU students and staffers, as well as two New York rabbis from Kulanu, a Jewish outreach organization, joined Parfitt on the trip.
Parfitt, who is also launching the Center for Global Jewish Communities at FIU, which will study remote Jewish communities, spoke exclusively with JNS.org about his research into the Gogodala tribe and other Judaizing movements around the world.
JNS.org: You’ve been doing scholarly and field research in Jewish studies for many years. What drew you to this topic?
Tudor Parfitt: “When I was 18-19 years old, I did “Voluntary Service Overseas” (VSO), which was the precursor to the American Peace Corps. Originally I was supposed to go to Vietnam, and then I was sent to Israel and spent 15-16 months in Jerusalem working with handicapped people. When I went back to England, I decided to switch from history [studies] to Hebrew and Arabic. [Later] I went to the Hebrew University, where I had a fellowship, and then I went back to Oxford and did my DPhil (Doctor of Philosophy). That launched an academic career in the field of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. I am from a Welsh family that was very philo-Semitic. My father was involved in liberating a Displaced Persons camp in which there were many Jews in the Second World War… so I was very predisposed to being sympathetic to Jews from a very young age.”
How did you begin your work with “lost tribes” who claim Jewish origin?
“Ten years after I started teaching, I was asked to go to the Sudan to write a report about Ethiopian Jews, and according to the Minority Rights Group, which was the organization that wanted me to go there, the Ethiopian Jews were being poisoned in the refugee camps on the Sudanese side of the border with Ethiopia. They wanted me to go there and see if it was true or not. This was right at the height of the great famine in 1984, and my visit happened to coincide almost to the day with the Israeli Operation Moses. What I saw was life-changing for me, seeing these people in a terrible state, many of whom died.
“While I was there I met an individual who eventually admitted to me that he was working with Mossad. [He said], if “you just keep your mouth shut until this is over, I will tell you what the story is.” A few months later the story of Operation Moses broke. Following that I had a telephone call from this guy and I published a front-page article with some photos in the Times of London saying exactly what had happened. Later Lord Wiedenfeld (Arthur George Weidenfeld, Baron Weidenfeld of Chelsea), a British-Jewish publisher, asked me to write a book, Operation Moses, [which] launched me on a writing career. I became very interested in the kind of periphery of the Jewish world, and that led to many other things.”
How did you first encounter the Gogodala tribe?
“I went to give some lectures on Hebrew literature at the University of Sydney, and it was advertised in the press. A few days later the telephone rang and the person on the other end of the line said that he was the spiritual leader of a tribe in Papua New Guinea and he read about what I managed to do for the Lemba people, proving that they were of Jewish origin, and he wanted me to do the same thing for him. A few days later he flew from Papua New Guinea to Sydney and he brought with him 500 hairs in a big black hat. He had plucked them from the heads of various tribal members, and he wanted me to take [the hairs] back to England to have the DNA extracted to try and say something about their origin.”
Is the Gogodala tribe actually of Jewish origin?
“When we finally did the test, we didn’t see very much at all. There’s no reason to at all suppose that the Gogodala have come from the Middle East in genetically recent times, but the interesting thing is that throughout the world, particularly in the area of the Pacific, there are many, many other groups who are passionately pro-Israel and Zionist; they passionately believe that they are of Jewish origin, and they passionately want to learn about Judaism and in some cases are practicing it, like in the case of the Gogodala.
“[In 2007] there was a declaration on the part of the then-Prime Minister (Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare) that the people of Papua New Guinea would always worship the God of Israel. On Israel’s Yom Ha’atzmaut every year, the capital of Papua New Guinea is absolutely chockablock with pro-Israel demonstrations, Israeli flags. Many of the tribes, not only the Gogodala, really believe that they’re Israelite.”
What is behind the “lost tribes” phenomenon and how does it manifest itself?
“Ever since the beginning of colonial intervention throughout the world, colonists, missionaries or public servants of different sorts came to explain unknown peoples through the paradigm of lost Israelites. If you can’t understand what somebody is doing in a particular place, you don’t know where they from, one way of explaining them is to say, ‘Ah, they’re the lost tribes of Israel.’ This was consistently done in North America with Native Americans or South Americans. The standard explanation of local populations over a period of 500 years was that they were Israelites, Jews, lost tribes. The same thing is true on the colonial frontier in Africa, parts of India, New Zealand, (inhabitants) were consistently thought to be Israelites by the colonists who discovered them, and the aboriginals in Australia. People have been saying that the people of Papua New Guinea are Jews ever since the 1700s, and finally these ideas sort of internalized.
“In many places, if it’s not Judaism then it’s a kind of Christianity that is very Judaic. An example of what very often happens in Africa is a group that celebrates the Sabbath, Jewish holidays, Passover and so on. They may very well observe some aspects of Kashrut, but they will have a belief in Jesus. On the one side of that you’ve got groups that are more Christian and on the other side of that you’ve got groups that are really completely Judaic. The Gogodala find themselves on the same spectrum and moving fairly rapidly, in my view, toward a more complete identification with Judaism. They celebrate the holidays and learn Hebrew. In my estimation this is a group that a few years down the road will be converting to Judaism.
“The FIU Center for Global Jewish Communities, which I am the director of, is very conscious of the fact that Judaism is changing, that so many people are converting to Judaism, and that there are so many groups around the world think of themselves as being Jews. The sense is that this is a huge phenomenon that involves millions of people, and that it deserves proper study. We’re offering for next year four or five fellowships to come to FIU to study this. It’s going to turn into one of the more interesting Jewish studies centers in the U.S. and it will be doing something that nobody else does.”