British Indiana Jones Examines Evidence for Jewish Origin of Papua New Guinea Tribe (INTERVIEW)

May 7, 2013 9:02 am 3 comments

Members of the Gogodala tribe, which claims to be of Jewish origin, in Papua New Guinea. The Gogodala is the latest "lost tribe" examined by the "British Indiana Jones," Dr. Tudor Parfitt. Photo: Tim Long, Florida International University.

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.”

: A member of the Gogodala tribe of Papua New Guinea. The tribe claims to be of Jewish origin. Photo: Tim Long, Florida International University.

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.”

3 Comments

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    In a strong statement that challenges the historic divide between Christianity and Judaism, Pope Francis recently proclaimed, “Inside every Christian is a Jew.” But if you look at Renaissance artworks that depict Jesus, you will not find any evidence of a Jew inside the Christianized Jesus — even though the Gospels in the New Testament tell us that Jesus was Jewish to the core. Getting that point across to the public is a daunting task, as I learned in interviews I [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities Recycling His Roots

    Recycling His Roots

    JNS.org – Having started his career playing on his family’s pots and pans, Jewish musician Billy Jonas has maintained this homemade performance ethic while spreading his messages of simple living and environmentalism to a shared home throughout the world. After beginning in the kitchen, Jonas soon moved to the music room, where he picked up the piano, guitar, and trombone. These days, the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist plays on with pretty much anything he can find, including cans, bottles buckets, and other recycled-object [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    JNS.org – Sara Davidson’s The December Project is a new book that should be read by all senior citizens, and by those who hope to live a long life, for it raises a question that most of us have not been taught how to answer: What should we do in that final stage of our lives? Many of us continue working past the traditional retirement age of 65, not because we need the money and not because we find the [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish History Why the Holocaust Occurred in Germany, and Why So Few Resisted (REVIEW)

    Why the Holocaust Occurred in Germany, and Why So Few Resisted (REVIEW)

    It’s hard to make a new contribution to the field of Holocaust studies,  but German historian Götz Aly accomplishes just that in Why the Germans, Why the Jews? His premise is that the origins of the Holocaust were rooted in the specific anti-Semitism found in Germany in the decades and centuries before World War II. Aly (who is not Jewish) seeks to prove his theory by studying only pre-Holocaust history, and tracing how the German people’s envy and hatred of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Looking at Anti-Israel Celebrities and Their Brands

    Looking at Anti-Israel Celebrities and Their Brands

    JNS.org – During the current conflict in Gaza a number of celebrities have voiced their opinions in support of either the Israeli or Palestinian positions. But others—be it during Operation Protective Edge or at other times—have gone further than simply supporting the Palestinians by actively supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, making false accusations about the Jewish state, ignoring Israel’s position on the conflict, or justifying the actions of the terrorist group Hamas. Many of these [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Israeli UFC Fighter Returns to Jewish State to Rejoin IDF

    Israeli UFC Fighter Returns to Jewish State to Rejoin IDF

    JNS.org – Days after winning his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweight bout against Steven Siler on July 26, Israeli-born mixed martial arts competitor Noad Lahat boarded a plane for his native country, choosing to temporarily exit UFC’s octagonal cage to rejoin the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a paratrooper for its operation against Hamas in Gaza. Except he didn’t actually consider it a choice. “When [our] home is in danger, there is no other way for us [but to serve [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    JNS.org – My wife Suzy and I will never forget our wedding day. It was not just the uplifting ceremony and beautiful party that left an indelible mark. Some life-altering advice that we received from one of our guests informed and shaped our lives from that day forward. My high school teacher, Rabbi Moshe Yagid, pulled us aside just before the chuppah and challenged us to choose one mitzvah that would be the foundation of our marriage and our lives. He explained [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    JNS.org – Influenced by his Jewish upbringing and a summer on a kibbutz, basketball coach David Blatt is embarking on his highest-profile challenge yet: coaching LeBron James, the four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player who has made waves for returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. After guiding Israel’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball franchise to its 51st Israeli league championship and 6th Euroleague title this past season, Blatt landed the Cavaliers head-coaching job in June. Just weeks later, [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.