Still Looking for the Lost Tribes of Israel
On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus — together with his Hebrew-speaking interpreter Luis de Torres — made landfall in the Bahamas, greeted by enigmatic Arawak tribesmen.
Who were these people unknown to the Bible, and from whence did they come? Might a clue be “The Lost Tribes of Israel”? According to the Book of Kings, 10 of the tribes descended from Jacob/Israel’s 12 sons were exiled by invading Assyrians around 722 BCE, never to reappear.
Pious believers looked askance at the notion that part of humanity was created outside the Biblical old world. Perhaps the solution was to posit for Native Americans a lineage going back to Noah’s family after the Flood, with the Lost Tribes subsequently arriving in the new world by ocean voyage.
Such speculations surged when Europe, with new discoveries shaking traditional beliefs, was also inflamed by religious wars in the mid-1600s.
A Portuguese explorer of Jewish birth, Antonio de Montezinos, returned from South America to Europe in 1644, with an account of Andean natives whose customs uncannily resembled the Jews. He met famed Amsterdam Rabbi Menassah ben Israel, whose parents had fled the Inquisition. Menassah was already involved in millenarian — end of the world — speculation, whipped up among Jews by the false prophet Sabbatai Zevi.
Menassah outlined his millennial vision in The Hope of Israel (1650), when he was trying to convince Oliver Cromwell to readmit Jews to England. Puritans were impressed by the conversion to Christianity of Massachusetts’ “Praying Indians.” Also in 1650, Thomas Thorowgood’s Jews in America sparked hopes that discovery of “Jewish Indians” descended from the Lost Tribes heralded the Christian Second Coming.
During the 18th-century Enlightenment, Lost Tribes theories, painstakingly elaborated by Indian trader and naturalist James Adair in his History of the American Indians (1775), influenced an American founding father, Elias Boudinot. Boudinot vouchsafed Adair’s book among Protestant ministers.
In 1829, Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith offered his own revised scripture explaining how the Hebrew Prophet Levi led the Lost Tribes to America in pre-Christian times — long before Jesus lived and died — and who, therefore, were innocent of the crucifixion.
About that time, diplomat-politician-playwright-journalist Mordecai Manuel Noah founded his “refuge” of Ararat in upstate New York. Ararat was a haven for persecuted Jews that reached out to believers of all faiths convinced that the return to Zion of Jews — accompanied by Native Americans descended from the Lost Tribes — would start soon in North America.
By 1900, Mordecai Noah was forgotten, Mormons were a sect in Utah, and “Lost Tribes” imaginings were passé. The superseding scientific theory involved a land bridge over which Ice Age migrants traversed from Siberia to Alaska and then dispersed south.
Actually, as far back the 1600s, Menassah had speculated that the Lost Tribes may somehow have walked from Kurdistan or Afghanistan across Asia to the Americas. Also never forgotten was the theory that ancestors of “Jewish Indians” — over 2,000 years before Columbus — sailed from the Queen of Sheba’s kingdom or a Phoenician city.
Immigrant American Jewish authors like Israel Efros and E.E. Lisitzky who wrote in Hebrew helped keep alive “Jewish Indian” speculations. Then DNA sampling opened new vistas.
Hillel Halkin’s Across the Sabbath River (2002) argued for a Lost Tribe along the Burma-India border. Trevor Parfitt mapped an audacious ancient Jewish migration from Yemen to Zimbabwe’s Judaizing Lemba people.
Yet how do these newly-found Lost Tribes connect to America’s fabled “Jewish Indians”?
To solve the mystery, we still need a real Indiana Jones.
Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).