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In the News: May 15 2012


In the News

Newly Found Jews and the Politics of Recognition

Stuart Z. Charmé
Journal of the American Academy of Religion
Published: May 15, 2012


In the latter half of the twentieth century, tribal groups throughout Africa and Asia who regard themselves as Jews, such as the Abayudaya of South Africa and the Mizo of northern India and Burma, sought the recognition of their Jewishness by established Jewish communities in Israel and the United States. This process of recognition reflects different understandings of Jewish identity and different political agendas among the various Jewish groups who have become involved with advocacy for “newly found” Jews. For Israeli Jewish organizations, recognition is based on a more essentialist view of Jewishness and is oriented toward socializing “newly found” Jews toward Orthodox Judaism and preparation for immigration to Israel. Newer American Jewish organizations reflect greater denominational diversity and a more postmodern understanding of Jewishness as fluid and openended. They treat recognition as part of a commitment to Jewish diversity and multiculturalism, with less attention to traditional normative definitions of Jewish identity.

THE PROBLEM OF LOSING Jews to assimilation and intermarriage has been the focus of discussion about Jewish identity among Jewish demographers and communal leaders throughout much of the second half of the twentieth century. This backdrop makes the prospect of finding pockets of Jews who had allegedly lost their connection to the Jewish people centuries or even millennia ago quite intriguing. Yet both the process by which remote groups in Africa and Asia, such as the Abayudaya Jews of South Africa and the Mizo (“B’nei Menashe”) Jews of northern India and Burma, start to recognize themselves as Jews— and the related process by which the established Jewish communities of Israel and the United States offer them recognition as Jews—are tied to complex political issues and agendas. They reflect how various Jewish constituencies define the essential characteristics of their own Jewish identities and understand the meaning of group identity in general. Recognition of others as “real” Jews simultaneously involves questions of religious and cultural authority, cultural norms, and mutually reinforced models of Jewish identity. For this reason, the contested nature of recognition of “newly found” Jews offers a microcosm of larger issues of recognition in the Jewish world today.


In the 1990s, the ideology of multiculturalism emerged in the United States and elsewhere as a way of responding to the increasing cultural, ethnic, racial, and even gender diversity within contemporary societies. Rather than encouraging and supporting a single homogeneous standard, usually based on the cultural ideas and values of historically dominant or “hegemonic” groups, multiculturalists emphasized the importance of both recognizing and celebrating the diversity of cultures and identities within society as a valuable social resource. Philosopher Charles Taylor argued that recognizing the distinct cultural, linguistic, and ethnic identities of different people and groups is not merely a question of civility, but a “vital human need” (Taylor 1994: 26). Recognition means not only that those who are different are entitled to universal human rights, but also that their cultural, racial, religious, and other differences ought to be embraced with an attitude of appreciation, legitimization, and celebration (Taylor 1994: 42). Other social and political philosophers, such as Axel Honneth (1996) and Will Kymlicka (1996), have likewise discussed recognition as a response to injustices suffered by groups who are marginalized in society because of differences in their language, ethnicity, or race, and the failure of liberal ideals about universal rights of citizens to protect them.

The classic example of the defining power of being recognized in a particular way was Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1995) suggestion in the 1940s that the central factor in the Jewish identities of assimilated French Jews was the experience of being “recognized” as Jews by others, even though at that time the most common recognition was the distorted and objectifying gaze of the antisemite. This kind of misrecognition can be profoundly damaging, especially when the targets of the distorted recognition internalize it as self-hatred or engage in various strategies of evasion that Sartre labeled “bad faith.” Sartre famously insisted that authenticity for a Jew requires accepting the fact of one’s Jewishness and demanding that others recognize both one’s right to be a Jew and the ways that one has determined to live and give meaning to that aspect of his or her identity.

While Sartre was most concerned with the power of French antisemites to fix the identity of Jews through an inescapable and hostile form of recognition, it is also true that the defining power of others can be seen in the intragroup struggles of recognition and nonrecognition that occur among different types of Jews. For example, children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers who are raised as Jews are recognized as Jews by Reform Jews but not by Orthodox Jews. In such cases, the act of recognizing another person as a Jew is a very clear indication of the recognizer’s own self-definition of Jewishness. Since recognition as a Jew carries important political consequences regarding eligibility for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, the issue of recognizing “who is a Jew” has been a contested and divisive issue in recent decades.

Sartre anticipated the recent partnership between multiculturalism and recognition in the 1940s when he argued that the liberal democrat who never saw a Jew as a Jew but only as a human being still erased the Jews’ right to be different and thereby prevented them from being who they authentically are. Sartre recommended what he called “concrete liberalism,” rather than one focused only on abstract humanity, so that Jews, women, blacks, and others could be fully recognized in these specific aspects of their identities (1995: 146). At the same time, however, Sartre adamantly rejected the idea that Jews or other groups could be defined by some set of racial, ethnic, or religious qualities, or even some kind of mystical group essence that characterized their authentic or true selves. To see one’s group identity in this way may certainly offer a degree of comfort or security, but it is based on an illusory sense of the permanence of identity.

In his reflections on postwar Jewish identity in France, Alain Finkielkraut confessed to having at one time been seduced by the idea that his Jewishness was some kind of inner defining force:

Jewishness coursed through my veins, was my inner truth, my flesh and blood. . . . I was one of the earth’s living repositories of the Jewish spirit. . . . Imbued with the sensibility of my people, an authentic part Charmé: Newly Found Jews 3 Downloaded from by guest on May 21, 2012 of a larger process, a link in the uninterrupted chain of being. . . . I could therefore do without memory, for Jewishness thought and spoke through me. (1994: 36)

Both Finkielkraut and Sartre ultimately agreed that authenticity for a Jew does not imply any recognition of such a Jewish essence, since all identities are temporal and provisional, regularly reinterpreted and renegotiated. Moreover, the narratives through which one is related to a cultural, religious, or ethnic group always remain open to change and transformation over time.1 The idea that there is an essential or fixed kernel that is one’s authentic self is a comforting and perhaps inescapable illusion, but it can also be problematic and misleading.

Despite Charles Taylor’s qualifications, his ideal of recognition as an affirmation of the value of “who one really is” leaves itself open to essentialist interpretations of the kind that Sartre and Finkielkraut emphatically rejected. Taylor roots this idea in the thought of the German philosopher J. G. Herder, who argued that language, geography, and culture produce distinctive cultural outlooks in various national and ethnic groups, which are expressed naturally through the individual members of that group. This approach was also criticized by Kwame Anthony Appiah, who noted that if recognition validates who members of marginalized groups “really are,” it should not presume a fixed or rigid understanding of what it means to be a member of such a group (1994: 313–314). If it does, recognition may end up enforcing conformity to whatever group norms are taken to be authoritative. Brenda Lyschaug (2004) voices a similar concern that Taylor’s politics of recognition can discourage cultural change or innovation by enshrining the authority of the ancestors and their view of group identity.

In his detailed critique of philosophical models of recognition, Patchen Markell argues that in most cases, the politics of recognition presumes an ontologically problematic model of group identity as something fixed, stable, and equally shared by all in the group (2003: 14). Following Hannah Arendt’s analysis, he argues that identities are not simply the product of preexisting facts about people that govern their ideas and values and through which they can be recognized as who they authentically are. On the contrary, identities emerge as a result of the actions and attitudes people take toward their pasts and presents, the shifting recognitions they are offered by others, and the retrospective narratives that people tell and are told that orient them toward the world and people around them. Markell sees recognition as at best an ongoing process, since “all exchanges of recognition will tend to become obsolete as our identities shift over time” (2003: 14).

If identities are fluid and changing rather than expressions of some essential self that embodies who people really are, then recognition becomes more than an acknowledgment of other people’s preexisting identities. Markell therefore sees recognition as engaged not simply with fully formed cultures and identities that were already there, but actively constituting and constructing the identities of those on whom it is focused (2003: 41). Authenticity lies not in excavating and displaying some inner core of a person or group, but in awareness of the actively creative aspects of reciprocal recognition.


Recognition of “newly found” Jews as Jews is not simply a question of granting them respect. On the contrary, in this case, people who had seldom if ever been recognized as Jews, either by their neighbors or by other Jews, are asking for a different kind of recognition than what Taylor thinks the French-speaking citizens of Quebec deserve. Like the Quebecois, they are seeking recognition as “who they really are.” Unlike the Quebecois, however, their need for recognition is not as a redress for past discrimination or injustice. Rather, the obstacle to recognizing them as Jews is that they have been recognized as something else for much of their history. With little actual history, custom, language, or religious practice that matches known forms of Judaism or Jewish life, it is not surprising that many Jews are skeptical of their claims to Jewish connection.

The decision to recognize (or not) the claim of some groups to being descendants of lost tribes of Israel can be interpreted in two different ways. It might be seen as a way to help a member of the group recover an authentic, though previously hidden, identity as a Jew. Or it might be seen as the invention of a new Jewish identity as a strategy, conscious or not, to trade what may be regarded as a less desirable or distinguished group identity for a more exciting one. In other words, the quest for recognition might be part of a struggle for authenticity or it might be a ruse of bad faith.

There are many possible motivations for members of small nonwhite tribal groups in the third world to make claims to Jewish descent, despite a lack of prior contact with the mainstream Jewish communities of Israel, Europe, or the United States. And there are a variety of interpretations for why certain groups offer recognition to people making these claims and what that recognition means.

The story of the lost tribes of Israel is the most common origin myth utilized by groups seeking to justify their self-recognition as Jews, despite the fact that few historians or archeologists offer support for such a connection. It is generally assumed that Israelites who were exiled by the Assyrian conquerors over 2,700 years ago were eventually absorbed by the Assyrian population (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001). Archeological evidence also suggests that the majority of the original Israelites in the ten Lost Tribes may never have been “lost” at all, but rather remained in the land where they had always lived or fled to the southern kingdom of Israel where they were absorbed by other groups. There is no evidence that any Israelite tribes migrated as groups to Africa, India, or elsewhere, or that ancient Israelite religious and cultural practices have been preserved continuously for over two millennia. This lack of historical evidence of the continued existence of the lost tribes has not prevented their persistence as an “imagined mythical community” in the minds of many people. Tudor Parfitt observes that where the history of the original tribes left off, what remained has been “the history of the myth of the Lost Tribes” (2002: 4).

As global exploration and colonialism introduced new peoples, languages, cultures, and religious myths and practices to Europeans, it was natural to make sense of them in terms of well-known elements of Israelite religion, especially food taboos, sacrifices, and rituals like circumcision. From there, it was a short leap to conclude that Israelite tribes themselves had brought these ideas straight from the biblical period to these other parts of the world. Of course, these “Jews” were not necessarily connected in any way with existing Jewish communities and their identity as quasi-Jews reflected a specifically Christian view of Judaism as frozen at the pre-Christian, tribal, sacrificial stage described in the Old Testament.

In these cases, the recognition of indigenous people as lost tribes left little if any room for granting legitimacy to these people’s own cultural and religious identities apart from European and biblical categories. If remote groups are descendants of lost tribes, then in the deepest sense, they are not really Asians, Africans, or Native Americans at all. Once exposed to the biblical narratives, it was then easy for the indigenous groups themselves to eventually adopt an origin myth that tied them into the central narrative of the powerful European culture.


Only in the last forty to fifty years or so has the discovery and recognition of “lost Jews” or “newly found Jews” been taken up as a cause by Jewish organizations specifically devoted to this issue. These “lost Jews” include alleged descendents of the lost tribes of Israel, crypto-Jews whose ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity, hidden Jews, and others who self-proclaim themselves to be Jews.

The process of recognizing unfamiliar groups as Jews is not a simple process, but rather one in which particular Jewish groups display their own understanding of Jewish identity and the modes of its persistence. For example, recognition by the Israeli organization Amishav involved inscribing the perspectives and practices of normative rabbinic Judaism on groups whose historical experiences had nothing to do with rabbinic Judaism. Amishav, and its successor Shavei Israel, present a messianic orthodox perspective on Judaism through which “lost Jews” are assimilated and converted to this form of Orthodox Judaism, which stakes its own authenticity on the direct link between the beliefs and practices of modern religious Zionism and ancient Israelite religion. Thus, recognition is accompanied by clear normative or hegemonic presuppositions about what constitutes authentic Judaism. The recognition they offer is not a celebration of Jewish diversity or difference; rather their recognition amounts to granting newly found prospective Jews permission to become the same as normative Orthodox Jews. The possibility of non-white, non-European-based Jewish cultures does not create the slightest fissure in the model of Jewish identity that underwrites their recognition of newly found Jews.

Kulanu, the American-based successor to Amishav USA, needed to adapt to the more religiously pluralistic environment of American Judaism. As a result, it de-emphasized traditional rabbinic, or halachic, standards as a religious norm and disavowed aliyah, immigration to Israel, as the intended goal for newly recognized Jews. While Kulanu does support the preparation of “lost Jews” for conversion and immigration to Israel, it also provides resources for assisting “lost Jews” in building Jewish communities where they are. It offers a kind of recognition that celebrates what it considers the authenticity preserved in the premodern lifestyle of many newly found Jews. This results in a kind of exoticized recognition that forms the basis for a growing phenomenon of Jewish heritage tourism devoted to seeing these newly found Jews in their “natural habitats.”

Finally, Be’chol Lashon, the newest of these organizations, offers a much more fluid model for recognizing a broad array of people as Jews. Its model of recognition not only reflects the emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity that became a part of American public discourse in the 1990s, but also a distinctly postmodern understanding of Jewish identity. Accordingly, its primary agenda is promoting a multicultural, multiracial model of Jewish identity without imposing the norms or practices of any particular kind of Jews. Be’chol Lashon offers a kind of recognition that explicitly deconstructs the normative status of rabbinic Judaism and the cultural traditions of white European Jews.


In 1975, Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, an Israeli Orthodox rabbi, established one of the earliest organizations for retrieving “lost Jews.” This was the same period in which the religious Zionist movement in Israel was confronting the issue of the new territories that had been conquered in the 1967 war (Parfitt and Semi 2002: 36). Even earlier, in the 1940s and 1950s, various organizations appeared in Israel devoted to locating lost tribes and helping them move to Palestine/Israel (Parfitt and Semi 2002: 53). Avichail’s organization was called Amishav, meaning “my nation is returning” or “my people are returning.” Amishav and its successor organization Shavei Israel (“Israel Returns”), founded by Michael Freund in 2004, both highlight the idea of “return” in their names, presumably referring to the “return” of Jews both to traditional Judaism and to inclusion in the Jewish people. The additional agenda of both organizations is that the lost people of Israel must be located so that they can return not only to Judaism and the Jewish people but also to their ancestral home, the reborn country of Israel.

At its outset, Amishav received encouragement and support from Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the leader of the newly formed Gush Emunim. Gush Emunim promoted a messianic view of settlement in what it called “Greater Israel” (Israel proper plus the new occupied territories) as part of a divine plan for the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people. Part of that redemption will involve the ingathering of Jews who have been dispersed throughout the world back to Israel and their settlement in the newly acquired territories, known in the group by the biblical names Judea and Samaria. Like Gush Emunim, Amishav and Shavei Israel are grounded in a religious Zionist ideology and the conviction that gathering exiled Jews from throughout the world also furthers the divine plan for the Jewish people and hastens their final messianic redemption (Freund 2002). Thus, the recognition of lost tribes is less about the groups themselves than about evidence of divine prophecies being fulfilled.


The prospect of the return of potentially millions of lost Jewish souls living in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Burma, and elsewhere to Israel where they can join the ranks of religious Zionists represents a particularly exciting and urgently important mission for organizations like Amishav and Shavei Israel. It is not at all important whether people they have identified as “lost Jews” have always lived or identified as Jews. In fact, they generally have not. Rather, there may be a variety of other indicators, such as names and words in their languages that sound like Hebrew. They may have ritual practices like circumcision or dietary rules that seem Jewish (Parfitt and Semi 2002: 106). They may appear to have lighter skin or “Semitic” features (such as “Jewish noses”) that set them apart from the other nonwhite, non-European groups in the area. Such factors are often described as evidence of the presence of a “Jewish soul,” a timeless preexisting essence that establishes Jewish status even in the absence of any prior awareness of its existence. These factors are not sufficient to justify full recognition as Jews but rather are a necessary precondition to begin the process of returning to Judaism and to Israel.

Groups that have been identified by Amishav or Shavei Israel as “lost Jews” receive a crash course to bring them up to speed with contemporary forms of traditional Jewishness. They are encouraged to learn Hebrew and Orthodox Jewish beliefs and practices, to undergo Orthodox conversion, and ultimately to immigrate to Israel, where they may contribute to God’s plan of redemption by settling in religious Zionist communities in “Greater Israel.” Their current cultural practices and religious traditions may be interpreted as residues of ancient Jewish practice which have been garbled over time or buried under overlays of Christian, Muslim, or other religious traditions. Thus, there is little need to preserve or recognize the actual cultural and religious experience that characterized the group’s history for generations. Clearly, this is quite different from multiculturalism’s desired recognition of devalued or underappreciated practices and identities of marginalized groups in society. Amishav and Shavei Israel recognize only a distant origin myth of Jewish descent that is the basis for the group’s claim to Jewish religion and culture, regardless of their other cultural connections.

According to a small note at the bottom of Shavei Israel’s mission statement, “Our work is in complete accordance with Jewish Law and under the ongoing supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel” (Shavei Israel n.d.). Recognition in this context is primarily a religious matter, consisting of Orthodox authentication of Jewish status and final confirmation by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. The involvement of Israel’s Chief Rabbis makes clear that the final outcome of the process of recognition includes not only “return” to Judaism and “return” to the people of Israel, but also “return” to the land of Israel. Having this rabbinic certification of Jewish status also insulates organizations like Shavei Israel from the morally complicated issue of missionizing among these remote groups, a criticism to which they have often been subjected. They insist that their organization “does not proselytize nor does it support any form of missionary activity” (Shavei Israel n.d.). Since many candidates for lost tribe status were in fact already exposed to—and even converted by— Christian missionaries during the previous two centuries, Shavei Israel wants to establish that its work is not an updated Jewish version of the same mission of civilizing the natives by introducing them to biblical beliefs and practices. Shavei Israel emphasizes that helping people to “return” to the Jewish people “does not and should not involve coercion or compulsion.” On the contrary, the organization merely “opens the door to all who have decided that Judaism and a return to the Jewish people are central to their fate and their identity” (Shavei Israel n.d.).

Shavei Israel is also aware that bringing “lost Jews” to Israel at a time of dwindling numbers of other Jews immigrating to Israel is an important tool in the demographic race with the non-Jewish Arab inhabitants of Israel (Freund 2001). Beyond simply adding to the religious Zionist population of Israel, these “lost Jews” are recognized as direct descendants of the original Jewish inhabitants of Israel, thereby providing a powerful counterargument to the recognition of any Palestinian claims to land in Israel.


In parts of Myanmar and northeast India, certain members of the Mizo or Shinlung tribes now consider themselves to be descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Menasheh. These people are from an area frequented by Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth century, at which time most of them were converted to Christianity. It was probably from these Christian sources that local groups learned about the Old Testament, the adventures of the Israelites, and the story of the ten lost tribes. In 1951, not long after the creation of the modern state of Israel, a Mizo minister had a vision in a dream in which the Holy Spirit told him that the Mizo were really Jews from a lost tribe and were supposed to return to Israel, their ancestral home. At this point, many of them began to follow biblical laws and customs. Over the next twenty years, they adopted more and more Jewish practices, established synagogues and Jewish schools, and began to identify themselves as Jews. In other words, the dream about descent from a lost tribe initiated a process in which they were involved not so much in uncovering a dormant or lost identity as in using that idea as the basis for constituting a new one. In a real sense, they became a lost Jewish tribe when they began to act how they believed Jews should act.

The construction of this new cultural identity received a tremendous boost when Amishav’s Rabbi Avichail visited the group and identified the Mizo as “B’nei Menashe,” members of the tribe of Menashe. Avichail was convinced that the name of the legendary founder of Mizo people, Manmasi, was a corruption of the biblical tribe named Menashe, so he dubbed them B’nei Menashe, provided them with Bibles, Torahs, and other religious items, and prepared them to convert to Orthodox Judaism. Amishav’s representatives insisted that certain Mizo customs predated their involvement with Christianity and were reminiscent of a festival like Passover. Like the Christian missionaries before them, Amishav’s group was primed to see and hear residues of biblical names, words, and practices in Mizo customs. This recognition was not welcomed by all members of these tribes, and some pointedly reject the idea that there are descendants of the lost tribes among them. Nevertheless, for those increasingly committed to their recognition as descendants of lost tribes, a unique Mizo story of exile emerged which described a long path of wandering from Assyria to Afghanistan, as far east as China and Vietnam, and eventually back to their present location in Myanmar and India. Like many of the newly discovered lost tribes, these were poor people for whom the idea of noble ancestry and a divine plan that would bring them to the new state of Israel may have proved very appealing (Gonen 2002). Rabbi Avichail proceeded to convert the Mizo to Orthodox Judaism, and then lobbied both for their recognition by the state of Israel as a lost tribe and for permission for them to immigrate to Israel. By 1989, Avichail persuaded the Israeli government to allow some of the Mizo to travel to Israel, where nearly a thousand of them eventually settled in religious settlements in Israel’s occupied territories.

For members of the B’nei Menashe, recognition by Amishav and Israeli rabbinic authorities validates their belief in the inner core of their Jewishness, even in the absence of any knowledge about Judaism. This becomes their real, true, authentic self and the basis for acquiring more normatively Jewish identities (Sela 1994). In this new identity narrative, the practices of Christian and other non-Jewish traditions for generations leading up to their claim of Jewish identity are dismissed as foreign influences that had nothing to do with who they really are. Following their recognition as descendants of the tribe of Menashe provided by Rabbi Avichail, it became made it easier for additional members to abandon Christianity and for the group to construct a new Jewish sense of self.

Of course, the Jewish identity of the Mizo is mostly a modern invention, nurtured by Orthodox rabbis who encourage the idea that the Orthodox Judaism adopted by the B’nei Menashe is directly connected to the original authentic Judaism of the ancient Israelites. Their story, like those of other newly found and newly observant Jews, offers a deeply appealing account of the persistence of Jewish faith in some form, despite thousands of years of exile from the rest of the Jewish people, and their return to their ancestral home. When Michael Freund, head of Shavei Israel, visited the B’nei Menashe in 2002, he saw men wearing kippot and tzitzit, and women with long sleeves and head coverings, i.e., a community dressed like Orthodox Jews, and both men and women singing Hebrew songs and waving Israeli flags. To see the B’nei Menashe observing Orthodox traditions in a new Jewish center build by Israelis, or listening to Israeli music, may strike some people as no more an authentic expression of “who they really are” than the Christian identity they had accepted from Protestant missionaries during the British colonial period (Halkin 2002: 134). Still, regardless of the tenuous historical foundation for their connection to ancient Israelites, the Mizo’s self-image as descendants of a lost tribe has taken root in their identity. Whatever happened in their past, they now see themselves and want to be seen as “real Jews.”

As inspiring as many people find the devoted practice of traditional Judaism by the B’nei Menashe, the model of recognition offered by Amishav and Shavei Israel illustrates the problems already described when cultural or religious identity is defined in essentialist ways within a hierarchical model of authority. Shavei Israel’s recognition of a Jewish soul in certain members of the Mizo took place within a hierarchical model of power that works to preserve and reinforce the authority of Orthodox Jews in Israel and elsewhere as both the arbiters of Jewishness and the standard of authenticity that is most consistent with the biblical roots of the Jewish people. For the Mizo, the price of recognition is acceptance of a program of assimilation to a particular model normative Judaism that has little obvious connection to who these people “really are.”


The American-based organizations that have supported recognition of “lost Jews” emerge out of a somewhat different cultural context and ideological framework than that of the Israeli organizations. Organizations like Kulanu (“All of Us”) and Be’chol Lashon (“In Every Language”) developed later than the original Israeli Amishav organization, against the background of (1) rising concerns in the American Jewish community about the impact of assimilation and intermarriage on Jewish communal survival, and (2) the growing American conversation in the mid-1990s on issues of multiculturalism and diversity. “Newly found” Jews are not important to them as potential candidates for Orthodox conversion and immigration to Israel or in contributing to a messianic ingathering of Jewish exiles. Rather, the fundamental issues of these groups relate to the challenges confronting the American Jewish community and the realities of Jewish diversity. For those concerned about the long-term survival of a Jewish population decimated by genocide, assimilation, and intermarriage, the potential influx of these newly found Jews represents a possible, if partial, solution to repopulating the Jewish people.

In the spring of 1994, Amishav USA became Kulanu. Founder and President Jack Zeller explained that while Kulanu continued to support Amishav’s mission of helping “lost Jews” return to Judaism, there was also a need to reflect an “American agenda and diverse membership” that included “American Jews of varied backgrounds and practices.” Zeller was apparently referring especially to denominational, rather than ethnic or racial, diversity, since he continued, “we also believe that some who seek to return to Judaism may not be on the road to a connection to ‘traditional’ Judaism. We think they deserve support as well” (Zeller 1994: 1).

American Jewish organizations engaged in efforts to support Jews from Asia and Africa often make a connection between this work and what they see as a crisis in the American Jewish community. American Jews cannot escape the drumbeat of bad news from the Jewish media about the fragility and weakness of Jewish identity in a world of rampant intermarriage and assimilation. In contrast, “lost Jews” are often portrayed with a seemingly indestructible Jewish identity, a kernel of which has managed to survive for centuries despite complete separation from the Jewish people. This mythic notion of Jewishness as an imperishable spark which may be dormant, hidden, or forgotten, but which sustains an unbreakable connection to the Jewish people offers an obvious consolation for those concerned about Jewish survival. One of Amishav USA’s leaders, Karen Primack, makes explicit the contrast between the imperiled condition of modern Jewish identity and the imputed strength of the Jewishness of newly found Jews:

Yes, we all know we are losing Jews to intermarriage, to cults, to other religions, to indifference. . . . What I have come to appreciate, though, is the irony that allows many Jews to wring their hands in despair over the intermarriage rate and yet to ignore the plight of our cousins, shown by impressive scholarship to be from the Ten Lost Tribes, who have maintained their identity through 27 centuries of hardship. Many are practicing Jews eager to study further in Israel, and some to relocate there. They deserve at least as much attention—and financial support—as those who are leaving Judaism. (Primack 1993: 6)

Despite the lack of any real evidence that the groups in question had any awareness of themselves as Jews until the modern age, Primack constructs a narrative based on the lost tribes’ continuous, tenacious commitment to Jewishness from biblical times until today. The recognition of lost Jews’ authenticity and Jewish commitment in spite of centuries- long persecution and adversity creates an idealized binary of authentic and inauthentic Jews. The newly found Jews are idealized as the repository or embodiment of a religious and ethnic commitment that has been diluted and lost in modern Jewish life, where Jews live in comfort and security yet are quick to abandon Jewish religious practice.

Aside from their indestructible Jewish identities, “lost Jews” also provide the exotic appeal of premodern folk cultures and the aura of authenticity that they represent. They offer a glimpse of a romanticized view of a Jewish past that had long been symbolized by the eastern European shtetl. Yet in the aftermath of the obliteration of that form of Jewish life by the Nazis and the Zionist focus on ancient Israel, living communities of “lost Jews” have a unique appeal: a connection to an even older period of Jewish history, or at least the premodern lifestyle associated with that period.

In contrast to the approach of religious Zionist organizations like Amishav and Shavei Israel, in which recognition of lost tribes also validates the authority and authenticity of Orthodox Jews, for the more liberal American organizations, the recognition of “newly found Jews” and the imagined persistence of their Jewishness in the face of conquest, exile, and life among strangers is a counternarrative to the story of assimilation, abandonment of traditional religion, and intermarriage in modern Jewish life that has made it hard to recognize some Jews as Jewish anymore. In both cases, the process of recognition is a reciprocal process that includes the co-construction of interconnected narratives of Jewish authenticity.


The elements of recognition involved in the case of the seven hundred or so Abayudaya Jews of Uganda are somewhat different from other groups of newly discovered Jews, since the Abayudaya’s involvement with Judaism can be dated very specifically to the early twentieth century rather than to some hypothetical link to lost tribes of ancient Israel. The Abayudaya Jews began in the early twentieth century as a separatist sect based on the Hebrew Bible in rejection of the Christianity of British colonialists. In 1919, the group’s leader, Semei Kakungulu, circumcised himself and his sons and declared the community the “Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda” (“The Community of Jews who trust in the Lord”), or Abayudaya for short. Embracing Jewishness was a form of cultural resistance against the religion of the British Empire.

When their leader died, the Abayudaya split into one group that continued to hold certain Christian beliefs, including that of Jesus as messiah, while another group tried to become more traditionally Jewish. A group of young Abayudaya revived the dwindling movement in the 1970s and 1980s and sought support from Jews in Israel and the west. Like many such groups, they have been visited by Jews from Israel and the United States interested in their claims of Jewishness. As a result of these visits, they have adopted the major ingredients of traditional Jewish practice in regard to issues like circumcision, ritual slaughter, Sabbath observance, and ritual purity. In 2002, Kulanu sent a bet din of conservative rabbis to Uganda to formally convert most of them.

Despite the Abayudaya’s undisputed lack of a lengthy Jewish history or origin myth about the lost tribes of Israel, Jewish groups have nonetheless attributed a special kind of premodern authenticity to them that serves as a revitalizing force for modern Jews. When American and Israeli Jews first visited the Abayudaya, they were transported to world where people who also claimed to be Jews lived in mud huts with no electricity or running water. Today, much of this has changed, as electricity and running water have become available, thanks to the help of western Jewish organizations.

It is no surprise that communities of newly found Jews have become destinations of heritage tours that began to be marketed to western Jews in the mid-1990s. Kulanu organized trips to Uganda to visit the Abayudaya and to various groups of “lost Jews” in India. Heritage tours to the Abayudaya offer a hybrid journey comprising both traditional African village life and an overlay of modern Jewish practices that villagers have learned from Jewish emissaries sent by groups like Amishav and Kulanu. The Jewish content makes otherwise unfamiliar looking people seem like distant relatives, while the premodern village life offers heritage tourists the feeling of authenticity of a world from another time and place.

This peculiar combination of ancient and modern was evident on a 1995 trip to the Abayudaya Jews when visitors reported a joyous welcome from “50 Africans singing Hevenu Shalom Aleichem and Hava Nagila accompanied by a guitar and the ululations of women” (Primack 1995: 4). The fact that these are well-known songs from modern western Jewish culture, not from a hypothetical Israelite tribe, does not seem to diminish their appeal. A few years later, the Abayudaya were already beginning to develop a more indigenous form of Jewish practice, which Kulanu made available on a DVD of Abayudaya versions of Jewish liturgy with African melodies and rhythms. Kulanu described it like this: “Imagine the Siddur set to the music of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album, and you’ll get some idea of the sound, as well as of how moving and entertaining that sound is. The group sounds much like Ladysmith Black Mambazo in its phrasings and tight harmonies, while the many female voices recall Sweet Honey in the Rock” (Wieder 1998: 1). It is paradoxically the Africanness of the Abayudaya that gives a special authenticity to their Jewishness. White American Jews can now claim and enjoy this kind of African musical tradition as part of their own Jewish culture.

For the Abayudaya, Kulanu’s recognition has meant an active participation in the construction, promotion, and institutionalization of Abayudaya Jewish culture. Kulanu offers an online “boutique” of crafts for the Abayudaya of Uganda and the B’nei Menashe of India that includes locally produced kippot, tallitot, and hallah covers, gift items that western Jews are likely to purchase as examples of Jewish folk arts, despite the fact that these Jewish ritual items have been introduced to the Abayudaya only recently from the west and are now produced for sale back to Jews in the United States and elsewhere. In the last decade, organized trips to the Abayudaya Jews have become increasingly more elaborate. The 2004 trip included visits to six Abayudaya synagogues, arts and crafts demonstrations, tours to national parks and baboon sanctuaries, with optional white water rafting and gorilla wildlife safaris (Anonymous 2003). A few years later, in 2008, Kulanu formalized its marriage of heritage tourism and ecotourism with a trip marketed as “Jewish Life in Uganda, Wildlife Safari and Mitzvah Tour.” Responding to western Jews’ interest in their community has become a significant part of Kulanu’s economic development plan for the Abayudaya, providing both resources and employment for the community. Recent Kulanu tours also include “the annual Abayudaya Music and Dance Festival,” which allows performers from villages to share their music, dance, and stories (Wetzler 2008: 3). Unlike groups whose recognition of newly found Jews focuses on assimilation to Orthodox Judaism and immigration to Israel, Kulanu is committed to preserving and developing the local culture of newly found Jews. By providing an audience for Abayudaya cultural festivals and customers for their Jewish crafts, Kulanu moves beyond recognition to an actual partnership in the establishment of Abayudaya Jewish culture.


Be’chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”) is an initiative of the San Francisco Jewish think tank Institute for Jewish and Community Research, founded by Gary Tobin and Dianne Kaufmann-Tobin in the last decade. While supporting outreach to many of the same groups of “lost Jews” as Amishav or Shavei Israel, appreciation of Jewish diversity and multiculturalism, not halachically correct conversions, is Be’chol Lashon’s primary goal. In its vision statement, Be’chol Lashon attempts to sidestep all of the debates regarding the essential ingredients necessary to be recognized as a Jew, halachic, or otherwise. Their focus is on constructing a diverse, multiracial understanding of the Jewish people, not an ingathering of Jews around a religious Zionist ideology or a sentimental return to the tribal past:

Imagine a new global Judaism that transcends differences in geography, ethnicity, class, race, ritual practice, and beliefs. Discussions about “who-is-a-real-Jew” will be replaced with celebration of the rich, multidimensional character of the Jewish people. (Be’chol Lashon n.d.)

The organization’s mission statement builds on multicultural themes of diversity, difference, and inclusion:

Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) grows and strengthens the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness. We advocate for the diversity that has characterized the Jewish people throughout history, and through contemporary forces including intermarriage, conversion and adoption. We foster an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences. (Be’chol Lashon n.d.)

As an organization whose top priorities are Jewish diversity and inclusion, their narrative of the origins of the Jewish people places multiculturalism at the moment of creation: “the historical home of the Jews lies at the geographic crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Jews are an amalgam of many peoples and Jewish origins include a multitude of languages, nations, tribes, and skin colors” (Tobin et al. 2005: 67). Absent in this narrative of Israelite history are any genealogical or familial metaphors emphasizing common descent from the sons of a single patriarchal ancestor. Instead, Be’chol Lashon offers an image of the Jewish past as both racially and culturally diverse at its core. We are reminded that Moses was married to Zipporah, an Ethiopian, Solomon and David had African wives, and Joseph married an Egyptian, i.e., an African (Tobin et al. 2005: 67). Thus, Jewish roots are arguably as much or more in Africa than in Eastern Europe.

This multicultural origin myth of the Jewish people is offered as justification for the recognition of nonwhite Jews as an authentic element of the distant Jewish past and a necessary component to be recognized as part of the Jewish people today. Although it recognizes “newly found” Jews throughout the world, Be’chol Lashon insists that travel to remote villages in Africa or Asia to find Jews of color is unnecessary. Many “diverse Jews,” as they are called by Be’chol Lashon, can be found within the United States. Be’chol Lashon supports the recognition of these Jews as part of the Jewish people in an effort to reconstitute the Jewish people in a different way. This kind of recognition will help to liberate Judaism from restrictive membership norms and to help it become what Lewis Gordon describes as “post-denominational and pan-denominational, post-racial, and pan-racial. It is what Judaism has always been—we are a people” (Tobin et al. 2005: 13).

The recognition of the multiracial foundations of the Jewish people is part of Be’chol Lashon’s deliberate agenda to challenge the default association of Jewishness with whiteness and Judaism with the rabbinic system of European Jews (Tobin et al. 2005: 25). Unlike the strategy of Amishav, Be’chol Lashon’s goal is not the socialization of diverse nonwhite Jews into rabbinic Orthodoxy. On the contrary, the recognition of lost Jews, particularly in Africa, presents the possibility of many different forms of Judaism and Jewish life that also deserve respect and appreciation. This perspective has the effect of decentering the assumed authenticity and legitimacy of mainstream Judaism by treating it as only one of several legitimate forms of Jewish expression. “Whether ancient or new, a distinctive trait of African communities results from historical isolation from rabbinic Judaism. Their Judaism has either been passed on through oral tradition or is practiced as pre-Talmudic Torah-based Judaism” (Tobin et al. 2005: 78).

Apart from the Jewish outreach groups discussed here, many western Jews are probably reluctant to offer full recognition to the Jewishness of the B’nei Menashe, Abayudaya, and other newly found Jews—or to the extent that they are recognized, it is as exotic curiosities who still require extensive Jewish education and socialization, rather than as full members of Jewish history and the Jewish community. Be’chol Lashon rejects such ideas and what it considers to be a double standard that privileges rabbinic Judaism as the most important or authentic form of Jewishness available today. If recognition is truly reciprocal, then all Jews must be treated as presenting equally valid ways of being Jewish (Tobin et al. 2005: 98). Gary Tobin explains:

There has never been, nor likely will there be any single authentic Judaism. . . . Liturgy, ritual observance, and social interaction all change and evolve, and there has been tremendous latitude and variety among Jewish cultures over time and place, with ongoing reinterpretation and adjustment. Beliefs and activities come and go, institutions are created and abandoned, great bodies of knowledge consistently added to and reconfigured. (Tobin et al. 2005: 171)

For Be’chol Lashon, the Jewish people are a perfect symbol for the ideals of global inclusion, acceptance, and diversity. Having lived among people in all parts of world and adapted and adopted elements of those cultures, including marrying those people, Jews are “a people that is composed of relatives from practically every branch of the human family” (Tobin et al. 2005: 172). This is the kind of cosmopolitanism that Appiah recommends as an alternative to the more common essentialist group identities that a politics of recognition is in danger of reifying.

Faced with the option of extending recognition to hundreds of thousands of people who, Be’chol Lashon insists, may be interested in becoming Jews, Tobin and colleagues ask, “Are we ready to welcome them? Are we ready to grow and change? Are we willing to become who we have always been?” (Tobin et al. 2005: 175). In this last question can be found the paradox of recognition for Be’chol Lashon. To open the Jewish people to a more fluid, dynamic approach to the definition of who is a Jew will make the process of recognition disorienting, tenuous, and uncomfortable. But only by doing that, he suggests, can Jews likewise experience the recognition of who “[they] have always been.” If authenticity is a recognition of one’s true identity, then the true identity that Jews must recognize is one that lacks a fixed essence or reality, one that always remains an uncertain process of becoming in which any rules or definitions are continually subject to revision in the future.


Comparing the various organizations that have been devoted to outreach to newly found Jews reveals very different ways in which the idea of recognition can operate. The goal of Amishav and Shavei Israel to restore “lost Jews” to their true identities pays homage to the romantic ideal of Herder, and more recently Taylor, that we are morally obligated to recognize who people “really are” and to affirm them in their own authentic cultural identities. Yet in the case of “newly found” Jews, whose actual connection and embeddedness in Jewish culture is limited to an origin myth about events over two millennia ago, this idea of a “real self” becomes a kind of metaphysical Jewish essence that has little to do with the actual historical experience of these people in any meaningful sense. Rather, through a process of religious education and socialization, culminating in conversion to normative Orthodox Judaism, they are able to create new religious and cultural identities and gain recognition based on traditional European rabbinic Judaism mixed with messianic Israeli religious Zionism.

The insistence on an unchanging Jewish core identity—a Jewish soul, if you will—guides their process of recognition and understanding of modern Jewish life. The essentialized Jewish identity ascribed to lost Jewish tribes by Amishav and Shavei Israel serves as a direct rejection of the fluidity and instability of postmodern Jewish identity. A sense of Jewishness that can supposedly survive for centuries despite its isolation from any other Jewish communities, that can resist all other cultural and religious influences, and at the appropriate moment can resume authentic Jewish life in Israel, offers a potent counternarrative not only to those who have abandoned strict Jewish religious practice but also to those who argue for more open-ended, flexible concepts of Jewishness today. It is, therefore, no surprise that Amishav and Shavei Israel may recognize some diversity in the origins of the Jewish people as reflected in the racial diversity of tribal groups of “newly found” Jews, but they offer no recognition of diverse ways of being Jewish, nor consider the potential openness of Jewish identity to change and transformation.

Kulanu’s openness to greater flexibility in the denominational spectrum of Judaism as an option for “newly found” Jews, as well as an appreciation of some elements, mostly music and crafts, of the cultural diversity of these groups, reflects the greater autonomy offered by modern liberal forms of Judaism in constituting a Jewish identity. Nonetheless, there is no serious questioning of rabbinic Judaism as a cultural and religious system primarily developed among white, European Jews. As a result, the recognition offered to “newly found” Jews remains tied to asymmetrical power relations that privilege an American denominational model of Jewishness.

The most expansive expression of Jewish diversity and the politics of recognition is found in Be’chol Lashon. Its agenda is to maximize the growth of the Jewish people by loosening the boundaries that exclude some people interested in being Jewish. There is little preoccupation with the intricacies of who is a Jew, or concern with halachic laws and rabbinic authorities functioning as gatekeepers. Rather, the priority placed on multicultural recognition as an open-ended process with a more welcoming attitude toward “diverse Jews” results in a redefinition of Jewishness that maximizes inclusion and deconstructs prevailing normative assumptions.

In this sense, Be’chol Lashon’s understanding of Jewish identity avoids the pitfall of an essentialist assumption about a primordial Jewish core identity that defines one’s “real self.” Rather, it offers recognition not only of different kinds of Jews and different ways of being Jewish, but also of the dangers of reifying any single definition of Jewish identity. As Stuart Hall notes, a person’s sense of her or his “real me” is a product of the narratives that she or he participates in constituting. For this reason, recognition of any person’s nationality, religion, or ethnicity is always to some degree a political act that remains “temporary, partial, and arbitrary” (1993: 136–137). But Hall also describes the need to acknowledge and accept “a politics in the recognition of the necessarily fictional nature of the modern self, and the necessary arbitrariness of the closure around the imaginary communities in relation to which we are constantly in the process of becoming ‘selves.’” It is a recognition not only that identity is always situated in relationship to culture, languages, and history, but also that those categories themselves are changing and impermanent. For Be’chol Lashon, the recognition of newly found Jews is a necessary part of creating a truly multicultural Jewish people. Whether they are actually members of some lost tribe of Jews is less important than the metaphorical power of this narrative. In its own way, the gathering of the lost tribes back into the Jewish people represents Be’chol Lashon’s own redemptive narrative of an expanding Jewish people that welcomes all groups who feel lost and want to belong.


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