Thursday, January 22, 2004

Economist - The Jews of Uganda

Now here's a curious story:

STROLL through the foothills of Mount Wanale in central Uganda, and you may be surprised to meet children greeting you with a cheery “Shalom.” The village of Nabugoya is home to one of the world's least-known Jewish communities, replete with its own brick synagogue, marked in chalk with the Star of David.

Unlike the 18,000-odd remaining Ethiopian Jews, whom Israel recently promised to airlift to Tel Aviv, the Abayudaya of Uganda do not claim a lineage dating back to King David. They converted to Judaism less than a century ago. “It began in 1919,” explains Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. A local chief, Semei Kakungule, had—so he says—been promised a kingdom by the British, but they broke their promise, so he took his revenge on British missionaries by rejecting the New Testament for the Old.

At first, Mr Kakungule was forced to improvise, but in 1926 he obtained a Bible in Hebrew and English from two Jewish traders. For the next 35 years, his people studied the scriptures in Hebrew and in complete isolation, before being discovered by Israel's first ambassador to east Africa. By 1961, the Abayudaya had 3,000 members and 30 synagogues.

Then, in 1972, the Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin banned Judaism, after a row with his Israeli arms suppliers. The Abayudaya's synagogues were filled with goats and their prayer books burned. All but 300 of them left the faith. Mr Sizomu, a third-generation Jew, and schooled at a rabbinical college in New York, is trying to rebuild the community. It now has six synagogues and 600 members.

Israel has shown no interest in Mr Sizomu's efforts, but he is not too disappointed. “When I read about the violence in Israel, it puts me off,” he says, lounging under a banana-tree on a sunny Sabbath.

It looks like the old (Christian-imposed) aversion to proselytizing still holds for many Jews. Given the frequency with which prominent figures in the Jewish world lament the demographic trends threatening the existence of their religion, one would think they'd welcome developments like this one, even if the origins of this particular community are a bit ... strange. To do otherwise is to buy into the pernicious belief that Judaism is nothing more than an ethnicity masquerading as a religion.