Jews in Central Africa

Professor Yochanan (Jean) Bwejeri is a member of the Bene-Zagwei clan of the Tutsi people of Burundi. He claims that he is a Jew by birth. His ancestors and the ancestors of all Tutsi were all Jews by birth and not by conversion. Except where I write in the first person, I relate these claims and the facts and opinions upon which they are based as they were told to me by Professor Bwejeri — and as often as possible in his words.

The Tutsi people originated in Ethiopia when it was known as Kush and was a Jewish kingdom. There are numerous references to Kush in the Bible.

These claims, facts and opinions are in many instances at variance with what we have been taught as Jews. These departures may create difficulties for traditional Jews to accept Professor Bwejeri, his Bene-Zagwei clan and the Tutsi tribe as Jews. Are these departures bridgeable? There are additional issues. Is Professor Bwejeri sincere or is he trying to obtain Jewish support for the Tutsi struggle to survive the genocide committed upon them by the Hutu majority? Are the Tutsi intolerant or are they trying to maintain their distinct religious beliefs and culture in an alien and hostile environment?

Professor Bwejeri appears sincere in his conviction that he is a Jew and that the Tutsi are Jews. Nevertheless, I am not sufficiently knowledgeable in Jewish law, African history or Tutsi attitudes to answer any of the questions that I have posed. But since he has approached us with sincerity and in need, we are obligated to listen, to have open minds, and to welcome if it is appropriate to do so after having listened with open minds.


The History of the Tutsi

(As told to me by Prof. Bwejeri)

The Tutsi people originated in Ethiopia when it was known as Kush and was a Jewish kingdom. There are numerous references to Kush in the Bible. The Jewish kingdom fell in 1270 CE. As a result, several clans, including the Bene-Zagwei clan, moved south and west to an area Bwejeri calls Havila or the African Great Lakes Region, consisting of Burundi, Rwanda, and parts of Uganda, Tanzania and the Congo. In this region, these clans reconstituted the South Kushitic Empire, which lasted from 1270 CE to 1527 CE. In the South Kushitic Empire the laws of Moses were the laws of the land. But it was the laws of Moses as they were remembered through oral transmission. The link between the written Torah and the Tutsi was broken with their departure from Ethiopia.

Beginning about 1880, Catholic missionaries arrived in the South Kushitic Empire. A period of conflict began between the Tutsi who sought to remain faithful to their Tutsi religion and the missionaries — a conflict that lasted well into the 20th century. The military tide turned in favor of the missionaries when German forces entered the land and occupied it. Still the Tutsi resisted conversion. The missionaries found success only among the Hutu “gerim”. Because of Tutsi resistance and Hutu acceptance of Catholicism, Tutsi land was confiscated and given to Hutu “squatters”. This is the origin of the conflict between the Tutsi and the Hutu.

About the time of World War I, Belgium became the colonial ruler of Rwanda, Burundi and Kivu (eastern Congo), which were in the historic domain of the Tutsi. Under the Belgians, the Catholic Church “began to destroy methodically the basis of the Tutsi Jewish religion.” Rwanda, Burundi and Kivu were separated and placed under different figureheads. The Jewish Rwandan King was exiled, and his converted son placed on his throne. An annual gathering of Tutsi lasting eight days used to take place in what is now Rwanda. The Catholic hierarchy noted that the rituals of the festival were in accordance with the Old Testament rites of Sukkoth, and in 1917 the festival was banned by the Belgians.

The Jewish Tutsi King of Burundi managed to survive by subterfuge. One of his descendants, King Mwambutsa, was the first African sovereign to recognize the State of Israel and make a pilgrimage — “a symbolic aliyah” — to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, one hundred years of “Inquisition and terrorism annihilated” the Tutsi ancient Jewish faith.


The Genocide

In 1993, the Tutsi of Burundi were slaughtered by the Hutu in the hundreds of thousands, and over a million were killed in Rwanda. Bwejeri is a Tutsi from Burundi.

The Tutsi of Rwanda were able to reorganize to expel the murderous Hutu bands. Today a Tutsi army rules Rwanda, but security is still a problem. In Burundi the situation is much worse for the Tutsi; the Hutu are in control. Although the slaughter has abated, Bwejeri is of the opinion that in the “coming months,” the Tutsi of Burundi will face a new shoah.

The Tutsi have left the Burundi countryside for the towns and cities where they live in “ghettos” for their mutual protection. Should a Tutsi venture out of the protected enclaves, the male would be murdered and the female raped and enslaved. Bwejeri introduced me to his cousin, Joseph, living in the U.S.A. Joseph’s brother was ambushed by Hutus while driving in convoy from one town to the next. Joseph returned to Burundi to attend his brother’s funeral, but because of the danger did not take his wife — who has not seen her parents for 15 years — or his children – who have never seen their grandparents or their homeland.

Bwejeri blames an “International Catholic Network” for supporting the Catholic Hutus in the goal of ridding the country of Tutsis. He blames the Network for being behind the “Arusha Agreements” which called for Tutsi participation in a Hutu led government. According to Bwejeri, these agreements are a “pretext” to establish a system of anti-Tutsi laws and are the prelude to the physical eradication of the “Tutsi Hebraic people.”

The plot also includes African “Bantu” forces who have allied themselves with the Hutu. In particular, he singles out the South African “Bantu” Army sent by Nelson Mandela to Burundi. With their dollars they buy the sexual favors of Tutsi women or take them by force. The result is that the virus which causes AIDS has spread from South Africa, where it is widespread to the Tutsi, where it was unknown.

Tutsi women are “unusually graceful.” They have never intermarried with the Bantu peoples around them, but are much desired by them. The Tutsi features of both men and women are distinct and therefore an “identity card” for those who want to prey upon them. The refusal to intermarry with the Bantu is but one of the ways the Tutsi have respected the laws of Moses (Deut 7:3-4). The Tutsis and the Hutus are now, and always have been, different people.

…some fled with Moses to Sinai and others fled southward to Ethiopia […] thus Moses, the Beta Israel and the Tutsi were original Hebrews.

I am troubled by Bwejeri’s emphasis upon separation of the Tutsi from those Africans he calls Bantu. One of his objections to the Catholic Church is that it supported intermarriage between the Tutsi and the Hutu. Is this objection racial or religious? Jewish history has taught us that intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews where Jews are a minority generally results in assimilation and absorption into the majority population. To my mind, our Jewish objection to intermarriage is religious, not racial; it would not apply to a marriage between a born Jew and a Jewish convert no matter what the race or origin of the convert.

Bwejeri’s emphasis upon separation for the Tutsi sometimes has the same religious basis as the Jewish objection to intermarriage and sometimes not. He has written to me that a non-Tutsi can become a part of the Tutsi people and marry with a Tutsi if he or she adopts Tutsi customs and “converts in the Jewish Tutsi religion and law.” Very few Hutu converted to the “Jewish Tutsi religion” because the Tutsi priests “avoided proselytism and prohibited forced conversion.” At the same time he quotes with approval a French anthropologist who wrote: “One is born a Tutsi; none can become Tutsi afterward.” This lack of clarity may be a defense to the most difficult and dangerous position in which the Tutsi find themselves but it is also one which must make Jews cautious.


Links to Ancient Hebrews

Insofar as the Tutsi trace their origin to Ethiopia, I expected that they would adopt the same mythic origin to which the Ethiopian Beta Israel adhere: namely, they are descended from the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and the priests which Solomon sent to accompany the Queen upon her return to Ethiopia. But Bwejeri, while never denying the connection, more often emphasizes the common Egyptian origin of the Hebrews and the Tutsi — a connection which pre-dates Solomon.

Under the Pharaoh Ikhnaton, a monotheistic religion was imposed upon the Egyptian people. As a result, an opposition party of priests who had served the traditional Egyptian gods developed. Sometime after Ikhnaton died, the priests revolted and compelled the followers of Ikhanton to flee. Some fled with Moses to Sinai and others fled southward to Ethiopia. All who fled shared the religion, customs, symbols and laws that were developed under Ikhnaton. Thus Moses, the Beta Israel and the Tutsi were original Hebrews.

I pointed out to Bwejeri that the Torah traces the origin of Jewish monotheism not to Moses but to Abraham, who was a Mesopotamian, not an Egyptian. His response was that the stories about the patriarchs were later inventions made up by Jews during their Babylonian exile to curry favor with their Babylonian masters who were in conflict with the Egyptians.

During the course of this conversation with Bwejeri, I expressed the opinion that the Ethiopian Beta Israel might have originated with the Jews who settled in Elephantine between the years 600 and 400 BCE. Elephantine was the site of a large military camp of Jewish mercenaries situated in Egypt where the Aswan Dam is now located. Bwejeri dismissed this view: the Hebrew origin of the Tutsi was much older than 600 BCE.

Linguistically, Bwejeri links the Tutsi to the ancient Hebrews. The Tutsi homeland — which extends beyond the regions where the Tutsi now reside — is called by him Havila. Havila is the name applied in Genesis 2:11 to the territory watered by the Pishon River which, according to Bwejeri, is the White Nile. (The Jewish Encyclopedia expresses the view that the location of Havila and the River Pishon are unknown).

The original name of the Tutsi patriarch was Himai, a descendant of Ham, one of Noah’s sons. The word Tutsi is built from the root of Kushi. Kush or Cush is the land situated south of Egypt along the banks of the Nile. The Cushites and the Hebrews have many biblical contacts. One of the most interesting is that the Cushites encouraged King Hezekiah of Judah to resist the Assyrians. (II Kings 19:9.14).

The Tutsi are “traditionally devoted” to the “auburn ox” which in the Bible is called the red heifer (parah adumah). The sacred auburn ox was sacrificed in the Temple built by Ikhnaton. Under Jewish law (Numbers 19), the ashes of the red heifer were used in the ritual purification of persons defiled by a corpse.

…he hoped that someday the Tutsi would be able to prove to all Jews that they were Jews by birth going back to biblical times.

Sometime between 1270 and 1527 CE (during the period of the South Kushitic Empire), the Tutsi secretly codified their oral Mosaic law into the Twelve Hidden Codes of Havila. Pursuant to the Codes, they developed a national festival of return called Umuganuro, which he compares to Sukkoth.

The Jewish emblems of the South Kushitic Empire are the Drums of Solomon, the Lion of Judah and the Scepter. The Scepter recalls the institution of the 70 elders according to the suggestion of the “Kushitic” priest, Jethro, to Moses. (I have been unable to identify this specific suggestion in the Bible but Bwejeri has referred me to Exodus 18, Numbers 10:29-30 and Habakuk 3:7). These three emblems remained the sacred symbols of the Tutsi into the early 20th Century. The Drums of Solomon were exhibited once a year at Sukkoth (Umuganuro). Beyond the three symbols and the attachment to the auburn oxen, the Tutsi share with Jews the worship of one God and the prohibition of intermarriage with non-Hebraic peoples.


Shabbath with Bwejeri

Bwejeri spent the Shabbat of December 13-14, 2002, in New York City with me and my wife, Elaine. On Friday evening, I took him to the Carlebach Shul for services, kiddush and dinner. Prayer in the Carlebach Shul is accompanied by singing, dancing and other expressions of exuberance. A glance at the high mechitzah (barrier) which separates men and women and the number of black-hatted men make it unmistakable that the Carlebach Shul is an Orthodox synagogue.

Bwejeri cannot read Hebrew and is not familiar with the service. Nevertheless, from his clapping, swaying and singing this would not be apparent. He participated with enthusiasm. The parsha (selection of the Bible to be read) was about Joseph’s meeting with his brothers in Egypt, and a lengthy dvar Torah (lecture) was given on the parsha. Bwejeri was totally familiar with the story from his reading of the Bible in French. The style in which the dvar Torah was rendered and the way new meanings were derived from the text kept him enthralled.

During the dinner, there was also a considerable amount of singing, including the rendering of Ashet Chayil (woman of valor). I told him that it was customary for a man to sing these verses to his wife every Friday evening. When he asked me for a copy of these verses, he was delighted when I told him that they were the last 22 verses of the book of Proverbs. It was a tradition, he said, that he would like to introduce to his followers since it reinforces the reverence that the Tutsi have for their wives.

During the dinner, there were several speeches relating to the survival of the Jewish people in the United States and of the Jewish State of Israel. He was all attention. The emphasis on the dangers of assimilation were as near to him as to us. He resonated to the speeches in support of the State of Israel and the settlements. One concept repeated in the speeches attracted him greatly: that all Jews are responsible for the safety and well-being of all other Jews. This became clear next morning when I took him to the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue.

The Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue was founded by anousim (the forced ones), Jews who were compelled to convert to Catholicism but returned to Judaism at the first opportunity. The Tutsi are anousim in Bwejeri’s view. They were forcibly converted to Catholicism by the missionaries and prevented from returning to the religion of their ancestors by the Catholic “inquisition.” He donned a talit (prayer shawl) with no apparent discomfort and sat attentively through a rather long service. In comparison to the Carlebach Shul, he found the regulated atmosphere of the service and some of the tunes to have a Catholic flavor.

After the service, he was invited by Rabbi Marc Angel to say a few words to the congregation at the Kiddush (blessings over the wine). It was here that he repeated the theme heard at the Carlebach Shul, that all Jews are responsible for the safety and well-being of all other Jews, while talking about the Hebraic origins of the Tutsi and their dire predicament.

On the way home from the synagogue, I explained to Bwejeri the traditional, Jewish view of who is a Jew — anyone born of a Jewish woman who was descended from a line of Jewish women or anyone who was a convert to Judaism. The test (except in the case of a convert) was less the acceptance of Jewish beliefs and practices, but one of birth. Bwejeri replied that he hoped that someday the Tutsi would be able to prove to all Jews that they were Jews by birth going back to biblical times.


The Present and the Future

Bwejeri recognizes that there is much that the Tutsi must learn about Jewish beliefs and practices. They might be willing to accept the yoke of the Torah if they were familiar with it. There are about 1,000 Tutsi living in Belgium, of which about 200 are members of the Havila Institute.

Bwejeri is the President of the Havila Institute. The purpose of the Institute is to research the Hebraic origins of the Tutsi tribe and reacquaint its members and all Tutsi of their Jewish origins, customs, symbols and religion. He regrets that the Havila Institute has not received any encouragement from the Belgian Jewish community. As a first step, he would like Tutsi children to be invited to go to Jewish schools, and Tutsi families to be invited into synagogues. There is not a sufficient comfort level for the Tutsi to attend uninvited.

I would urge Kulanu to use all its resources to contact Belgian Jews and synagogues in and around Brussels to work with Professor Yochanan (Jean) Bwejeri to make available a Jewish future for the Tutsi if they wish to have one. This may not be a remote possibility. While at the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, I met a young woman who knew Tutsis who were Seventh Day Adventists. Seventh Day Adventists have many customs and attitudes that appeal to Christians who have a belief in a Jewish origin. If these Tutsis had been welcomed in synagogues, would they have found a more comfortable home in the synagogue than in a church with the Seventh Day Adventists?

Professor Bwejeri can be contacted at institute __ de __ havila @