What does a Black-British Jew do to honour Black History Month?
Yes, you read correctly. We exist.
On Saturday, I attend my local shul. On Sunday, I eat rice and peas, roast chicken and Yorkshire pudding with salad as our family has ritually done since my grandmother arrived in England from Jamaica in the 50s and started a family.
The truth is we have always existed and always will. But deeper than this is a knotted history and relationship that is closer than many people realise.
This year, the start of Black History Month in the UK coincided with Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah celebrates the joy of the never-ending story, the end of Deuteronomy leading straight into the beginning of Genesis. Torah is a lifetime of reflection that is never complete. Each year, it’s words nurture further insight, connection and understanding as we and the world adapt and change.
History is cyclical too. A never-ending story we grow old with and where reflection brings new or deeper insight for progression within self, the family, communities and wider world.
Black and Jewish histories can be seen as part of the same cyclical story: the experiences of slavery, persecution and the pursuit of equality, inclusion and social justice.
Beyond an Ashkenazi-centric modern history of British Jewry, the intersection of Black — particularly Caribbean — Sephardic and Mizrahi histories is a fascinating revelation to those who perceive Jews as historically and functionally ‘White’.
Without knowing exactly when the seed of the relationship began to grow, there are references to it within the Torah. We learn in Numbers 12.1 that Moses’ brother and sister spoke against him, “for he had married a Cushite woman.” The Land of Cush, a region in or near Ethiopia, was also referred to by the Egyptians as Nubia. Cushites were described as having very dark skin and descended from the line of Noah’s eldest son, Ham, through his son Cush.
Across many cultures and religious groups, the puzzling story of the enigmatic Queen of Sheba and King Solomon pinballs between a love story and an iconic trade mission, if she existed at all. In Jewish legend, the Queen of Sheba was the Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia. The layered mystery surrounding their relationship has captivated religious, cultural and historical works for nearly 3,000 years.
Africa is historically rich with a Jewish presence that emerged through trade and migration. Even now, pockets of communities, for example in Ghana, remain bonded to their Jewish identity. The debate around the ten lost tribes of Israel is highlighted in the claims of some African communities to a Jewish past such as the Igbo Jews of Nigeria and the Lemba peoples of Zimbabwe or South Africa. Genetic studies of the Lemba in the 1990s indicated that they have Semitic origins. It is said that the Bhuba, the priestly family of the Lemba, are genetically connected to the worldwide cohanim.
As someone of Caribbean heritage, slavery provides a knotted — sometimes uneasy — intersection of shared history. Whilst some may want to shy away from this, it is widely acknowledged that, like others, some Jews participated as traders and slave owners in the transatlantic slave trade although they did not dominate it. On the island of Jamaica, where the majority of my grandparents are from, Jewish planters owned a small proportion of slaves. They were involved in the sugar and vanilla industries, introduced sugar cultivation and were part of the international trade and shipping industry.
This year has been intense and emotionally draining for people like me in the UK. Racist and/or anti-Semitic tropes — and the lack of understanding about why these are racist or anti-Semitic — has characterised how far we all are from valuing the lessons of the past. I have seen several recent Twitter conversations that reflect the tension I refer to above. This particular tension seems rooted in the following question: has the mainstream focus on antisemitism overridden the attention that needs to be paid to the behaviour that undermines black communities such as the hostile environment and terrible treatment of the Windrush generation? All of these are awful consequences of history and yet there is a perception of hierarchy in terms of the importance placed by the mainstream media and political class.
For the benefit of the two communities in the UK, it is important though to continue to hold onto what we have in common defined through our histories. The Exodus is, on one hand, how the Israelites left slavery in Egypt and, on the other hand, represents the movement towards emancipation and freedom from physical and mental slavery generated through the transatlantic slave trade.
A cornerstone of both the Holocaust and British colonialism, including the transatlantic slave trade, was a dogmatic belief that non-white peoples (as defined by those in power) were inferior. The evil twins of genocide and slavery brutally entrenched the political and economic agendas of those who considered themselves to be superior. Both the Black and Jewish communities still live with the historic trauma and legacy of the oppression inflicted by others. One community still waits for an apology.
Consider the following passage about a community’s history inserting either Black/Black people or Jewish/Jewish people into the blanks:
For many years, _____________ were oppressed. Even when __________ were liberated, they were treated differently or marginalised.
For these communities, history embedded a parallel journey albeit dancing down alternative paths. Our past, present and future bond Black and Jewish stories.
Being Black-British, Jewish or Blewish, the similar histories and its impact is a reminder that there is still work to be done in respect of our journeys and experiences as Black and Jewish people. So instead of me, if you are Black or Jewish, how can you honour Black History Month?
By continuing the work of our past leaders and ancestors in the fight for the humanity, inclusion, liberty, equality and social justice they died for.
All year round.