Parfitt, Tudor (Vernon) 1944-
PARFITT, Tudor (Vernon) 1944-
PERSONAL: Born October 10, 1944, in Porth, Wales; son of Vernon (a headmaster) and Margaret (Sears) Parfitt; married Jean Mac William (divorced); children: Justin, Natasha. Education: Oxford University, M.A., 1968, D.Phil., 1972; attended Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1968-69.
CAREER: University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, lecturer, 1972-74; University of Southampton, Southampton, England, Parkes fellow, 1974; University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, England, lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies, 1974—, currently chair of the Center for Jewish Studies.
(Translator, with Glenda Abramson) Yehuda Amichai, The Great Tranquility: Questions and Answers, Harper (New York, NY), 1983.
Operation Moses: The Untold Story of the Secret Exodus of the Falasha Jews from Ethiopia, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1985.
The Thirteenth Gate: Travels among the Lost Tribes of Israel, Adler & Adler (Bethesda, MD), 1987.
The Jews in Palestine, 1800-1882, Boydell Press (Wolfeboro, NH), 1987.
The Jews of Africa and Asia: Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Other Pressures, Minority Rights Group (London, England), 1987.
Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1992, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1993, revised and expanded edition, Phoenix, 1997.
The Road to Redemption: The Jews of the Yemen, 1900-1950, E. J. Brill (New York), 1996.
The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002.
(With Emanuela Trevisan-Semi) Judaising Movements: Studies in the Margins of Judaism in Modern Times, Routledge (London, England)/Curzon (Surrey, England), 2002.
(With Glenda Abramson) The Great Transition: The Recovery of the Lost Centers of Modern Hebrew Literature, Rowman & Allanheld (Totowa, NJ), 1985.
(With Glenda Abramson) The Academy: Essays on Jewish Education and Learning, Harwood Academic (Langhorne, PA), 1994.
(With Glenda Abramson) Jewish Education and Learning: Published in Honour of Dr. David Patterson on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, Harwood Academic (Langhorne, PA), 1994.
(With Steven Kaplan and Emanuela Trevisan-Semi) Between Africa and Zion: Proceedings of the First International Congress of the Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry, Ben-Zvi Institute (Jerusalem, Israel), 1995.
(With Emanuela Trevisan-Semi) The Beta Israel in Ethiopia and Israel: Studies on Ethiopian Jews, Curzon (Surrey, England), 1999.
Israel and Ishmael: Studies in Muslim-Jewish Relations, St. Martin's (New York), 2000.
(With Yulia Egorova) Jews, Muslims and Mass Media: Mediating the "Other," Curzon (Surrey, England), 2004.
Also author and presenter of three British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio programs about the founding of Israel and two programs about the Lemba tribe, 1992, and of Radio Four program The Longest Exile, 1994. Contributor to magazines and newspapers in England and the United States, including Jewish Chronicle, London, the London Times, Poetry, Present Tense, and Moment.
SIDELIGHTS: Tudor Parfitt is an acknowledged authority on the history of Israel in the nineteenth century, as well as being famous for his research in tracking down the mysteriously lost Ten Tribes of Israel. His studies have led him all around the world in search of ethnic communities in Africa, India, and even Japan that claim to have ties to the families of ten of the twelve sons of Jacob, whose people disappeared from history after the Assyrians conquered them in the eighth century B.C.E. Parfitt writes about his findings in such books as Operation Moses: The Untold Story of the Secret Exodus of the Falasha Jews from Ethiopia, The Thirteenth Gate: Travels among the Lost Tribes of Israel, and The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth. Though these works have received much of the attention by critics, Parfitt is also interested in the history of the known Jewish peoples and of the Judaising movement in Africa.
Considering his fascination for the subject, it is interesting to note that Parfitt has no Jewish blood himself. He is, rather, the son of Welsh Baptists. He first became interested in the Jewish people at the age of nineteen, when he joined the Volunteer Service in Britain and was assigned to help Jews who had made it to Israel after the Holocaust in Europe. Becoming fascinated by their complex history and culture, when he returned to England he decided to study Jewish and Islamic history at Oxford, where he graduated in 1972 with a doctorate.
After teaching in Toronto, Canada, and Southampton, England, Parfitt joined the University of London faculty as a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies. He began publishing books on his specialty in the mid-1980s, with his first major work being Operation Moses, the story of the black Jews of Ethiopia and their evacuation to new homes in Israel. Plagued by famine in their native land, oppressed by the hostility of their Christian neighbors and the brutality and corruption of government officials, the Falashas had dwindled to less than thirty thousand souls. In the face of international criticism and interference from other so-called relief efforts, the government of Israel managed to save some fourteen thousand Falashas in 1984. Though they speak no Hebrew and practice some religious laws that depart from traditional Judaism, an attempt has been made to assimilate them into the Israeli population. Parfitt not only tells their story, but as an eyewitness to events that occurred in Ethiopia and the Sudan in 1984, he charges the United Nations with procrastination and bowing to political pressure. He offers evidence of the negligence of the Sudanese government, unfair criticism by the international press of the Israeli rescue effort, and the ignorant interference of several other relief movements. Bernard Wasserstein wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, "The author . . . combines eyewitness reporting with academic understanding to produce a sympathetic and fair-minded account of the 'untouchables of Ethiopia.'"
With his next book, The Thirteenth Gate, Parfitt not only talks further about the Falashas, but also other ethnic groups in Africa and in Asia who claim a connection with Israel, including the Lemba of South Africa, the Baghdadi and Shinlung of India, and the Makuya and Beit Shalom of Japan. The title of the book comes from the old Jewish belief that people who ascend to heaven after they die but do not know to which of the twelve tribes they belong will enter through the thirteenth gate. It was the tale of how the Falashas were brought to Israel that led several of the Lemba tribesmen to contact Parfitt with their story. Parfitt was giving a talk about the Falashas at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa when he noticed several black men wearing skullcaps. Curious, he approached them, and they regaled him with a story of how their people were descended from a Jewish tribe that had originated in a city known as Sena and had made their way into southern Africa. At first, because of their obviously African appearance, Parfitt did not believe them, but he accepted an invitation to visit the Lemba homeland, a trip that would lead to a quest recorded in his book Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel.
The Lemba, Parfitt discovered, had a culture that was very un-African. It included Semitic customs, such as the sacrificial slaughter of animals, a disdain for gentiles, and a resistance to intermarriage, characteristics that had previously been identified by a Boer named Paul Kruger, which is why the Lemba had once been known in South Africa as "Kruger's Jews." Kruger's findings had not been definitive, however. But Parfitt's encounters bolstered his new suspicions that what the Lemba said might be true. Upon their request, he embarked on a journey to find where the city of Sena might be located. After much research, he believed he had located where the city might have been, in what is now southern Yemen.
But the most convincing evidence came when Parfitt combined anthropology with genetic science. He took DNA samples of from the Lemba and sent them to a lab. What the geneticists discovered was extraordinary. "There was the extraordinary finding of the Cohen modal haplotype," Parfitt told a Nova interviewer. "This is the element in the Y chromosome that appears to be a signature element . . . for the Cohanim or Jewish priesthood. The fact that we found this marker in such high concentrations in one of the Lemba subclans, the Buba—much higher, incidentally, than the general Jewish population—seemed finally to provide a real, useable link between the Lemba and Jews." Although their culture was definitely pre-Talmudic, and the Lemba's physical appearance was black because their members had married a number of native peoples, the Lemba could definitely claim Jewish ancestry.
This finding was quite stunning to many, and the BBC even filmed a documentary about Parfitt's discovery. But his Journey to the Vanished City is not just about resolving the mystery of the Lemba. As Jonathan Kirsch noted in his Los Angeles Times assessment, "Most of the time . . . Parfitt appears to be less interested in religious studies than in the human landscape of contemporary Africa. And his book is at its most engaging—and most illuminating—when Parfitt contemplates the sometimes breathtaking, sometimes comical manifestations of the clash between black and white." Nissim Rejwan, writing in the Jerusalem Post, similarly remarked that the book was part anthropology, part travelogue, part history. "In all three capacities," the critic asserted, "the book excels."
Parfitt readdresses the Lost Tribes concern in The Lost Tribes of Israel. Again discussing the various cultures claiming Jewish ancestry, this time the author is less interested in whether or not the connections are valid—and in some cases he is convinced they are not—than he is in answering the question why these people would want to be associated with one of the world's most oppressed minorities. Two conclusions, as David J. Wasserstein explained in his Times Literary Supplement article, are arrived at in the book: either the people wished "to differentiate themselves from other groups in the vicinity and to associate themselves more closely with alien rulers [the European colonists]," or the Europeans would arrive in a Third World land and identify the people they found with one of the Lost Tribes. Whether or not an association with a Lost Tribe was valid, however, Parfitt concludes in his book that the effects on those who believe they come from Jewish roots is profound, and many of them have ended up moving to Israel and/or converting to Judaism.
This has been true, too, with the Lemba tribe, and Parfitt has felt at least partially responsible for what has happened to them after he brought their story to the world's attention. Since the publication of Journey to the Vanished City, a number of Jews from North America have traveled to Africa to teach the Lemba the Talmud and other modern Jewish beliefs. "So as a result of my work," he told Nova, "though it was in no sense intended, they have become, if you like, properly Jewish and recognized as such by quite a number of people, particularly in America."
Parfitt has been continuing DNA studies in Africa and is finding more and more people there who believe they are descended from the Israelites. He has, for instance, traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Pathan tribe, an ethnic group of about twenty million, practice Islam but believe themselves to actually be Jewish and whose culture has many Jewish traits. Parfitt and collaborator Neil Bradman have also spent time in Asia conducting research on such Indian groups as the Bene Israel in Cochin, Kerala, and the Kukis of Manipur.
In addition to his extensive research on the spread of Jewish peoples through the Diaspora, Parfitt has written respected books about the Jews living in Palestine before the significant rise in Zionism, and on modern issues concerning such topics as current anti-Semitism and the relationship between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The Jews in Palestine, 1800-1882 has gained particular respect from critics, who generally acknowledge Parfitt as an authority on this period in Jewish history. Intended for scholars in the subject, the book includes valuable statistical data on demographics, insights into why populations fluctuated, and aspects of Jewish culture at the time. While English Historical Review critic Lionel Kochan noted that Parfitt limits his scope somewhat by admittedly bypassing such topics as economics, but he asserted that the book's value could be found in the scholar's analysis of immigration, the religious expectations of the Jews, and the "treatment of the Jews at the hands of Christians and Muslims." George Mandel, writing in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, similarly felt the book could have been more comprehensive but concluded that "this book is essential, and often entertaining, reading for anyone concerned with Palestine in the nineteenth century and, indeed, the twentieth."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Volume 52, number 1, 1989, George Mandel, review of The Jews in Palestine, 1800-1882, pp. 126-127.
English Historical Review, April, 1991, Lionel Kochan, review of The Jews in Palestine, 1800-1882, pp. 488-489.
Ethnic & Racial Studies, November, 2002, "Book Reviews," p. 1096.
Independent (London, England), May 16, 1998, Peter Popham, "British Experts Search India for Lost Jewish Tribe," p. 16.
Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland), January 3, 2004, Fergal Quinn, review of The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth, p. 62.
Jerusalem Post, April 27, 1990, Helen Davis, "Tracking the Ten Tribes," p. 10; February 5, 1993, Nissim Rejwan, review of "Lost Tribe of Lemba," p. 27.
Journal of Religion in Africa, Volume 30, issue 1, 2000, J. Abbink, review of The Beta Israel in Ethiopia and Israel, p. 137.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2004, review of The Lost Tribes of Israel.
Library Journal, October 15, 1985, David P. Snider and Janet Fletcher, review of Operation Moses: The Untold Story of the Secret Exodus of the Falasha Jews from Ethiopia, p. 91; December 1, 1987, Maurice S. Tuchman, review of The Thirteenth Gate: Travels among the Lost Tribes of Israel, p. 119; January 1, 1993, Ann E. Cohen, review of Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel, p. 142.
Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1987, Jonathan Kirsch, "Strange Encounters in the Search for the Lost Tribes," p. 38; March 10, 1993, Jonathan Kirsch, "Journey of Discovery Yields Magical Verse," p. E2.
New York Times, May 9, 1999, Nicholas Wade, "DNA Backs a Tribe's Tradition of Early Descent from Jews," section 1, p. 1; February 21, 2000, Walter Goodman, "DNA as Detective Again, but on a Biblical Case."
Observer (London, England), January 25, 1998, Melanie Phillips, "Solved: The Riddle of the African Jews," p. 17.
Times Literary Supplement, December 13, 1985, Bernard Wasserstein, review of Operation Moses; January 31, 2003, David J. Wasserstein, review of The Lost Tribes of Israel.
Transition, Volume 10, number 1, 2000, Seth Sanders, "Invisible Races," pp. 76-97.
Nova, http://www.pbs.org/wkbh/nova/ (May 11, 2004), "Tudor Parfitt's Remarkable Journey."*