Lemba identity and the shifting categories of race and religion in Southern Africa

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Date
2021
Authors
Beattie, Benedict
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Abstract
The Lemba are a self-identified ethnic group in Southern Africa. Their claim to Jewish ancestry and identity has led to several genetic studies which have brought them international attention. Drawing on the concept of “inventive tradition,” this thesis explores how the Lemba’s connection to Judaism has been depicted by others and by Lemba themselves. Although it is widely contested, for many Lemba people, Jewishness is a significant motif in their origin stories. It also acts as a marker of ethnic identity, especially in the context of their struggle for ethnic recognition during and after apartheid. Moreover, their relationship to Judaism has led to diverse relationships between Lemba people and different Jewish communities throughout Africa and the Western world. It is also important to clarify the Lemba’s Jewish identity as an identity with a particular history, composed of vastly different perspectives about what it means to be recognized as a Lemba and as a Jew. Through a close reading of the scholarship on the Lemba, and of the Lemba themselves, I will trace how the Lemba have constructed a Jewish identity that challenges monolithic and essentialized notions of religion, race, and ethnicity.
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Keywords
Humanities, Religion, Race, Africa
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