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Washington — “There is no reason for them to be discriminated [against],” said Ralph Austen, professor emeritus of African history at the University of Chicago. Austen noted that descendants are no different from other Muslims in the region. If anything, he said, “Middle Eastern roots,” as opposed to African ancestry, “would be considered as a yikhes” using the Yiddish word for “pedigree.”
Timbuktu’s short-lived revival as a remote center of Jewish interest can be attributed almost completely to the work of one historian, Ismael Diadié Haidara. In the early 1990s, Haidara began researching the story of Jews in the region. He had little to work with: a few old commerce documents with notes in Hebrew written in their margins; several family names that lived on in local versions; remains of Timbuktu synagogues and of Jewish graves, and the fact that in three villages along the Niger River, locals still identified some of the residents as “the Jews.”
In the process, Haidara learned that his own ancestors were Jewish from the Abana family which came to Timbuktu in the 19th century.
From medieval times up until the 20th century, Timbuktu served as a major trade and cultural hub for travelers and merchants crossing the Sahara. And Jewish travelers and traders were among those it attracted. Jews moved to Timbuktu in small waves from the 14th century. Some fled to North Africa following the Spanish inquisition. And as late as 1859, Rabbi Mordechai Abi Serour, an immigrant from Morocco, became one of the city’s most successful merchants. Serour brought with him another 10 men, in order to set up a minyan required for Jewish prayer.
The city never became a significant Jewish outpost, but it was home to Jews who sought a temporary base for their trade business. And over time, the Jews who settled in Timbuktu converted to Islam, some coerced by rulers’ decrees and others voluntarily.
Haidara’s work and a book he wrote, “The Jews of Timbuktu,” sparked interest among those Jews’ descendants. None of them considers themselves to be Jewish. But some of them created Zakhor (also known as the Timbuktu Association for Friendship with the Jewish World), a local organization aimed at strengthening the Jewish identity of the descendants. The group’s main achievement was a manifesto, issued in May 29, 1996, calling on the international Jewish community and on the respective presidents of Mali and Israel to recognize that “we are Jews because our ancestors were Jews, whose genes are found in all our families.”
The statement, published in a local newspaper, also makes clear that the descendants are not seeking new religious or national allegiances: “It is God who made Timbuktu our land of refuge, and we are Muslims.”