After Islamist Threat Repelled, Spotlight Hits ‘Jews’ of Fabled Timbuktu

Ancient Saharan City Is Home to 1,000 Jewish Desendants

Rescue: Men recover ancient manuscripts in January after the French seized Timbuktu from Islamic rebels.
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Rescue: Men recover ancient manuscripts in January after the French seized Timbuktu from Islamic rebels.

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 22, 2013, issue of March 01, 2013.
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Irwin Berg, a retired lawyer active with the organization Kulanu, which is based in New York and according to its website is aimed at supporting “isolated and emerging Jewish communities who wish to learn more about Judaism,” made the trip to Timbuktu in 2001. He was shown a dusty roadway still known as the “Jewish street,” and visited two villages in which Jewish descendants live. In one, they resided in a separate quarter and married only among themselves, but none, he noted, kept any Jewish traditions or rituals.

Another visitor was Rick Gold, who worked for the United States Agency for International Development in Mali during the 1990s. Following Haidara’s work, he visited the region and later began conveying the inhabitants’ story to American Jewish audiences. “They feel that because others see them as descendants of Jews and call them Jews, it is important for them to learn more about their Jewish ancestry,” Gold said.

Both travelers noted they did not encounter any discrimination against the Jewish descendants, and according to Berg, in one of the villages a man with Jewish ancestry served as mayor.

Upon discovering their Jewish background, Zakhor and the local Jewish descendants stated their goal as “re-establishment of a Jewish community and identity.” In practice, however, little happened. Haidara, who was the driving force behind the program, moved on to other projects in order to document the diversity of Timbuktu. Jewish activists, including Gold and Berg, brought word of the new community to America and had raised some funds for the cause.

“My impression was that they were looking for Jewish money,” Berg said. The funds sent to Haidara led to a dispute between him and the descendants, who wanted to see American money used for development projects in their villages rather than for funding research programs. “It was a bit sensitive,” Gold said, “because the people in the villages were asking for the money.”

Haidara, in an email to the Forward, declined a request to be interviewed for this article, saying it would not be the right time to draw attention to Jewish descendants in Timbuktu.

Zakhor is now all but defunct, and Jewish American groups, which had little interest in Timbuktu to start with, are no longer actively pursuing the issue.

The documents establishing the Jewish connection to Timbuktu are believed to be safe. The fire set to the library by rebels destroyed many Muslim manuscripts, but most were spirited to safety beforehand and hidden by local families devoted to their preservation over many generations. The documents relating to Jewish activity in the region are believed to be safe in the hands of Haidara or in possession of these villagers.

Jewish groups state that they are still open to helping Timbuktu’s Jewish descendants, if such interest exists. “Our goal is not to put a yarmulke on every head,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization reaching out to disconnected Jewish communities. “If the descendants there want more information on Judaism or Israel, we will try to help.”

Austen added a cautionary note. Raising too much attention to the issue could “do everybody a disservice,” he said, because “then their Jewish identity becomes a problem.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman


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