A Togolese man, calling himself a king and descendant of an ancient Lost Tribe, has gained prominent Orthodox allies in Israel and even held a meeting with the Minister of Religious Affairs to request his people be recognized as a Lost Tribe of Israel.
Francois A. Ayi, who describes himself as belonging to “one of the ancient royal families of West Africa” has seemingly received the backing of prominent Israeli Orthodox figures Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Daniel Asor.
“I didn’t just discover that I was a Jew,” Ayi said in an interview with the Israeli outlet Kikar Shabbat. “I have always been a Jew.”
Ayi has said in several interviews that he is interested in bringing Lost Tribe descendants in Africa to Israel and that as a king he’s uniquely position to facilitate this. Ayi did not respond to an interview request for this article.
Ayi’s May 15 meeting with the ministry in Israel comes at a time when what are often called Judaizing movements — in Africa, India and the Americas — are growing across the globe. A recent Ministry of Diaspora Affairs committee has even been formed to look into these myriad groups.
“I just want to let you know you are not alone — there are millions of millions of your brothers and sisters on the other side,” Ayi said in a public speech given alongside Asor, referring to various African groups he said he was in touch with. “They will return home to rebuild the house of Israel.”
Ayi also appeared on the cover of an Orthodox weekly, smiling in a yarmulke and tallit. A pastoral scene, appearing to be in the Judean hillside, stretched behind him. A prominent pull quote read: “I’m a descendent from the Ten Tribes.”
And this month, Ayi participated in a Passover ceremony held by the Temple Institute, a controversial organization which seeks to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem to hasten the coming of the biblical Messiah. Rabbi Richman, reached by telephone in Israel, declined to comment on Ayi’s participation.
Kanievksy, a leading Haredi authority (well known, recently, for blessing a cannabis plant as kosher for Passover), apparently met Ayi months earlier, greeting him with a kingly blessing, a point noted by Asor.
“He prayed for me and blessed me with the most amazing blessing of my life and it stuck in my heart,” Ayi said to Kikar Shabbat.
But is he really a king? Who does he represent?
Controversy has swirled around Ayi for years. In 2000, the Florida newspaper the Sun Sentinel called him “either a benevolent monarch or a con artist perpetrating an elaborate ruse, depending on whether his defenders or detractors are speaking.”
The U.S. State Department does not recognize Ayi as an official representative of Togo, according to that Sun Sentinel report, and the attorney general of Texas had investigated a charity run by Ayi. Ayi previously refuted claims that he was perpetuating any type of fraud or misrepresenting himself, saying that he was the victim of cultural misunderstandings about African lineage and history.
According to Ayi’s website, he was born in Togo, educated at Christian schools in the United States and has long been involved in charity work in Africa. Ayi has also described meeting with President Barack Obama and being personally asked by former president Gerald Ford, former vice president Al Gore and “the people of Togo and Togo media” to run a presidential campaign in the Republic of Togo.
In Israel, Ayi seems to be finding a welcome audience.
A recent Ministry of Diaspora Affairs committee is investigating various self-professed Israelite and Jewish groups, including movements in West Africa. These groups number in the millions, and many have oral traditions of Israelite heritage, but few have gone through halachic conversions.
‘Lost Tribe King’ from Togo Embraced by Orthodox Rabbis in Israel
What’s more, groups like the Temple Institute, which was founded in 1987 and has been considered fringe for years, has been making inroads into the Israeli mainstream. In cases such as Ayi’s, the interests of so-called Lost Tribe groups and fundamentalist Jewish groups converge.
“The emergence of ‘Lost Tribes’ sit very well into the theology of fundamentalist movements,” said Motti Inbari a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and author of “Messianic Religious Zionism Confronts Israeli Territorial Compromises.”
“According to their beliefs, the End of Days should be accompanied by specific things,” said Inbari. “And bringing back ‘Lost Tribes’ into the fold of the Jewish nation fits very well into the signs of things they are expecting to see.”
On May 18, Ayi continued what has become something of a speaking tour, appearing before an audience outside Masada. Around 60 people were in attendance, one participant said.
“If a rabbi says that a Jew who is trying to come to Judaism is not a Jew — he should go and read the Torah again,” Ayi said earlier to Kikar Shabbat.
“In the End of Days, all the Jews in the world will be revealed, and people from far away will return. Judaism is not only in Europe. It is all over the world.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.