MONTREAL — Was Haiti settled by descendants of the ancient Israelites and Judeans escaping the slave trade in Africa? Some members of Montreal’s black community believe so, and they continue to identify as part of the nation Israel.
In fact, they think the name “Haiti,” the world’s first independent black state, is derived from the Hebrew word “ot,” a word for miracle, just as many place names throughout Africa are today.
Black History Month was commemorated at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts with a presentation by members of this community who trace their ancestry to the 10 lost tribes that fled from the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah after being conquered by foreign invaders. They believe the exiles went south first to Egypt and, over the centuries, migrated around the circumference of the African continent to the west coast.
The highlight of the evening, which was held at the Segal’s CinemaSpace, was the screening of excerpts from the 1995 documentary Les noirs dans les camps Nazis by Serge Bilé, which brings to light the little-known fact that blacks, mostly living in France, were imprisoned during World War II and persecuted under the Nuremberg laws.
Guest speaker Thomas Vanda, a native of Congo who settled in Montreal in 1999, said he grew up with a strong sense of being Jewish, at least in the pre-rabbinical era sense. His family followed the traditions set out in the Bible: circumcision, not eating blood, not mixing meat and dairy, and observing Shabbat, for example.
They refer to themselves as the House of Joseph. Even before the exile of the tribes beginning in 721 BCE, Vanda underlined that there were strong ties between Africans and Israel.
He believes many millions of Africans and those of African origin today, particularly the Bantu people, are the descendants of the two Hebrew kingdoms. The very word Bantu is derived from Hebrew, they believe.
If they are Christian or Muslim now it is because of the history of colonialism and conquest, he said. His goal, as head of an organization called Réunification Juda-Israël, is to make Quebecers of African origin aware that they may be part of a great, but dispersed and dispossessed, nation.
Vanda is also reaching out to the mainstream Jewish community. The Segal is the first community organization to host a Réunification Juda-Israël event.
“I think this is definitely something more people should know about. It’s totally fascinating what they are exposing,” said CinemaSpace director Ezra Soiferman, who wished the attendance had been better.
There has been other contact. Then Quebec Jewish Congress president Victor Goldbloom attended the organization’s celebration of Israel’s 60th anniversary two years ago, and Rabbi David Sabbah, chief of the Rabbinat sépharade du Québec, has received its representatives. Two of its other leaders, Yochanan Ekwalla, a native of Cameroun, and Haitian-born Rosa Cange, recently returned from a six-week sojourn in Israel.
Vanda pointed out that if biblical and even talmudic accounts are not enough to convince people that the lost tribes went to Africa and flourished, there is scientific evidence today. He cited the genetic research of Karl Skorecki, director of nephrology and molecular medicine at the Technion faculty of medicine, who discovered that the Lemba tribe of southern Africa share a male chromosome with other kohanim, or the Jewish priestly caste.
Vanda said that, though separated, all Jews share a history of persecution and victimization.
He noted that during the Holocaust, Haiti was a haven for many Jewish refugees and the country’s diplomats in Europe provided papers for fleeing Jews. Haiti supported the creation of the State of Israel at the United Nations during the 1947 vote on the partition of Palestine, he added.
He also noted that the State of Israel has been a strong ally of African countries. Vanda, 55, remembers that when Congo fought for its independence from Belgium, that Israel helped defend the fledgling state.
Vanda affirmed, however, that his goal is not recognition by the State of Israel of his people’s Jewishness. “We already recognize ourselves, the Bible recognizes us. We know we belong to the Jewish people,” he said.