Tudor Parfitt

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Tudor Parfitt
Born United Kingdom

Tudor Vernon Parfitt is a British historian, writer, broadcaster, traveller and adventurer.[1][2] He has specialized in the study of ancient Jewish communities around the world, including some recognized since the late 20th century as having ancient Jewish origins. He is Emeritus Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he was the founding director of the Centre for Jewish Studies. He is an Alumni Fellow at the Hutchins Centre, Harvard College,[3] Distinguished Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Senior Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Oxford University, President Navon Professor of Sephardi and Mizrahi Studies at the Florida International University (FIU) and Director of its Center of Global Jewish Communities.[4]

He has published some 70 articles and written, edited or translated twenty-four books. His work has been translated into many languages, including Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Dutch, German, Spanish, Greek, Portuguese, Hungarian, Polish and Finnish.

Early life and education[edit]

Parfitt was born in Wales. He has a younger brother Robin Parfitt.

In 1964 Parfitt spent a year with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in Jerusalem, where he worked with handicapped people, some of whom were Holocaust survivors.[5] Upon his return to Britain, he studied Hebrew and Arabic at the University of Oxford. In 1968 he was awarded the Goodenday Fellowship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He completed a D.Phil at Oxford with David Patterson and Albert Hourani, on the history of the Jews in Palestine and their relations with their Muslim neighbours. He expanded it for publication by the Royal Historical Society.

Academic career[edit]

In 1972 Parfitt was appointed lecturer in Hebrew language, literature and history at the University of Toronto. In 1974 he was appointed Parkes Fellow at the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton.

Shortly afterward, he took up a lectureship in Modern Hebrew at the School of Oriental and African Studies(SOAS). His first body of work interrogated received wisdom about the nature of the revival of the Hebrew language.[6]

His main academic interests have been: the Sephardi/Mizrahi communities of the Muslim world, Jewish-Muslim relations, Hebrew and Hebrew Literature, Judaising movements, Jewish genetic identity and the discourses surrounding it, attitudes towards Jews and Zionism in South Asia, and Jews in Asia and Africa. He pioneered the now burgeoning study of black and other marginal Jewish groups throughout the world, as well as the study of Jews and genetic discourses.[7]

In 1984, at the time of the great Ethiopian famine amidst warfare and social disruption, Parfitt traveled to the Sudan, sponsored by Minority Rights Group, to write a report on the Ethiopian Jews. There were allegations that they were being poisoned in the refugee camps. His visit coincided with the Israeli operation to rescue the Falasha, the Ethiopian Jewish community. He wrote Operation Moses, a book describing the war experiences of the group and the emergency mission by Israel.

He was subsequently a founding member of SOSTEJE (Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry) and served as its vice-president for many years. Throughout the 1980s, he undertook covert lecture tours to Jewish Refusenik groups in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. In 1985 he spent several months visiting the various Jewish communities of Asia, including Thailand, Singapore and Japan. He interested the Emperor's brother, Prince Mikasa, in the Jewish communities of the East.[8]

He has written on the Bene Israel community of India and initiated genetic research into their origins.[9] This provided some affirmation that some of the Bene Israel were of ancient Jewish ancestry.[10]

He has collaborated on a number of papers related to the genetic history of Jewish and other communities throughout the world; based on these genetic studies, some histories have been revised.[11][12] In 1987 he was asked by the Jewish community of Singapore to write an official history of the island's Jews. The same year he visited Syria to write about the situation of its Jewish community for the Minority Rights Group. He was arrested by the Syrian secret police, the Mukhabarat, during his trip. He describes these events in his first travel book: The Thirteenth Gate. [8][13]

In the early 1990s, Parfitt conducted fieldwork in Yemen, researching its ancient Jewish community, and wrote a book on the subject. In The Road to Redemption, he said that the Yemenite Jews had emigrated because of the rapidly changing economy of the Indian Ocean region. He also researched and presented a BBC documentary called The Last Exile on this subject.

He has been a frequent contributor to television and radio programmes on Jewish, Israeli and Middle Eastern topics. In 1999 a section of CBS Sixty Minutes was devoted to his research. A number of international documentaries have been devoted to his work.[14]

He wrote about the historic Jews of Morocco. Parfitt has organised a number of international conferences on Muslim-Jewish relations, bringing together Jewish, Israeli and Muslim scholars, which were held in London, Morocco and Egypt.[15]

In 2002 he published Lost Tribes of Israel: the History of a Myth. His theme is that the creation of Israelite and Jewish identities throughout the world, from the Americas to Papua New Guinea, was an innate feature of colonial discourse. At a public lecture at Harvard in 2011, he modified this perspective, suggesting that the creation of such identities was also the result of what he called racialised religious manifestations. These were based on nineteenth-century racial theory.

In 2010 Parfitt was appointed honorary president of the International Society for the Study of African Jewry.[16] In 2011 he gave the Huggins Lectures at the Du Bois Institute at Harvard University on the evolution of Black Jewish groups in Africa and the Americas.[17] In 2012 he joined the Advisory Board of the International Museum for Family History. He has worked with the Gogodala Judaising tribe in the Fly River estuary in western Papua New Guinea, doing field work there in 2003 and 2004. He returned to the area leading an expedition in March 2013.[18] I

Origins of the Lemba[edit]

His interest in marginal Jewish groups led him in the 1990s to study the Lemba tribe of southern Africa, who claimed partial male descent from ancient Jewish ancestors in present-day Yemen. He published Journey to the Vanished City (1992) about his six-month journey throughout Africa, in which he traced the origins of the tribe to the ancient city of Senna in present-day Yemen. This, together with TV programs about the discoveries, and major newspaper coverage, brought him international attention (and earned him the sobriquet the British 'Indiana Jones').[19] Seeking more data, he helped organise Y-DNA studies of Lemba males in 1996 and later. These found a high proportion of Semitic ancestry, DNA that is common to both Arabs and Jews from the Middle East.[20] The work confirmed that the male line had descended from ancestors in southern Arabia. In recognition of this work, he was made corresponding fellow of the Académie Royale des Sciences d’Outre-Mer.

The Lemba have a tradition of having brought a drum, or ngoma, from the Middle East centuries ago. Parfitt noted that their description of the ngoma was similar to that of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant. Parfitt has observed that rabbinic sources maintain that there were two Arks of the Covenant: one the ceremonial Ark, covered with gold, which was eventually placed in the Holy of Holies in the Temple; the other the Ark of War, which had been carved from wood by Moses and was a relatively simple affair. Parfitt proposed that the Ark of War may have been taken by Jews across the Jordan River and, citing Islamic sources, suggests that they carried it as they migrated south, under rule by Arab tribes.[21] The Lemba claim to have brought their ark/ngoma from Arabia at some point in the past; it was rediscovered in storage in the 21st century.

Parfitt wrote The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500 Year Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark (2008), documenting his findings. Associated documentaries were aired on Channel Four and the History Channel. The BBC reported that the discovery of the ngoma "instilled pride among many of the Lemba".[22] In 2010 Parfitt was invited to address a symposium in Harare on the subject; attendees included the cabinet and vice-president John Nkomo. The ngoma has been exhibited at the Harare Museum of Human Science in Zimbabwe.[23] The authentic ngoma was briefly on display but was soon replaced by a replica.[24] The Lemba Ark is now recognised as a major religious artefact in Africa and elsewhere.[25]



  • Parfitt, T (2013) Miccolli D. and Trevisan-Semi, E., eds. Memory and Ethnicity: Ethnic Museums in Israel and the Diaspora, Cambridge Scholars’ Press
  • Parfitt, T.(2013) Black Jews in Africa and the Americas, New York: Harvard University Press
  • Parfitt, T. and E. Bruder. (2012) African Zion: Studies in Black Judaism, Cambridge Scholars' Press.
  • Parfitt, T. (2008) The Lost Ark of the Covenant, London/New York: Harper Collins.
  • Parfitt, T. and Egorova, Y. (2005) Genetics, Mass Media, and Identity: A Case Study of the Genetic Research on the Lemba and Bene Israel, London: Routledge.
  • Parfitt, T and Trevisan-Semi, E., (2005) The Jews of Ethiopia: the birth of an élite. London: Routledge.
  • Parfitt T. (2004) The Lost Tribes of Israel: the History of a Myth, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
  • Parfitt, T. and Egorova, Y., (2003) Jews, Muslims and Mass Media : Mediating the Other, London: Routledge Curzon.
  • Parfitt, T. and Trevisan Semi, E. (2002) Judaising Movements: Studies in the Margins of Judaism, London: Routledge Curzon.
  • Parfitt, T. (2000) Israel and Ishmael: Studies in Muslim-Jewish Relations, London: Curzon.
  • Parfitt, T. and Trevisan-Semi, E., (1999) The Beta Israel in Ethiopia and Israel: Studies on the Ethiopian Jews, London: Curzon.
  • Parfitt, T. (1996) The Road to Redemption: The Jews of the Yemen 1900–1950. Brill's Series in Jewish Studies vol. XVII. Leiden: Brill.
  • Parfitt, T. and Abramson G., (1995) Jewish education and learning: published in honour of Dr. David Patterson on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers.
  • Parfitt, T.,Kaplan, S. and Trevisan-Semi, E., (1995) Between Africa and Zion : proceedings of the First International Congress of the Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute.
  • Parfitt, T. and Trevisan-Semi, E., eds. (1993) L'altro Visto Dall'altro. Letteratura Araba ed Ebraica a Confronto, Milan: Cortina Libreria.
  • Parfitt, T. (1992) Journey to the Vanished City: the Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel, New York: Random House.
  • Parfitt, T. (1988) The Jews of Arab Countries and Iran, Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.
  • Parfitt, T. (1987) The Jews of Africa and Asia, London: Minority Rights Group
  • Parfitt, T. (1987) The Thirteenth Gate : Travels among the Lost Tribes of Israel, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Parfitt, T. (1987) The Jews in Palestine, 1800–1882, Royal Historical Society Studies in History (52). Woodbridge: Published for the Royal Historical Society by Boydell.
  • Parfitt, T. (1985) Operation Moses: The Untold Story of the Secret Exodus of the Falasha Jews from Ethiopia, London : Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
  • Parfitt, T. and Abramson, G., (1985) The Great transition : the recovery of the lost centres of modern Hebrew literature, Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld.
  • Parfitt, T. and Kessler D. (1985) The Falashas: the Jews of Ethiopia, London: Minority Rights Group.
  • Parfitt, T. and Abramson G. (1983) Great tranquillity: questions and answers [Translation from the Hebrew of Yehuda Amichai's Shalvah gedolah]. New York: Harper & Row.


  • Parfitt, T. (2015) Tudor Parfitt and the Lost Tribes of Israel: (Secrets of the Bible: Season 1, Episode 5) Director Tim Gaunt
  • Parfitt, (2013) T. TED-X talk exploring Religion, Genetics and Identity (2013 (https://twitter.com/FIU/status/476342646546644992)
  • Parfitt. T. (2013) The Lost Tribe PBS, WLRN channel 17 (on Tudor Parfitt’s FIU Expedition to the Gogodala Tribe of Papua New Guinea): Director Tim Long
  • Parfitt, T. (2012) "The Black Jews of South Africa and the Lost Ark of the Covenant". (Issues of Faith) Director Eugene Botha. SABC.
  • Parfitt, T. (2008) Quest for the Lost Ark. Director Martin Kemp. Channel Four/ History Channel
  • Parfitt, T. (1999) To the Ends of the Earth: Search for the Sons of Abraham. Director Chris Hale. Channel Four / NOVA
  • Parfitt, T. (1993) The Longest Exile, BBC Producer Julian Hale
  • Parfitt, T. (1992) King Solomon’s Tribe, BBC Producer Julian Hale
  • Parfitt, T. (1988) The Twice Promised Land, Three-part documentary to mark the 40th anniversary of the State of Israel, BBC Producer Steve Sackur


  1. ^ Top 10 Entertainment – AskMen
  2. ^ [1], El Pais, 11 June 2014
  3. ^ "Tudor Parfitt", Hutchins Center
  4. ^ [2], Miami Herald, 10 May 2013; see Parfitt, T. and E. Bruder (2012) African Zion: Studies in Black Judaism, Cambridge: Scholars Publishing
  5. ^ Mora Dickson, Israeli Interlude, Dennis Dobson Ltd.; Illustrated edition (1966)
  6. ^ Parfitt , T. (1972) "The Use of Hebrew in Palestine 1800–1822", Journal of Semitic Studies, 17 (2). pp. 237–252.
  7. ^ History; William F.S.Miles, Afro-Jewish Encounters: From Timbuktu to the Indian Ocean and Beyond, Princeton, 2014, xviii, xxvii, pp. 202–206
  8. ^ a b Parfitt, T. (1987) The Thirteenth Gate: Travels among the Lost Tribes of Israel. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
  9. ^ "Geneticist helps Mumbai Jews reinforce sense of identity". The Times of India. 26 November 2002. 
  10. ^ Parfitt, Tudor (2003) "Place, Priestly Status and Purity: The Impact of Genetic Research on an Indian Jewish Community", Developing World Bioethics, 3 (2). pp. 178–185.
  11. ^ e.g. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v466/n7303/abs/nature09103.html
  12. ^ Video on YouTube
  13. ^ Parfitt, Tudor (1987) The Jews of Africa and Asia, Minority Rights Group, London.
  14. ^ gesradio.se/diverse/appdata/isidor/files/3052/7926.mp3
  15. ^ Parfitt, Tudor, ed. (2000) Israel and Ishmael: Studies in Muslim-Jewish Relations. London: Curzon.
  16. ^ http://www.issaj.com/
  17. ^ Nathan I. Huggins Lecture Series – Tudor Parfitt | W. E. B. Du Bois Institute
  18. ^ [3]
  19. ^ Tudor Parfitt's Remarkable Quest, NOVA
  20. ^ Parfitt, Tudor and Egorova, Y. (2005) Genetics, Mass Media, and Identity: A Case Study of the Genetic Research on the Lemba and Bene Israel, London: Routledge.
  21. ^ Van Biema, David (21 February 2008). "A Lead on the Ark of the Covenant". Time. 
  22. ^ "Lost Jewish tribe 'found in Zimbabwe'". BBC News. 8 March 2010. 
  23. ^ "Zimbabwe displays 'Biblical Ark'". BBC News. 18 February 2010. 
  24. ^ http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/93567/Has-Mugabe-stolen-the-Lost-Ark- Has Mugabe stolen the Lost Ark?
  25. ^ [4], Newsday, 11 July 2014

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