The Rise and Fall of Jewish Sudan

June 20, 2016 | Elli Fischer
About the author: Elli Fischer, a rabbi, writer, and translator, is pursuing graduate studies in Jewish history at Tel Aviv University.

In the 100 years following 1885, the Jewish population of Sudan went from six families, to some 1,000 members, to complete disappearance. In an essay describing efforts to preserve Khartoum’s Jewish cemetery, Elli Fischer tells the community’s story:

When the Sudanese rebel leader Muhammad Ahmad bin ‘Abd Allah (known as the mahdi) took Khartoum and Omdurman [a large city located directly across the Nile from Khartoum] in 1885, he forcibly converted the eight Jewish families he found there to Islam.

The fall of the mahdi in 1899 to a joint Egyptian-British force, led by General Kitchener, inaugurated the period of Anglo-Egyptian rule over Sudan—a period that lasted until 1956. It was during this period that the Jewish community flourished. Six of the eight forcibly converted families returned to Judaism, forming the nucleus of the renewed community, and new economic opportunity attracted Jews from all over the Arabic-speaking world.

After World War I, the bulk of the community gravitated . . . from Omdurman to Khartoum. At its height in the 1930s and early 1940s, the Sudanese Jewish community numbered approximately a thousand souls. . . . [Its] members were primarily retailers, merchants, and senior officials in the British administration.

The community began to decline in earnest after Sudanese independence in 1956, and its dissolution was all but complete by the end of the 1960s. That said, relative to most communities in the Middle East, the Jews of the Sudan left slowly and freely, scattering mainly to Israel, the United States, England, and Switzerland.

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