Until joining the Peace Corps after college and being sent to rural Niger in West Africa, Bill Miles had no idea that his Jewish education would facilitate his entrée into a traditional Islamic society. But from the outset, his religious studies – including having won the National Bible Contest and representing North America in the International Bible Contest in Israel – proved to be a great asset.
“Even before we had finished our Peace Corps training in Niamey, Niger’s capital,” says Professor Miles of the Political Science Department, “one of my Nigérien language instructors informed me that we were ‘cousins.’” Why? “Because as a Fulani, one of Africa’s great nomadic peoples, he had grown up with the teaching that his was a tribe that, unlike the other Israelite ones, had travelled west during the Exodus rather than east, towards the Land of Israel.” That the Fulani had long since become Muslim was beside the point; what mattered was the belief in a common ancestral heritage. Even today, Miles also observed, rural Fulani live more Biblically than do modern-day Jews: “Look at their homes – they live in a Sukkah all-year round, not just the eight days that the holiday of Sukkot calls for.”
“Knowing Hebrew greatly aided my learning of Hausa,” the lingua franca of Niger, Miles goes on. A Hamitic language, Hausa shares several distinctive grammatical similarities with Hebrew, such as second person feminine pronouns and verbal suffixes. The vocabularies, too, have much overlap, on account of Arabic influence and shared religious terminology. “The first time I heard a beggar,” Miles recalls, “I did a double take.” The chant of this blind African Muslim began “Sadaka!” for “charity” or “alms,” a word that one learns early in Hebrew School as tzedakah. The chant ended with invocation of the nabi, or prophet — the same root as the Hebraic navi, used in Eliyahu ha-Navi (“the Prophet Elijah,” particularly known from a Passover Haggadah and end-of-Sabbath Havdalah song).
One of Professor Miles’ first publications as an assistant professor at Northeastern 25 years ago related these and his other Afro-Judaic observations in an article, “Jewish in Muslim Black Africa,” for the African Studies Association. Since then, Miles has expanded his research and writing to encompass Jewish themes not only elsewhere in Africa but throughout the Jewish and African diasporas more widely. His most recent book, his tenth, has just been released by Markus Wiener Publishers, under the title Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey. Jews of Nigeria presents life stories of the burgeoning community of Africa’s first “Internet Jews,” Igbos who over the last two decades have embraced rabbinic Judaism. Miles immersed himself in the community, participating in their services, spending an entire Hanukkah season, and returning two years later to attend a bar mitzvah.
Prof. Miles’s articles have appeared in scholarly journals in the fields of Africanist, Judaic, and genocide studies. The latter interest intensified during his tenure as the Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies, when he convened the first-ever international symposium on “Third World Views of the Holocaust.” Given the ambivalent relationship between the State of Israel (the natural haven for survivors of the Shoah) and the Third World (which has tended to identify with the Palestinian cause), even the scholarly world had tended to shy away from examining the relevance of the Shoah from a Third World perspective. But in 2001 eleven invited scholars, writers and activists, from Africa, Asia, Latin American and the Caribbean, travelled to Northeastern to share the impact of the Shoah on their own thinking, writing, and worldviews. Professor Miles’s related publications deal with Holocaust commemoration in post-communist Poland and Germany, the treatment of Jews under Vichy in the French Caribbean, “judaizing” of the Rwandan genocide, and Holocaust denial in Iran. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. selected him to spend a summer seminar for faculty at its Center for Advanced Study.
While he held the Stotsky Professorship, Professor Miles also carried out research in the only two kibbutzim of the Reform Movement. The book that resulted, Zion in the Desert, was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award. His other published research on Israel deals with the teaching of borders in Israeli secondary schools, the role of religious parties in Israeli elections, touristic treatments of the West Bank separation barrier, Jewish immigration from French-speaking countries, the Muslim Black African neighborhood in Old Jerusalem, the relationship between Zionism and Francophonie, and the Arab-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of the Jewish diaspora. His account of coming under rocket fire from Gaza while spending a sabbatical at Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In his articles in popular fora (including Hadassah, The Forward, Transition, Midstream and Moment Magazine) Professor Miles has also written about his Jewish encounters in India, Mauritius, and China (“Happy Jew Fish”). His most recent research grant, from the Government of Québec, resulted this year in an article in the scholarly journal Diaspora about the French-speaking Sephardim of Montréal.
For all his travels in Israel and in the Diaspora, Professor Miles always seems to circle back to Muslim Black Africa. “One of the highlights from this past summer,” he recounts “was spending one Ramadan morning in Senegal with an imam immigrant from Niger. He was thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss theology, in his native language, with a ‘son of Israel.’ He even asked me to write out the Hebrew alphabet for him on a piece of paper. After transcribing it phonetically, he told me he would always treasure both the encounter and the paper.”
“To thank me, the imam gave me two gifts,” Miles recalls. “One was a beautiful edition of the Quran, in Arabic print but also translated into French. Then, after asking my favorite color, he asked me to stand up and measured me. His day job is tailoring, and one week later the imam presented me with an exquisitely embroidered West African costume, with blessings for a safe return home. It’s not how most Jews expect to be treated by Muslim clerics, but the hospitality of our ‘cousins’ in Africa never ceases to amaze me.”