The Igbo Jews

August 13, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
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In 1960 Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom. As with many new African states, the borders of the country did not reflect earlier ethnic, cultural, religious, or political realities.

Jeremy Rosen

Their boundaries were lines drawn on maps by the colonial powers who arbitrarily carved up Africa with no regard for tribal cultural, religious differences, and rivalries that have persisted to this day. The northern region of Nigeria is Muslim and has more in common with the other Muslim states in  Sub-Saharan Africa. The southern population is predominantly Yoruba and Christian. In the Southeast, it is the Igbo who are in the majority.

Over fifty years ago in 1967, the Igbo, fed up with being bullied by the larger tribes declared their state of Biafra, to be independent. For three years the Nigerian army pursued a violent war of suppression and blockade that left, according to some reports as many as millions of the Biafrans dead by starvation and thousands more killed. I, as a young rabbi, was very much involved in supporting Biafra at that time.

After three years of bitter fighting, Biafra capitulated and subsequently the Nigerian government confiscated property, land, and assets and has continued to discriminate against the Igbos in funding, investment, and infrastructure, imprisoning many of its leaders who protested. The tensions have simmered. In 1999 a new movement emerged to try to revive Biafra. This too has been brutally suppressed, its leaders jailed and tortured. But it has been the excuse for the Nigerian authorities to clamp down on the Igbo Jews in ways redolent of antisemitism and they are really suffering.

You may wonder what this has to do with me and the reason, not surprisingly, has to do with Judaism. There are millions of Igbos in Nigeria. Amongst them, there are smaller groups of Igbos who identify as Jews and live Jewish lives. What is their origin?

A Christian-educated Igbo man, and freed slave, Olaudah Equiano wrote in 1789 that “the strong analogy which … appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen and those of the Jews before they reached the Land of Promise, and particularly the patriarchs while they were yet in that pastoral state which is described in Genesis induce me to think that the one people had sprung from the other.”

Many Igbos claim they are descended from the so-called Ten Lost Tribes. But others think they were influenced by the Jews expelled by Islamists from Timbuktoo in the fifteenth century. Some have argued that they are the African equivalent of the Khazars of the Caucasus who converted to Judaism in the ninth century to act as a buffer between Islam and Christianity.  Perhaps the fiercely independent Igbos wanted to avoid joining either the Christian or the Muslim tribes. Others attribute their Jewish identity to early Christian and Jewish missionaries more loyal to the Old Testament than the New.

Igbo Jews

The fact is that thousands of Igbos claiming Jewish identity are leading a very Jewish way of life. It is estimated that over 50,000 Igbos practice some form of Judaism and there are currently 70 synagogues, some accommodating thousands and others hundreds.

It was only after the Biafran war that individual Jews in the west became aware of the Jewish background of many Igbos and began to forge links with them despite, as with other so-called lost tribes, facing a lot of scepticism from the Jewish establishment. But individuals and communities both in America and Israel have persisted and have maintained contact, exchanged visits, and provided ritual and educational materials. During the Biafran genocide, Henry Kissinger wrote a memorandum for President Nixon in which he said that  “The Ibos are the wandering Jews of West Africa — gifted, aggressive, westernized; at best envied and resented, but mostly despised by the mass of their neighbours in the Nigerian Federation.”

The Igbo Jews do not see themselves as separatists in Nigeria, but they do really want to be seen as part of the wider Jewish world, according to the spokesman of Abuja’s Gihon Hebrews Synagogue, Prince Azuka Ogbukaa. Indeed, they are becoming more orthodox in order to feel part of the larger community. But they continue to suffer from Nigerian brutality. This past November over 50 Igbos were killed in clashes with security forces, six synagogues were destroyed and people were arrested for the crime of wearing Jewish attire and identifying as Jews. The Jewish communities are being accused of supporting the Biafran separatists, which they do not.  And a campaign has been launched against them by the Nigerian armed and secret services that smells very much like antisemitism, if not attempted genocide. For example, the attacks escalated after President Trump recognized Jerusalem.

This past month three Israeli filmmakers were arrested in Nigeria together with Ima Lizben Agha the charismatic leader of the Ogidi community. Actually, many remarkable Igbo women have been a feature of Jewish life and keeping the flame alive. The Israelis are involved in a project called “We Were Never Lost” to produce a  documentary project about communities in Africa who claim to be Jews. Thanks to the efforts of the Israeli, US, and French embassies, along with other diplomatic channels, the team has been released but they were forced by the Nigerian government to leave the country and Ima Lizben Agha has been released too.

I am certainly no expert on the origins of the Igbos and there is still controversy about the origins of the Ethiopian Jews and other communities long separated from mainstream Judaism. I feel that those who wish to identify with the Jewish people no matter how tenuously or controversially, and who do not practice another religion, should be welcomed and supported as Jews. Even those whose traditions do not completely coincide with the mainstream.  And I believe Judaism can only be stronger for it. As with Ethiopian and other Eastern Jews, those of them who want to should be accommodated and helped transition to Israel. But at the very least, the majority who wish to remain in Africa deserve our support.

PS. The announcement that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel will oppose any change whatsoever to its powers over conversion, marriage, and Kashrut comes as no surprise. They are deaf and blind to the issues. In a dream world, they would have said that they would be willing to look carefully at the issues and see if they could find a resolution or accommodation to some of them. But no. Israeli politics and the failure of the rabbinic leadership are, sadly on full display once again and illustrate the toxic atmosphere of religious life in Israel today.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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