Nigeria’s Jews and the dream of their own state

Some Igbo-convert to Judaism is often closely-linked to the demand for an independent-state Biafra.

 

 

Nigeria’s Jews and the dream of their own state

Synagogues have been growing in the south-east of the country for 30 years – but the Jews are not recognized by Israel

February 20, 2020 (Der Standard, Austria) – Nisach Bai Ephraim is shy. “I’m married here in the state of Imo and have a child. I’m in my early 30s and a housewife,” she says slowly. In the small room next to the Owerri synagogue, a large fan hums, the noise of which keeps swallowing her voice. At noon, the humid and sultry air in southeast Nigeria is almost unbearable. The young woman only thaws when she talks about her faith. Judaism is wonderful: “This religion is the truth. I am very proud of my faith.”

Nisach Bai Ephraim grew up in the neighboring state of Aba, where the vast majority are committed to Christianity. As a child, she therefore knew the feeling of being different, of not going to church on Sundays, of having no communion or confirmation celebrations. However, that was not a problem. “Everyone knew that I was Jewish. I grew up with it.”

This is an exception in Nigeria. Synagogues have only been in existence in the southeast of the 200 million-inhabitant country for around 30 years. The northernmost are in the capital Abuja, a few have also been built in the metropolis of Lagos. Religion plays a crucial role in the country, and discussions about whether there are more Christians or more Muslims are part of everyday life and are always used politically.

“Lost Tribe of Israel”

At some point in the early 1980s, Hagadol Ephraim Uba could not do anything with it. Until he converted to Judaism, he was a Christian preacher himself. Today he is the chairman of the Association of Jewish Faith in Owerri. However, the fact that more and more people are committed to Judaism is not a trend, but rather a return to thought. “We are the lost tribe of Israel. Moses should lead us to the promised land.”

How many Jews there are in Nigeria is not clear. Some speak of 30,000, in Jewish circles the number of three million sometimes drops. However, they are not recognized by the Israeli State. On the African continent, these have been the Beta Israel from Ethiopia since 1975. There are also Jewish communities in South Africa. In Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Rwanda, many people are waiting in vain for official recognition.

Whoever is not a child of a Jewish mother needs the Giur, the conversion. This requires several years of preparation with a subsequent examination before a rabbinical court. Praying in Hebrew and celebrating worship on Saturday the Sabbath is not enough. Recognition also includes the right to emigrate to Israel. This is made possible by the law on returnees passed in 1950.

Support comes instead from the United States. For example, the Kulanu organization based in New York motivates small Jewish communities around the world. It helps build networks and creates contacts worldwide.

For Hagadol Ephraim Uba, there are numerous parallels between Israel and the southeast of Nigeria. “Israel is hated by the world, just like we are.” In the Owerri synagogue, the parishioners have something else in common: they are all Igbo. With 30 to 40 million people, this is one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, which fought for its independence during the Biafra War from 1967 to 1970.

To this day, the dream of owning a state is big, because many feel disadvantaged by the Nigerian central government. This also applies to religion for the Jews of Owerri. “Unlike Christians and Muslims, we don’t get any support from the state. Also in Nigeria elections are held on the Sabbath, Saturday,” says Hagadol Ephraim Uba. Being Jewish is therefore also a political statement and above all a criticism of the government.

By Katrin Gänsler from Owerri

Description of source: Leading Austrian daily newspaper, with coverage of politics, the stock market, economics, fashion, arts and general news. Includes images. Country of origin: Austria
© 2020, The standard. http://www.derstandard.at/

 

The Jewish Igbo in Nigeria: where Judaism grows

Hagadol Ephraim Uba is the chairman of the Association of Jewish Beliefs in Owerri. The community of Owerri belongs to the growing Jewish minority in Nigeria (Deutschlandradio / Katrin Gänsler)

February 03, 2020 (deutschlandfunk.de) – A small Jewish minority lives in southeastern Nigeria, but it has grown steadily in recent years. There are also political reasons for this, because many Nigerian Jews are campaigning for the southeast of Nigeria to become independent.

“Now let’s go to the synagogue. At the door of the synagogue we have the mezuzah. You kiss them before you enter.”

Hagadol Ephraim Uba enters the small, simple synagogue. As an Orthodox Jew, he kisses the mezuzah, a capsule attached to the door jamb. It is supposed to put the inhabitants under divine protection. Then the man with the white beard leads through the synagogue.

Large pieces of fabric in different colors hang under the blanket. A good 50 visitors have space on white plastic chairs. The windows are wide open so that a little wind blows through the small room. Owerri, capital of the state of Imo in southeastern Nigeria, is extremely hot for most of the year. But it is precisely in this region that more and more synagogues and Jewish communities have emerged in recent decades. Hagadol Ephraim Uba also grew up here. He was once a preacher in a church. He converted to Judaism more than 30 years ago and is now Chairman of the Association of Jewish Beliefs.

“We belong to the lost tribe of Israel and are waiting for Moses’ promise. He should lead us to the promised land so that we are no longer persecuted. Israel is hated by the whole world. The same hate affects us too.”

“We Igbo are the Jews of Africa”

There are no numbers in Nigeria of how many people are committed to Judaism. The community in Owerri said it did not count more than 100 members, children and adolescents. However, Judaism is closely linked to one ethnic group here: the Igbo. Between 30 and 40 million people are Igbo. Around 200 million people live throughout Nigeria. Obiora Ike explains how the connection between Judaism and the Igbo came about. Ike is a prominent Catholic theologian and priest in Nigeria.

“It’s a fact that culture and way of life are connected by the Igbo and Jews. We therefore assume that Judaism came to Africa through one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the Gad tribe. We Igbo are the Jews of Africa.”

Proponents of this theory have numerous examples at hand, explains Obiora Ike – including many prejudices:

“Many people consider Jews clever, as do Igbo. Like the Igbo, Jews would have a great awareness of their culture. Both are good business people. Religion is important for both. Because of these apparent parallels, many Igbo consider themselves Jews. However, there is a lack of scientific work on this.”

Many Igbo still see themselves as a people without their own country. That should be fought over 50 years ago. But the war of independence over Biafra – as the southeast of Nigeria is also called – ended with up to two million deaths and the victory of the Nigerian army. To date, many people in the Southeast have complained of disadvantage and repression, and there are independence movements like the IPOB – Indigenous People for Biafra. The Igbo also draw parallels to Judaism to reinforce the image of oppression. Prince Emmanuel Kanu, who belongs to the now forbidden movement IPOB, does the same.

Demand for an independent state Biafra

“That’s where we come from and who we are: we are the Jews from Africa. You can see that in how we pray, honor God, how we dress. We are so concerned with Judaism. We believe in it. And we will continue to do this until God comes.”

That some Igbo convert to Judaism is often closely linked to the demand for an independent state Biafra. 34-year-old Avraham Ben Avraham, on the other hand, is less interested in such a state. The journalist lives in Lagos and works as a “Jewish blogger” as he describes himself. For this he visits synagogues across the country. Avraham Ben Avraham converted to Judaism three years ago.

“I was born into an Adventist community. My father wanted everyone in the family to belong to the same church. After his death, some became Catholics, others became members of Pentecostal churches. I tried that too. But later I returned to Judaism.”

Not yet recognized by Israel

Back – that’s how many people see it: The former Igbo Judaism was ousted during the colonial period by the Christian missionaries. Now it is reviving. The Israeli embassy in Nigeria is obviously skeptical. She did not respond to the request for comment. This may be because, from the perspective of the State of Israel, the Igbo in Nigeria are not Jews. Only the Beta Israel originating from Ethiopia are recognized as Jews by Israel and the international Jewish community. It is a delicate point. Because there are diverse African groups scattered across the continent that feel they belong to the Jewish people. And unlike the Igbo, many want to emigrate. In turn, the law of return applies in Israel. Since 1950, it has allowed people of Jewish origin or Jewish faith and their spouses to immigrate to Israel. And so skeptical Jews ask themselves: How and with whom did these African Jews become Jews?

There is also Jewish support for the Igbo in Nigeria – for example from Jewish US organizations such as Kulanu based in New York. It has been building an international network since 1994 to support small communities around the world. Avraham Ben Avraham also regularly exchanges ideas with the organization. Otherwise there is often a lack of support for Nigerian Jews, the latter criticizes:

“One thing we lack Igbo Jews: recognition by the Israeli government. We are always asked to show a certificate of our conversion. We are Jewish, we have Jewish names, we pray in Hebrew.”

“Igbo traditions are not a contradiction to Judaism”

In the Owerri synagogue, however, this sometimes sounds different. There are not only Jewish prayers there, but also ancient Igbo traditions. Like sharing a kola nut. The bitter tasting nut is flatter and smaller than a table tennis ball. Hagadol Ephraim Uba takes some from a basket.

“With this nut we welcome someone here in the Igbo country. It is a sign of unity. If you don’t offer Kola nuts to guests, you haven’t greeted them respectfully.”

For blogger Avraham Ben Avraham, who is eager to learn Hebrew and would like to travel to Israel soon, the Igbo traditions are not a contradiction to Judaism, even if it looks like it at first. Rather, it is a unity of religion and tradition.

“When we stand up for Judaism, we do it with the most important Igbo traditions. This includes the power of the kola nut. So if it becomes part of the service, it makes a lot of sense. We don’t forget our roots. We are Israel, we are the Igbo, we are Jews.”

By Katrin Gänsler

 

Messianic Jews to Nigerians: You’re not ‘real’ Jews

 

Religious group from Arizona claims DNA testing proves that Igbo tribe are not genetically Jewish, drawing ire.

August 11, 2017 (The Times of Israel) –  Who is a Jew? According to a Jewish messianic group from America, you can find out for only $300 with a private DNA test.

And according to this test, the Jewish genetic family does not include Igbo people of Nigeria, a tribe of 30 million who have claimed a connection to Judaism for hundreds of years.

In a move that has garnered condemnation and anger from Nigerian Jews and international scholars, Jewish Voice Ministries, a messianic group from Arizona, announced this week that the Igbo are not “genetically” Jewish based on their private DNA tests.

Jewish Voice Ministries said they traveled to Nigeria to investigate claims that the Igbo people are descendants of ancient Israelites. Some Igbo believe that the term “Igbo” is a bastardized version of the word “Hebrew” and point to many cultural similarities between Igbo traditions and Judaism.

The purpose of the tests was to provide them with testing and the pursuit of truth in terms of historical identity,” said a spokesman for Jewish Voice Ministries. The DNA did not support their claim to be an ancient people of Israel, but we still consider them our brothers through common faith in the Messiah Yeshua.”

Remy Ilona, a Nigerian lawyer and professor, strongly denounced the test. Ilona is Igbo and a member of the approximately 10,000 Igbos who follow what he calls “rabbinical Judaism.” Ilona, a Times of Israel blogger, recently graduated from Florida International University with a Master’s in Religious Studies and will be an adjunct professor there in the fall.

“There is no test that can prove Jewishness,” said Ilona. “The culture has to point in that direction, and maybe a test can confirm what the culture is already saying.”

“The Igbos that are connecting to Judaism have no connection to these DNA tests and we oppose this,” he added.

Ilona said he understands why some Igbos agreed to get tested. “Africa is an area of the world that everyone tends to look down on,” he said. “Even though my Israelite culture is strong, because we’re Africans we are viewed with skepticism. I wanted that [question] to be covered so if you talk about culture, we will provide proof that our culture is Jewish.”

But Ilona was furious about the way the test was conducted. “The Jewish Voice came in and gave people the impression it’s a Jewish organization,” he said.

Ilona added that he views the Jewish Voice Ministry’s attempt to connect with the Redeemed Israel Community of Nigeria as thinly veiled proselytizing. He also faulted the organization’s testing methodology for being faulty and incomplete. He said the sample test group was too small given the vast population of Igbo, and in parts of Nigeria that are not majority Igbo. The Jewish Voices Ministry spokesman refused to comment on the organization’s testing methodology or other issues.

“I’d like to do a DNA test myself of those people [from Jewish Voice Ministries] who are coming to Nigeria,” to determine if they’re really Jewish, said Ilona.

The organization offers a Jewish Family Finder DNA test on its website for $300 (23andme.com offers a DNA test, without the emphasis on Judaism, for $99 in the United States and $150 abroad).

The Jewish Voice Ministry also provides medical care and services to international communities as part of its social outreach. In March, the head of Jewish Voice, Jonathan Bernis, told the Forward that the organization will base their medical outreach to Nigeria on the results of the test.

“We go to areas with a Jewish population or people who are historically tied to the Jewish people to provide aid,” Bernis told The Forward. “The result of the DNA testing would determine what degree of service we provide going forward.”

Despite his dismissal of the Jewish Voice’s test, Ilona still believes that DNA tests can hold important information, but they should be done on a personal basis for people who are interested in learning more about their history, not by an outside group with a vested agenda. Ilona did a private DNA test himself a few months ago and found that he has Western Semitic roots which traced to the Red Sea region, which he believes proves his genetic ties to Judaism.

“I know my ancestors were at Mount Sinai, but maybe some of the Igbos don’t have that information,” he said.

Professor Tudor Parfitt, a world-renowned scholar who was one of the first people to utilize DNA testing to hypothesize about Jewish migration into Africa, called the Jewish Voice Ministry’s test “irresponsible”.

Parfitt, the head of Jewish Studies at Florida International University, where Ilona studies, gained recognition for his work in determining, via DNA, that the Lemba tribe in Zimbabwe and South Africa migrated from the Middle East. This was widely accepted as proof for the tribe’s oral tradition of being Jewish. He started his research into the subject on a trip to Israel in 1998 when he walked along the beach in Tel Aviv and asked Israelis who self-identified as kohanim, or part of the priestly class, to have their cheek swabbed so Parfitt could map their DNA. He identified “the Cohen modal haplotype,” a specific DNA marking unique to descendants of Aaron, was found in 52% of kohanim on the Tel Aviv promenade.

Afterwards, the Lemba tribe in Zimbabwe turned to Parfitt and asked to have their DNA tested in order to support their claims of Jewish identity. Parfitt agreed, and found that many members of the Lemba tribe, especially a sub-clan called Buba, shared the same genetic marker of the Cohen haplotype.

Parfitt is quick to point out that this DNA marker does not mean that the Lemba tribe is Jewish, but rather that the tribe likely migrated to Africa from the Middle East. Since this migration dovetails with the oral history of the tribe that they were descended from Israelites, it was widely interpreted that the Lemba are “genetically” Jewish.

“The DNA in that case seemed to justify the fact that there was a connection of some sort that solidified their faith and their Jewish or Semitic origin,” said Parfitt.

“Many people now believe their claim to be Jewish. The Igbo story now won’t have that same support,” he said.

Parfitt himself is Anglican Christian, though he jokes he’s “never had his own DNA tested for Judaism.”

Parfitt added that in the years since he publicized the Cohen haplotype, people have interpreted the information in many different and surprising ways. On a recent trip to Israel, Orthodox Jews who are trying to rebuild the Third Temple danced around him in ecstasy at the Western Wall, because the marking enables them to find genetically pure” priests to serve in the Temple.

In 2003 and 2004, Parfitt was in Papua New Guinea with the Gogodala tribe, which also claimed to be one of the Lost Tribes. They also asked him to do genetic testing on their community, which Parfitt did.

“I had to go back and share that [the connection] was very circumspect,” said Parfitt. “I didn’t stand up and say, ‘hey, you’re not Jewish.’ I said, on the basis of DNA that was collected, there was no direct link between them and other Jews in other parts of the world. But I was not saying, ‘oh, stop it, you’re not Jewish.’”

Parfitt hopes that DNA can be used as part of a toolbox for understanding ancient migrations, a topic that fascinates him. He also pointed out that the DNA testing can be much more accurate for determining if “Jewish” tribes in Africa are connected to Spanish or Portuguese Jews who were expelled in 1492. Many ended up on the West Coast of Africa and disappeared, making it entirely possible that they assimilated into local culture while still maintaining Jewish traditions, Parfitt pointed out.

The key to accurately using DNA research is finding places where two groups have genetic similarities. So it’s much easier to trace a genetic line from 1492 than a migration through some parts of Africa thousands of years ago. “It’s difficult to get some kind of comparison, we don’t have lost tribes of Israel floating around the world,” he said.

Parfitt estimates that there are 14 to 15 million “shadow Jews,” people around the world who identify as Jewish but might not be accepted by the Jewish community as “traditional Jews.” In some cases, like the Lemba, there is a historical connection; other times, as in the case of the Abayudaya in Uganda or the Kehilat Kasuku in Kenya, it is a community that feels it is Jewish. “You don’t need historical justification to be part of a religious group,” he said.

“Can [DNA] say something about ancient migrations? Of course,” said Parfitt. “It’s the only tool we have to talk about ancient migration. But is it possible to reduce Judaism to DNA? The answer is no. It shouldn’t be used by anyone to decide who is Jewish and who is not.”

“The truth of the matter is it’s a racist discourse that has been around for a long time,” said Parfitt. “There are countless tribes that claim they come from the north-east or they’re Syrian or Roman, which is another way of saying ‘we don’t feel comfortable with being black and African.’ This was imposed upon them over many years by colonialism.”

“On the other hand, the idea that the Igbos are Jews is not a recent idea, it goes way back to the 18th century,” Parfitt added. “This is the lived experience on the part of the Igbo and many other Africans. Whether technically they’re connected with the ancient people of Israel, to my mind, is utterly and completely irrelevant. There is no bearing on the story. The idea of testing that hypothesis with DNA is not a good idea. It’s like testing myth, and you can’t test myth. Identity politics is connected to faith. It’s what you do with this identity, and they’re doing a lot.”

By Melanie Lidman

Description of source: Jerusalem-based online newspaper covering news, analysis and editorials. Country of origin: Israel
© 2017, The Times of Israel, All rights Reserved.

 

Crypto-Jews Face Genocide in Nigeria, Separatist Leader Warns

February 06, 2019 (Israel Faxx) – A group claiming Jewish heritage in eastern Nigeria is facing systematic extermination at the hands of Islamic terrorists, a separatist leader warns, citing the recent discovery of mass-graves in the Abia region.

Nnamdi Kanu, a leader of the Biafra separatist movement, told Arutz Sheva Tuesday that Islamists have targeted members of a crypto-Jewish group within Nigeria’s Igbo minority in a recent string of mass-killings. The bodies, he said, were found four days ago, dumped in ditches around the city of Aba in southern Nigeria.

Kanu warned that the recent killings suggest Islamic terror groups active in Nigeria are singling out Igbo who identify as Jews or with the local Messianic community. “The discovery four days ago of fresh human corpses inside a ditch along Aba-Port Harcourt Road in Aba, Abia State in Eastern Nigeria has raised fresh concerns and fears over intensified plans or policies to wipe off or exterminate the Judeo-Christian People of Eastern Nigeria; otherwise called ‘Igbo/Biafra-Jews’,” Kanu told Arutz Sheva.

“The intelligence unit of the Indigenous People of Biafra had four days ago (2/1/2019) discovered that fresh corpses of innocent citizens of Judeo-Christian identity killed in custody are routinely dumped inside various ditches across Abia State and possibly other parts of the Eastern Region of Nigeria.”

The claims were not independently verified, but Kanu cited reports from human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Intersociety: The International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law regarding massacres of the Igbo minority in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Islamic terrorism has been on the rise in Nigeria in recent years, surging after the election of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. According to a report by the monitor Control Risks’, the number of terror attacks annually rose from 317 in 2013 to 1,549 by 2018. Much of this increase has been attributed to the expansion of Boko Haram, an ISIS-affiliated Sunni Muslim terror organization centered in eastern Nigeria.

With nearly 200 million people, Nigeria is the largest country in Africa and is home to a variety of ethnic groups. Among them is the Igbo, a group of some 35 million living in southeastern Nigeria. In 1967, the Igbo region split off from Nigeria, forming the short-lived Republic of Biafra. By 1970, Biafra was reincorporated into Nigeria.

Like some 40% of Nigerians, most Igbo identify as Christian. Tens of thousands of Igbo, however, identify as Jewish, with many claiming Jewish ancestry — either from one of the Ten Lost Tribes, from Jewish migrants to Africa following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE or the West African Jewish communities of Bilad el-Sudan.

Over the past 30 years, interest in Jewish tradition and legends of Jewish heritage among the Igbo have increased significantly, leading to the establishment of dozens of synagogues. While most of the Igbo who identify as Jewish retain elements of Christian belief and practice, some have renounced their former religion, with some even formally converting to Judaism. While a report by Howard Gorin, a Conservative rabbi from the United States, in 2006 suggested there were only a handful of verifiably halachic Jews among the Igbo, the community has continued to grow.

Kanu himself has stated that he identifies as Jewish. In October 2018, Kanu surfaced in Jerusalem, after having fled Nigeria. “I owe my survival to the State of Israel,” Kanu said, noting that he received help from Israel’s Mossad, though he did not indicate what kind of assistance he may have received from Israeli authorities.

Description of source: Newsletter offering updates on major news stories in and about Israel. Country of Origin: Israel
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