Igbo Jews

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Igbo Jews
ndi Igbo Juu
Rabbis Howshua Amariel and Hi Ben Daniel.jpg
Igbo Jewish Community presented with a plaque.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Igbo; Hebrew as a liturgical language
Igbo form of Judaism
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Igbo Jews are members of the Igbo people of Nigeria who practice a form of Judaism. They either adopted Judaism newly, or are descendants of the Jews of Bilad el-Sudan.

Historical scrutiny[edit]

An early (and widely influential) statement from an Igbo man, Olaudah Equiano, a Christian-educated freed slave, suggested a migratory origin of the Igbo Jews. He remarked in his autobiography of 1789 on

"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—an analogy, which alone would induce me to think that the one people had sprung from the other." For authoritative support, he gives reference to "Dr. Gill, who, in his commentary on Genesis, very ably deduces the pedigree of the Africans from Afer and Afra, the descendants of Abraham. ...[1]

His essay has since been discarded as speculation. Critical historians have carefully reviewed the historical literature on West Africa during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They have clarified the diverse functions (quite aside from questions of validity) which such histories served for the writers who proposed them at various times in the colonial and post-colonial past.[2][3]

Knowledge from sources broader and more self-critical than the Biblical—from contemporary historians, archaeologists, historical linguists, and other scientifically based disciplines—have argued against these claims. There is no doubt that Jews were present in Saharan trade centers during the first millennium AD,[4] but the proposition that Jews were directly involved with Igbo-speaking peoples in ancient times is controversial.

Contemporary outreach[edit]

Certain Nigerian communities with Judaic practices have been receiving help from individual Israelis and American Jews who work in Nigeria, outreach organizations like the American Kulanu, and African-American Jewish communities in America. Jews from outside Nigeria founded two synagogues in Nigeria, which are attended and maintained by Igbo Jews. Because no formal census has been taken in the region, the number of Igbo in Nigeria who identify as Jews is not known. There are currently 26 synagogues of various sizes. In 2008 an estimated 30,000 Igbos were practicing some form of Judaism.[5] Others have cited a more conservative figure of 3,000 to 5,000 Igbo practicing Judaism.[6]

A Western rabbi, Howard Gorin, visited the community in 2006[7] and members of "Tikvat Israel", a Jewish synagogue in Rockville, Maryland, USA, supported those in Nigeria by sending books, computers, and religious articles.[8] In addition to Rabbi Howard Gorin, visitors have included Professor William F. S. Miles, Dr. Daniel Lis, filmmaker Jeff L. Lieberman, and journalist Shai Afsai.[9]

The main concern of Igbo Jews is how to be part of the wider Jewish world, according to the spokesman of "Gihon Hebrews Synagogue" in Abuja, Prince Azuka Ogbukaa. In 2013 the American writer Shai Afsai invited two of the Igbo Jewish leaders, Azuka Ogbukaa (Pinchas) and Elder Ovadiah Agbai, to Rhode Island in the United States.[10] Afsai wrote: "Their 12-day visit has helped solidify a budding relationship between the Rhode Island and Abuja communities. Now that we know each other a little better, we may consider what further joys and responsibilities this relationship entails."[11]

This visit of the leaders led Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Rhode Island to go to Nigeria with Afsai in 2014, with musicologist Roil Ggarhs also joining them.[12]

Religious practices[edit]

Religious practices of the Igbo Jews include circumcision eight days after the birth of a male child, observance of kosher dietary laws, separation of men and women during menstruation, wearing of the tallit and kippah, and the celebration of holidays such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. In recent times, the communities have also adopted holidays such as Hanukkah[13] and Purim.[14]

Igbo Jews in Israel[edit]

Over the past decades, some of member of the Igbo have been migrated to Israel and especially to Tel Aviv, to fully connect themselves with their religion and ancestries. This wave of immigration can also be explained by the strong diaspora established in Israel since Nigeria was granted independence in 1960. This country has attracted migrants who desired to leave Nigeria.[15] This situation is mostly due to the educational programs implemented after 1960 by Israel and the newly Nigerian state.[16]

Nevertheless, the Igbo Jewish community is not recognized by the Israel's Supreme Court or by any other Jewish religious group. Indeed, while they identify themselves as part of the worldwide Jewish community, they are still struggling to be recognized by other Jews.[17] Indeed, Igbo Jews asserts that they are connected to Judaism via their Jewish blood as they claim to be descendants of the ancient Israelites.[16] In S. Afsai article, an affiliate of the Gihon Hebrews' Synagogue declares:[17] "We say we are Jews from blood. We are now excluded; we cannot go and participate as Jews in any place. I make an appeal that we be recognized, not excluded and isolated from other Jews."

In this recognition process, they met several obstacles. Firstly, the main issue they encounter is the almost absence of literacy documents and proofs that linked them to the Jewish History.[15] In addition, another barrier that prevent them to be accepted in Israel is that many Igbo migrants were able to enter the country thanks to a tourist visa and then seize this occasion to settle themselves in this country. According to the official administration of Israel, a majority of these migrants do not come as Jews but as Christian Pilgrims.[15] For this reasons, most of the Igbo might not come up as Jews seeking to connect with their sacred and historic land. In addition, as a result of this illegal migration, it is difficult to evaluate the number of Igbo in Israel and whether or not they are here to claim their Jewishness.

However, some Igbo Jews currently try to be less isolated by changing some of their religious customs to adapt themselves in Israel. For instance, Daniel Lis explained in his article[16] that an Igbo Jewish Community is assimilating themselves to the Orthodox Judaism movement to be accepted in Israel.

To conclude, Israel is currently examining the Igbo Jewishness question by sending emissaries into Nigeria. Recognition by the state will change their way of living in their homeland as Igbo Jews will be granted citizenship thanks to the Law of Return.[16] Indeed, a part of the debate about recognization is linked to the citizenship question as some scholars in Israel and Israeli elite argue that some Igbos pretend to assimilate themselves with the Judaic movement in order to be able to become legal inhabitants of the State of Israel.

However, the issue of whether or not the Igbo Jews should be recognized as part of the Hebrew community does not seem to be being seriously addressed by the Israeli state, as no serious investigation has yet been launched.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Equiano, Olaudah (2005). "1". The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, the African Written By Himself. EBook #15399.
  2. ^ Sanders, Edith (1963). "The Hamitic Hypothesis: Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective". Journal of African History. 10 (4): 521–532. JSTOR 179896.
  3. ^ Zachernuk, Philip (1994). "Of Origins and Colonial Order: Southern Nigerians and the 'Hamitic Hypothesis' c. 1870–1970". Journal of African History. 35 (3): 427–55. doi:10.1017/s0021853700026785. JSTOR 182643.
  4. ^ Hunwick, John (1985). "Al-Mahili and the Jews of Tuwat: The Demise of a Community". Studia Islamica. 61 (61): 155–183. JSTOR 1595412.
  5. ^ Bruder, Edith (2008). The Black Jews of Africa: History, Religion, Identity. Oxford University Press. p. 143. ISBN 978-0195333565.
  6. ^ Afsai, Shai. Nigeria's Igbo Jews August 25, 2013.
  7. ^ "Rabbi Returns to Nigeria for 3-Week Mission" Archived 2007-09-30 at the Wayback Machine, Tikvat Israel Congregation (Rockville, Maryland), 13 February 2006.
  8. ^ "Tikvat Israel ships scripture to Nigeria" Archived 2007-09-30 at the Wayback Machine, Tikvat Israel Congregation (Rockville, Maryland), 11 January 2006.
  9. ^ Afsai, Shai, "Igbo Jews of Nigeria Strive to Study and Practice", 2013.
  10. ^ Maliki, Anthony, "Igbo Jews to host leading American Jew", Daily Trust, 18 February 2014.
  11. ^ Afsai, Shai. "Abuja’s Igbo Jews pay a visit to Rhode Island", The Jerusalem Post, 23 October 2013
  12. ^ Afsai, Shai, "R.I. rabbi’s visit to Nigeria helps lessen its Jewish community's isolation Archived 2014-12-24 at the Wayback Machine", Providence Journal, 16 November 2014.
  13. ^ Miles, William F. S., "Among the Igbos of Nigeria During the Festival of Lights" Archived 2017-09-04 at the Wayback Machine, 2011.
  14. ^ Afsai, Shai, "Hanging Haman with the Igbo Jews of Abuja", Times of Israel, 2013.
  15. ^ a b c d Lis, Daniel (2015). Identity among the Igbo of Nigeia. Africa World Press.
  16. ^ a b c d Lis, Daniel (2009). "Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands': Ethiopian Jewry and Igbo Identity". Jewish Culture and History. Jewish Culture and History. 11. pp. 21–38. doi:10.1080/1462169X.2009.10512134.
  17. ^ a b Afsai, Shai (April 2016). "Nigeria's Igbo Jews: Jewish identity and practice in Abuja". Anthropology Today. 32 (2): 14–17. doi:10.1111/1467-8322.12239. ISSN 0268-540X.

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