Beta Israel and Nigerian lost tribes

During a 2014 visit in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, as I was driving with Igbo Jewish author Remy Ilona to one of the city’s synagogues, he expressed his surprise that the state of Israel has not yet recognized the Igbo as Jews, even though the Igbo, so he said, have no less a valid claim to such recognition than the Jews of Ethiopia (the Beta Israel/House of Israel).

In support of his position, Ilona referred me to an Haaretz opinion piece, “In favor of politicizing Jewish identity” (Dec. 30, 2011), by Professor Alfred Bodenheimer of the Centre of Jewish Studies of the University of Basel.

Professor Bodenheimer writes in Haaretz that “it is ultimately impossible to rationally explain why the Igbos have not been recognized when, in the course of the 20th century, the Ethiopian tribes called Beta Israel received complete recognition of Jewish descent (from one of the Ten Tribes), and collective resettlement in Israel, beginning in the 1980s.”

Before clarifying, as I did for my friend, why it is quite possible to rationally explain this contrast between the Igbo and Beta Israel when it comes to recognition, a little context may be necessary.

There is a widespread belief among the Igbo of Nigeria — who number over thirty million and are the country’s third-largest ethnic group — that they descend from the tribes of Israel. Due to British colonialism and missionary activity most Igbo now practice Christianity, but at the same time many consider themselves genealogically Jewish, hold their indigenous ancestral Igbo religion to be a residual form of Judaism, and strongly identify with the state of Israel.

Following the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), during which at least one million Igbo died in their failed bid for Biafran independence, Igbo self-identification as Jews intensified. Igbo saw themselves as sufferers of genocide, like the Jews of World War II Europe, and as inhabitants of a beleaguered plot of land surrounded by hostile forces, similar to the Jewish state of Israel.

A small number of Igbo also began to question why, if they were in fact Jews, they should continue practicing Christianity rather than Judaism. These seekers gradually began to find one another, acquire printed material on Judaism, photocopy what prayer books they could lay their hands on, teach themselves to read and pray in Hebrew, scour the internet for information, and advance their practice of the Jewish faith. Their community, which practices Judaism but is not yet recognized by any Jewish denomination or by the state of Israel, now numbers between two thousand and five thousand people throughout Nigeria.

Nigerian Jews are eager for recognition from world Jewry and the state of Israel. As Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa of Abuja’s Gihon Synagogue told me after our first time meeting in Nigeria, in 2013: “We are Torah-hungry Nigerians, adherents of the Jewish faith [. . . and the] greatest of all the challenges we are facing is that of isolation. Officially, Israel has not accepted us as Jews, yet our culture, our central way of life, points to nowhere in the universe except the ancient House of Israel. It is the aspiration and dream of the Torah-lovers of Nigeria from Abuja to Lagos, from Warri to Umuahia, from Port Harcourt to Onitsha, to break the isolation.”

Emanuel ben David prays by an open window in Abuja's Tikvat Israel Synagogue, 2013. Photo - Shai Afsai
Elder Emanuel ben David prays by an open window in Abuja’s Tikvat Israel Synagogue, 2013. Photo – Shai Afsai

Like Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa, I too hope that Igbo Jews and Nigerians of other ethnic groups who are practicing Judaism will continue to build bridges with world Jewry, and that there will be more opportunities for open and honest educational exchanges with their co-religionists.

The Nigerian Jews I have met are earnestly pursuing Judaism, are lovers of Zion and supporters of the Zionist project, and view themselves as part of the Jewish nation. I concur with the sentiments expressed to me about Igbo Jews by American Rabbi Howard Gorin, who visited Nigeria several times and had a significant impact on the course of Judaism there: “They identify with the Jewish people and they want to practice Judaism. Now that they’ve thrown their lot with us, what are our responsibilities to them? How can we enhance their standing in the Jewish community?”

Those are important questions with complex answers. However, responding to them does not mean unnecessarily muddling the history of Igbo Jewish identity — and the issues surrounding Igbo Jewish recognition — with the history and recognition of the Beta Israel. There is good reason to be wary here of “Lost Tribes” fetishists and there is danger in politicizing Jewish identity.

Returning to Professor Bodenheimer: In his Haaretz opinion piece, he refers to the work of one of his doctoral students, whose study, he claims, shows “British rabbis were already aware in the 1840s that there might be descendants of the Ten Tribes in the Niger delta. That was even before the process of the Jewish acceptance of Beta Israel began. Evidently, though, the Igbos, who today number 20-30 million people, would be political and demographic dynamite.”

Much is amiss in the above paragraph, which must be unpacked bit by bit. First, it needs to be stressed that the process of world Jewry’s acceptance of the Beta Israel began long before the 1840s. As Professor Michael Corinaldi demonstrates in his masterful Ethiopian Jewry: Identity and Tradition (Rubin Mass, 2005), encounters between rabbis and the Beta Israel — whom the rabbis variedly referred to as Hebrews, Jews, or Falashas — go back at least to 1435 (nearly six hundred years ago), and practical rabbinic rulings concerning the Beta Israel’s Jewish status commenced in the sixteenth century.

Thus, when making his historic 1973 declaration that the Beta Israel are Jews “from the Tribe of Dan” and that there is a religious obligation to get them to the state of Israel, Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was drawing on rabbinic decisions and precedent concerning the Beta Israel spanning more than four hundred years. No similar rulings exist concerning the Igbo, from rabbis past or present.

Secondly, British rabbis — namely Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Solomon Herschell and Sephardi Rabbi David Meldola — were not “aware” in the 1840s that there might be descendants of the Ten Tribes in the Niger Delta. The letters of the two British rabbis are discussed in Daniel Lis’s “‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands’: Ethiopian Jewry and Igbo Identity” (Jewish Culture and History 11:3, 2009, pp. 21-38), as well as in his recently published Jewish Identity among the Igbo of Nigeria: Israel’s “Lost Tribe” and the Question of Belonging in the Jewish State (Africa World Press, 2015). (Daniel Lis — now Dr. Lis — was the unnamed doctoral student referred to in Bodenheimer’s 2011 opinion piece.)

It is apparent from the London Sephardi rabbi’s Hebrew letter, as found in William Simpson’s A Private Journal Kept During the Niger Expedition (1843) and reproduced by Lis (in English in “‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands,’” p. 26; and in English and Hebrew in Jewish Identity among the Igbo of Nigeria, pp. 27-28), that Rabbi Meldola expected whatever Jews might be living in the vicinity of the Niger Delta to be rabbinic Jews not too different from himself and his fellow London Sephardim. Rabbi Meldola presupposed, for example, that Jews living in the Niger Delta region would know of and possess not only the Torah and the Prophetic works, but also the Talmud. He wrote:

“Peace to our Brethren the children of Israel in all place of their habitations. I the servant of the Lord named David the little is he who writes this in order to inquire after your welfare and the number of the souls and wishes also to know your occupation and what books are to be found amongst you after the conclusion of the Talmud and to what customs you are adhered. All this let me know well and clear explained through this man who goes towards you to explore and search the places of your habitations. And know we children of Israel who are scattered in all those places do believe on the law of Moses the servant of the Almighty and the Prophets and the Talmud and then on the books of Rabbi Moses ben Maimonides who is known under the term Rambam and all these we pray to let us know and may your kind words reach us.”

Moreover, neither rabbinic letter received a reply, nor is it certain they were ever delivered to anyone during Simpson’s failed 1841-1842 expedition. Had the letters been delivered, however, their Niger Delta recipients would not only have been unable to read them (as they would not have known Hebrew), but also (and unlike the Beta Israel) would likely not have been able to comprehend the references to the children of Israel, to Moses, and to the Prophets (let alone the Talmud and Rambam). Were Rabbi Meldola to have received a reply to his missive, he might have found it difficult to imagine it was composed by children of Israel.

That is entirely different from what transpired when Jews outside Abyssinia began writing to the Beta Israel there, beginning in 1845. As Professor Corinaldi chronicles, not only did these letters receive a response — and not only did those corresponding recognize each other as members of the same religio-nation — but one such response was even hand delivered to Jerusalem’s Jewish community by two Beta Israel pilgrims in 1855.

Is it really any wonder, then, that though the Beta Israel have been recognized as Jews by the state of Israel and world Jewry, the same has not yet happened with the Igbo — or with other Nigerian ethnic groups, for that matter?

The above appeared in a different form in my “On Nigerian Claims to Jewish and Judaic Traditions: A Reply to Professor Fatai Ayisa Olasupo,” OIDA International Journal of Sustainable Development 7:12 (2014), pp. 33-38.

About the Author
Shai Afsai's writing has been published in The Forward, Haaretz, Arutz Sheva/Israel National News, The Jerusalem Post, The Providence Journal, Anthropology Today, Underground Voices, Jewish Quarterly, Journal of the American Revolution, Midstream, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, New English Review, CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Rhode Island History, The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Times of Israel, CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Heredom, and Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.