Nearly a month ago, thousands of people around the world were shocked to discover that a well-known Israel advocate and activist, Rudy Rochman, was arrested by the Nigerian secret police (DSS) during his effort to document Jewish life in Igboland; southeastern Nigeria. For many, the entire situation didn’t make much sense. Jews in Nigeria? Why did a prominent figure in the Israel advocacy movement care enough to go there? Why would the Nigerian government care enough to arrest him?
After almost a decade studying the history of the Igbo people (pronounced “Eeeboe”) and specifically their Hebrew cultural revival, it continues to astound me, how little, most Jews (both in Israel and abroad), know about the millions of men, women, and children in this corner of West Africa who identify as the sons and daughters of Israel no less than they do. Millions of people, who not only suffered a genocide inspired by antisemitic tropes, but who struggle to this very day against a government willing to regularly raid synagogues and abuse the openly Jewish.
The majority of Jews are woefully ignorant of even the existence of Igbos, not to mention their Israelite identity. The reverse is not true. So the natural question is why?
The main cause for this asymmetric recognition is the same reason Boko Haram can run amuck slaughtering people on film without international news reporting it, yet when around a dozen Palestinian Arab tenants of homes in Sheikh Jarrah are subject to being evicted, the whole world has something to say.
The unholy matrimony of Eurocentrism and antisemitism.
Since the Western colonial powers first conquered much of the globe, the proverbial ball has been in the West’s court. European society and biases, both expressly and implicitly, through centuries of both physical, cultural and educational colonialism, continue to dictate to many of us which lives matter as well as when their oppression matters. As a result, one of the few times when non-Europeans get included in this coveted list is when they are the supposed victims of Europe’s favorite whipping boy for millennia: the Jews.
Could it be that Western Civilization’s eurocentric and antisemitic bias has blinded the Jewish world to the existence of an entire community of our own people?
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That our Hebrew and Judean ancestors sojourned throughout the world is a prominent feature of Jewish education. It is well known and not at all controversial to most Jews that Judean former slaves and refugees traversed most of Europe, the Americas, and much of Asia.
Yet somehow, this history and corresponding popular narrative for most Jews only includes Jewry in the Northern extremity of the African continent, the southern rim of the Mediterranean basin. If not for the intense advocacy and outcry of motivated activists and rabbinical leadership, the existence and rights of Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewry) would have remained an interesting afterthought in the minds of a minority of Jews rather than an integral part of reality in the Jewish State. Today, around 160,000 Beta Israel live in Israel and an estimated equal number of Jews belonging to the re-emerging community of those forcibly converted to Christianity remain in Ethiopia.
For some, the return of Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewry) to Zion was a wake-up call to the possibility of other Diasporic communities in Africa beyond the somewhat familiar Northern region of the continent. It also caused many scholars to reassess prior assumptions regarding the historic fate of the Northern tribes of Israel who were partially exiled in the year 722 BCE by the Assyrian empire.
According to Jewish oral tradition, an African Hebrew Diaspora was not only possible, but likely. Not only did many Jewish leaders in the rest of the Diaspora suspect their general location in the interior of Africa, but were concerned with their well-being. This is attested to by letters, written by the Chief Ashkenazic and Sephardic Rabbis of England, which were meant to arrive on the banks of the Niger River. Placed in the hands of British colonialists, it is unknown whether these letters ever reached their desired destination. However, we do know that one particular tribe had long ago settled on these same banks of the River Niger: the Igbo.
Harshly detested by other tribes in the region for their alleged peculiarity, British explorers and anthropologists immediately highlighted key dissimilarities that made the Igbo unique among all the tribes they had come across in the region; a commitment to an oral code of law and customs uncannily similar to those described in the Torah. This commitment and similarity was well-documented by contemporary anthropologists, which motivated the British colonialists to amplify their missionary efforts; with the consequence that only a tiny minority of the Igbo were able to preserve their pre-colonial culture. A culture, the Igbos identified as Israelite in origin.
In the same manner in which it is difficult to pinpoint the precise date and details surrounding the arrival of Israelites to Ethiopia and India, it is likewise difficult to know with certainty when and why the first Hebrews migrated to this part of the world. Yet, from what we understand regarding the oral traditions of the Igbos, the antiquity of their arrival suggests an early departure from the Hebrew homeland.
The majority of Jews in the world today are, Jews, in the sense that their Judean heritage is central to the way they inherited their Israelite identity. For the Igbo, prior to their modern revival, the bulk of their identity appears to have been informed by their Hebrew, pre-Babylonian exile identity and culture. While the details of Igbo culture and society are beyond the scope of this article, they share similar practices to other contemporary Israelite communities that developed independently from the post-Babylonian Judean experience: the Bene Israel of India, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, and the Samaritans of Israel.
In this vein, it’s quite possible that Igbo Hebrews absorbed Jewish refugees from the latter exiles as well (similar to both the Beta and Bene Israel); a theory buttressed by the oft-forgotten expulsion of the Songhai Empire’s (present-day Mali) Jewish population (primarily in Timbuktu) in 1492. Timbuktu was of key import to the region’s Jewish population for trading purposes and sits on the River Niger; a straight shot to Igboland.
Notwithstanding the arguable blurriness regarding their historical development and the nature of their Hebraic origins, the tragedy of their exile is clear as day.
With the founding of Nigeria in 1960, the Igbos were forced to integrate into a state whose borders were drawn by the British without consideration for ethnoreligious identity. Sandwiched between the governing Hausa-Fulani and the Yoruba masses, and despite the bigotry they faced, the Igbo minority quickly rose to success. This forced the Igbo into the all-too-familiar cycle of antisemitic tropes followed by the same genocidal violence and expulsion that the Jewish people have faced in every country they sojourned.
“The Igbos are, more or less, the type of people whose desire is mainly to dominate everybody. If they go to a village, a town, they want to monopolize everything in that area. If you put them in a labor camp as a laborer within a year they will try to emerge as the headman of that camp.”- Ahmadu Bello; Islamist and anti-Zionist former premier of Nigeria’s northern region.
Six years after the founding of Nigeria, in 1966, tens of thousands of Igbo were butchered in pogroms, and a million Igbo were forced to flee from the north and seek shelter in the southeast of the country. A year later, in 1967, they declared independence as the state of Biafra. An attempt at liberation, which sadly resulted in three years of starvation, bombings and mass murder – some estimate three million Igbos were murdered.
51 years have passed since the Igbo were forced to reintegrate with Nigeria. Made to start again, after losing everything. Political independence lost, the Igbo spirit has only grown stronger.
During the Biafran genocide, Henry Kissinger wrote a memorandum for President Nixon wherein he stated:
“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 neighbors in the Federation.”
The attitude described by Kissinger in 1969 persists today.
Seen as the puppeteers of Nollywood, and of the business, and financial sectors, Igbos are regularly scapegoated for Nigeria’s national ills. Does this sound familiar? Despite the prevalence of Christianity and the impact of centuries of missionary work, many Igbos have turned to the faith and culture of who they view as their Hebrew ancestors. Over 70 synagogues are regularly attended by large congregations. Laymen and ideologues alike adorn Star of David necklaces, kippot, and tzitzit. For thousands of Igbo, the movement for Igbo-Hebrew revival has been the only outlet where they can express their freedom; their drive for spiritual and cultural autonomy.
Now, the Nigerian government wants to take this away as well. This past November over 50 Igbos were killed in clashes with security forces and 6 synagogues were destroyed; bulldozed to the ground as people were arrested for the crime of wearing Jewish attire.
How could it be that in 2021 there are people being tracked down and persecuted by the government for the “crime” of identifying as Jews; and almost no in the world outside of Nigeria even knows about it?
More importantly, how is it possible that this news avoided the headlines of all major Jewish publications and Israeli news sources? It certainly appears that the confluence of Eurocentric racism and antisemitism has blinded the West (and by extension the Western influenced Jewish world) from the Igbo plight. To likely all too many, the Igbo are African, and therefore deemed unimportant. Igbos identify as Jewish, and therefore (like Jews in Israel) undeserving of our sympathy.
Thankfully, the Israeli activists, including my friend Rudy, were released and sent back to live freely as Judeans in the first Hebrew state in 2,000 years; a state founded on the principles of Jewish peoplehood and mutual responsibility. Meanwhile, our Igbo brothers and sisters continue to struggle for their basic rights against a Jew-hating regime; Ima Lizben, a Jewish woman who was photographed with the Israeli film crew, is still being held by the Nigerian government without due process.
Let this serve as a call to action. Nigerian government, President Muhammadu Buhari: equal rights for Igbos are not discretionary. Let our people go!
*Update*: Ima Lizben was released on bail after three weeks of imprisonment without due process. Government officials have yet to address the continued harassment, violence, and imprisonment suffered by the visibly Jewish in Igboland.