Nigeria and questions of Jewish identity

An anthropologist's look at the Africans who claim Jewish identity.

Shai Afsai

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Shai Afsai
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University of New Hampshire’s Professor Marla Brettschneider noted several years ago that “Western Jewish academic research on African and African heritage Jewish and Jewishly related communities is a rapidly growing area of study” offering “tremendous possibilities for research into questions of Jewish identity” (“African and African Heritage Jews: Western Academic Perspectives,” Sh’ma Journal, March 2011). Rather than being enthusiastic about the current state of this area of study, however, Brettschneider presented a critique of Western academics studying African Judaism, who, she asserted, “tend to act as gatekeepers, primarily asking: Is ‘x’ group (‘truly’) Jewish?” 

Due to that approach, Brettschneider wrote, a range of other important and interesting questions were being ignored or subordinated by researchers. These overlooked questions included: “How has Jewish practice in a given community adopted aspects of local culture, and, likewise, how has the local culture been changed by the community’s Jewish practices? How does local language impact liturgy? How has a community’s identity grown and shifted, given its geographical context in history, and what new insights does that offer for understanding other, more commonly studied, communities? What kinds of stories do communities tell about their Jewish heritage? And how are the stories and practices of these communities similar or not to those of other such communities, and why?”

Instead of such questions being explored by Jewish scholars, African community members were “asked to prove their Jewishness while explaining how they came to live in regions outside the areas that mainstream Jews generally associate with Jewish history.”

In her article, Brettschneider stressed that scholars “need to be aware that” that their “work has direct policy implications,” pointing out that academic questioning of whether or not African Jewishly related communities were “truly Jewish” raised a host of policy issues: “Can members of these communities claim their right, as Jews, to Israeli citizenship? Is Israel (and the Jewish community writ large) responsible for support they may request? How might accepting these communities as ‘truly’ Jewish impact the delicate balance of Israeli political relations with the often unstable governments in their home countries?”

Though Brettschneider was correct that academic research involving African Judaism can have direct policy implications, especially in relation to the state of Israel, it nonetheless remains entirely legitimate for Western Jewish academics to conscientiously employ critical and questioning scholarly lenses in any geographical region — including Africa — and to ask how people there came to came to practice, preserve, or embrace particular religious traditions. It is also reasonable for academics to question religio-historical claims, in any geographical region, using scholarly lenses.

While awareness by scholars of the direct policy implications of their academic work is indeed important, self-identifying African Jews have not been well-served by those who, in an effort to insist that certain groups be considered “truly Jewish” and worthy of Israeli citizenship, have tried to blur the lines between various African communities practicing Judaism.

Writing in Haaretz several years ago (“In favor of politicizing Jewish identity,” Dec. 30, 2011), Professor Alfred Bodenheimer of the Centre of Jewish Studies of the University of Basel, for example, asserted that “it is ultimately impossible to rationally explain why the Igbos [of Nigeria] have not been recognized [as Jews by the state of Israel] when, in the course of the 20th century, the Ethiopian tribes called Beta Israel [House of Israel] received complete recognition of Jewish descent (from one of the Ten Tribes), and collective resettlement in Israel, beginning in the 1980s.”

This was a perhaps well-intended but certainly unsupportable equation. 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 600 hundred years ago), and practical rabbinic rulings concerning the Beta Israel’s Jewish status commenced in the 16th century. When Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef made 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, he drew 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. Nothing was gained by Bodenheimer’s attempted conflation of the Igbo of Nigeria and the Beta Israel of Ethiopia.

Nigeria is a country in tension between its abundant potential and its actual predicament. Chinua Achebe, perhaps the most famous Igbo author, succinctly described this tension in his The Trouble with Nigeria (1983). Of the country’s potential, he declared: “I believe that Nigeria is a nation favoured by Providence. I believe there are individuals as well as nations who, on account of peculiar gifts and circumstances, are commandeered by history to facilitate mankind’s advancement. Nigeria is such a nation. The vast human and material wealth with which she is endowed bestows on her a role in Africa and the world which no one else can assume or fulfil.”

The giant of Africa was not adequately fulfilling her continental or global role, however, according to Achebe: “Nigeria is not a great country. It is one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun. It is one of the most expensive countries and one of those that give least value for money. It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. In short it is one of the most unpleasant places on earth! No, Nigeria may be a paradise for adventurers and pirates, but not tourists.”

I first travelled to Nigeria in February 2013, going not as a thrill-seeking adventurer, a pirate hoping to make his fortune in the Third World, or a tourist looking to explore an exotic land. Rather, I went because of what I learned from Northeastern University’s Professor William Miles about the several thousand people practicing Judaism in Nigeria. Shortly before I met Miles, he had completed his Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic odyssey (2013). For at least a decade prior to its publication, Igbo Jews had been offering their own written religio-historical narratives of Judaism in Nigeria, but Miles’s was the first book about Igbo Jewry composed by a Western academic. It neither disputed nor endorsed the religio-historical claims of  Igbo Jews, whom Miles termed “Jubos,” but conveyed their stories and beliefs to Western readers, and described the impact that getting to know the community had on Miles’s own sense of Jewish identity. What I heard from the professor made me want to meet Igbo Jews in person.

The Igbo are Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic group, numbering over 30 million people. Some 2,000 people, most of whom are Igbo, now practice Judaism throughout Nigeria, though a much larger number of Nigerians self-identify as Jews even while practicing Christianity. Igbo self-identification with and as Jews dates back to the 18th century, but concretized during and after the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), in which at least one million Igbo died in the failed bid for Biafran independence. The civil war and its disastrous consequences initiated a still-ongoing period of intense questioning among the Igbo concerning their history, present predicaments, and future prospects.

Igbo Jewish identity presents a challenge. Igbo Jews consider themselves part of world Jewry, but are not yet integrated with, nor represented in and by, Jewish institutions and associations around the world. The position of those practicing Judaism in Nigeria is further complicated by the fact that many other Igbo who identify as Jews by blood, in fact practice Christianity as a religion. As explained by African Studies Professor Johannes Harnischfeger in his 2011 paper on ‘Secessionism in Nigeria’ (presented in June 2011 at the Nordic Africa Institute’s 4th European Conference on African Studies, in Uppsala, Sweden), Igbo self-identification as Jews usually does not correlate with embracing Judaism: “In Igbo imagination it is easy to [be] both: Christian and Jew.”

When I first visited Nigeria in February 2013, it was at the invitation of Habakkuk Nwafor, leader of Abuja’s Tikvat Israel Synagogue. The Igbo Jews I met then, as well as during two subsequent visits to Nigeria, see themselves as part of the Jewish nation, have broken with the dominant Christian religion, and are earnestly practicing Judaism. They are emotionally invested in the state of Israel and support the Zionist project. Upon arriving at Nwafor’s home in the federal capital, I found that between images of the Star of David and menorah, his front door bore the proud notice, ‘I AM A JEW.’ Those practicing Judaism in Nigeria are proud of how they have managed to broaden their knowledge of Judaism even though they are far from any center of Torah study, of how they have managed to learn to navigate the Jewish prayer services and holiday rituals, of how their youngsters have learned to read Hebrew.

As the Igbo Jewish musician Zadok Chayim ben Moshe told me: “I am proud of myself. Africans, you see — mostly Igbo — nobody taught us this. Most of us Igbo grabbed this knowledge of Judaism through the social network, which is the internet . . . Now we are trying to retrace our root, to retrace our custom, to retrace our origin — from Africa.”

He also emphasized his awareness that although — antisemitic stereotyping notwithstanding — the physical appearance of Jews the world over has not differed much from that of the majority non-Jewish populations among whom they have lived for substantial periods of time, Western Jews sometimes find the possibility of there being black sub-Saharan African Jews difficult to grasp: “I am black and I am Zadok. I’m Zadok and I’m black. I’m Zadok and I’m black! I want people to know that I am coming from Africa. We lost these things — we lost these practices, we lost these customs — but now we are realizing and trying to retrace back where we came from.”

To return to one of the policy issues alluded to by Brettschneider in her Sh’ma Journal article: Are Israel and the larger Jewish community required to support the Jewish practices of self-identifying Jewish communities who are in the process of “retracing”? What responsibilities, if any, do Jews around the world have to communities of people, such as those in Nigeria, who see themselves as Jews, practice Judaism, but are not yet part of world Jewry’s religious associations and communal institutions?

I recall how one day during my first visit to Abuja, as I was resting for a bit in the shade, my host Habakkuk Nwafor returned from the post office carrying a large package, which he brought into his home. A few minutes later his wife, Amaka, came running out and excitedly told me to come inside. When I did, I found Nwafor and his children huddled around the now-opened package. Nwafor hadn’t wanted to remove any of its contents until I came in. Now, one by one, he began drawing tallitot and pairs of tefillin from the opened box. In the end, it turned out to contain thirteen new tallitot and thirteen new pairs of tefillin: an absolute treasure for the community in Abuja and a cause of great joy. The unexpected arrival of these items seemed almost miraculous. We stood amazed.

It turned out that the package had been sent by Daniel Limor, an Israeli friend of the community, who had managed to raise money for these religious items in Israel. Limor, who has long been an activist for African Jewry in several countries — and was part of the early Israeli efforts to bring Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel — has more recently also become involved with the influential Shavei Israel organization. Shavei Israel is perhaps best known for helping some 1,700 members of the Judaizing Bnei Menashe of Northeastern India formally convert to Judaism and resettle in Israel. In December 2014, Shavei Israel’s Michael Freund and Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum accompanied Limor on an exploratory visit to Nigeria, and the organization sent an Israeli emissary — Gadi Bentley — to Igbo Jews in southeastern Nigeria for two months in mid-2015 in order to teach them Judaism and Hebrew, and report back on his findings there.

Prior to this year’s Passover holiday, a parcel containing more than 6,000 matzot was assembled for the community that has embraced Judaism in Nigeria and shipped to the port city of Lagos. This was done through the combined efforts of members of Limor’s synagogue — Young Israel of Ramat Poleg in Netanya, Israel — Shavei Israel, and the Fédération des Juifs Noirs (FJN). The declared purpose of this action was “that there should not be a single Jewish family in Nigeria without matzot for the Seder.”

Academic integrity is crucial and scholarly precision is necessary when it comes to African Judaism. What motivated those individuals and organizations to ship thousands of matzot to Lagos, however, was the ancient and unadorned rabbinic dictum that all of Israel — which they apparently understand to mean all those who belong to the Jewish nation, or identify with the Jewish people and follow Judaism — are accountable to and for one another.

Shai Afsai lives in Rhode Island. His “Nigeria’s Igbo Jews: Jewish Identity and Practice in Abuja” appears in the current issue of Anthropology Today, a journal published by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.



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