Religion: Nigerians who want Israel to accept them as Jews

Religion: Nigerians who want Israel to accept them as Jews
Religion: Nigerians who want Israel to accept them as Jews

Rocking back and forth, Shlomo Ben Yaakov reads a Torah scroll in a synagogue on the outskirts of Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

Intermittently, his soft and melodious voice rises in Hebrew and he is joined by the dozens of people who recite after him.

Most don’t fully understand the language, but this small Nigerian community claims Jewish ancestry stretching back hundreds of years – and it’s frustrated by the lack of recognition from Israel.

“I consider myself to be a Jew,” says Yaakov.

Outside the Hebrew Gihon Synagogue on the outskirts of Jikwoyi, a table is set inside a tent constructed from palm fronds to celebrate Sukkot, a holiday that commemorates the years the Jews have spent. in the desert on the way to the Promised Land.

“Just as we do today, they do the same in Israel,” says Yaakov, as people share the traditional cholla bread (baked in the synagogue) and wine in small cups that are made. circulate.

He is Igbo, one of Nigeria’s three dominant ethnic groups, originally from the southeast of the country. His Igbo name is Nnaemezuo Maduako.

Many Igbos believe they have Jewish heritage as one of Israel’s 10 Lost Tribes, although most are not observant Jews like Mr. Yaakov. They represent less than 0.1% of the estimated 35 million Igbos.

These tribes are said to have disappeared after being taken captive during the conquest of the northern Israelite kingdom in the 8th century BC. The Ethiopian Jewish community, for example, is recognized as one of them.

Igbo customs such as male circumcision, mourning the dead for seven days, celebration of the new moon, and wedding ceremonies under a canopy reinforced this belief in their Jewish heritage.

No proof
But Chidi Ugwu, an Igbo anthropologist at the University of Nigeria in Enugu, says this identification with Judaism only emerged after the Biafran civil war.

The Igbos fought for secession from Nigeria, but lost what was a brutal conflict between 1967 and 1970.

Some people were “looking for a psychological booster to hang on to” and began to make the connection with Jews, he says.

They saw themselves as a persecuted people, just as the Jewish people have been throughout history, especially during the Holocaust.

“It is insulting to call the Igbos anyone’s lost tribe, there is no historical or archaeological evidence to back it up,” he told the BBC.

He claims that, as the evidence suggests that the Igbos were among those who migrated out of Egypt several thousand years ago, it is possible that the Jews resumed Igbos customs when they visited this region. country.

Several years ago, controversial efforts were made to prove a genetic lineage, but a DNA test revealed no connection to Jews.

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz, chairman of the foreign affairs department of the Council of the Rabbinate of Israel – the body that determines claims of Jewish descent, also has no doubts.

“They claim to be one of the descendants of Gad, one of the sons of our ancestor Jacob – but they cannot prove that their grandparents were Jewish,” he told the BBC.

He adds that if Nigerian Jews do not convert to Judaism – a process that involves various rituals and appearing in a Jewish court (which does not exist in Nigeria) – they will not be recognized.

Mr. Yaakov considers the idea of ​​having to go through a conversion to be an insult.
The secessionist push
Gihon’s devotees take their beliefs seriously – and they, along with Nigeria’s estimated 12,000 community of practicing Jews, are supported by other Orthodox Jewish groups around the world, donating to them, giving them back. solidarity visits and campaign for their recognition.

One of their main supporters is Dani Limor, a former Mossad agent who led an operation to secretly smuggle Ethiopian Jews into Israel via Sudan. He has been visiting Jewish communities in Nigeria since the 1980s and says Jewish practice in the West African country predates the civil war.

“As converts, we would be considered second-class citizens,” he says.
“And the customs they’re talking about, you can find people all over the world who have Jewish practices”.

He believes in a school of thought that says they came from Morocco 500 years ago, first settling in Timbuktu before traveling further south – and he hopes they will eventually gain recognition as they deserve.

“Judaism is more than the color of the skin, it is in the heart,” he told the BBC.

The Gihon Synagogue, said to be the oldest in Nigeria, was founded in the 1980s by Ovadai Avichai and two others who had been raised as Christians.

The friends decided to turn to Judaism when they realized that the Old Testament of the Bible was the foundation of the Jewish religion.

He said it was as if the Jew in him had been revived – and given the similarities between Jewish customs and Igbo traditions, he was convinced that Judaism was the real way.

Abuja Gihon Synagogue now has a mix of different ethnic groups among the more than 40 families that frequent it.

In recent years, the number of people practicing Jewish worship in southern Nigeria has risen sharply, says Chiagozie Nwonwu, a specialist on the region at the BBC.

This is in large part thanks to the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob), a group that revived the Igbo campaign for secession in 2014.

It is led by Nnamdi Kanu, who reminded his followers of their so-called Jewish heritage and encouraged them to embrace the faith. The charismatic leader was reportedly pictured praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

But its followers are not viewed as genuine Jews by Nigeria’s more established communities, as some combine elements of Judaism and Christianity in their worship, most often associated with Messianic Judaism.

Mr. Kanu is currently in detention and faces trial for treason. Ipob, which recently took up arms, has been banned as a terrorist group.

“The first time Ipob appeared, I cried in the synagogue. I said: “This young boy has come to cause us problems because what he is doing is not necessary,” said Mr. Avichai, a veteran of the Biafran war.

He fears that Ipob’s activities threaten the peaceful worship of some 70 apolitical Jewish communities.
This is what happened earlier this year, when a Jewish community leader in the southeast was jailed for a month after her congregation received three visitors from Israel.

They had come to film the donation of a Torah scroll – often too expensive for local groups to buy – but were suspected of having ties to Ipob and deported.

A devotee of Gihon told me that Mr. Kanu had influenced his decision to join the synagogue – but the recent evolution of the Ipob campaign into an armed struggle went against the principles of Judaism.

Mr. Yaakov is not interested in the politics surrounding being Jewish – for him, it is the spiritual aspect that is important.
Official recognition by Israel of the Igbo fraction like him as Jews would help the religious community to organize more in Nigeria. For example, at the moment there is no Chief Rabbi and finding kosher products can be a challenge. They are usually only sold in a few stores owned by Jewish expats – the community usually eats what is produced locally so they can follow Kosher rules.

Mr Yaakov would like to train to become the first Nigerian rabbi, which can only be done by studying at a rabbinical school or with an experienced rabbi.

“For those of us who know our roots, we are confident in our identity,” he says.

“If Christians and Muslims can accept theirs and support them, then I think Jews should show some encouragement as well.”

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