Are The Igbos Of Nigeria Jewish?

Engaging, if messy, documentary seeks to answer the question.

05/28/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
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“Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria” is one of those peculiar documentary films that makes a sort of nonsense of everything I know about film and art. On the one hand the film, which is produced, written, directed, shot and edited by Jeff L. Lieberman, is a baggy, often shapeless mess, meandering and repetitive, filled with side roads that lead nowhere and a narration that borders on the amateur.

Despite that, “Re-Emerging” is frequently engaging, often charming and, finally, a very pleasant experience.

The Igbo are one of the larger ethnic groups in modern Nigeria, a nation of 170 million people and over 250 such ethnic configurations. For much of the region’s history, they have been referred to as “the Jews of Nigeria,” a band of overachievers who are the source of much of the brainpower of the country and a subject of much persecution. When they attempted to form a separate nation, Biafra, in the late 1960s, the resulting civil war had dire consequences for the Igbo but, for a moment, they were on the world’s mind, if only as the victims of an attempted genocide.

There have long been rumors of a more direct connection between the Igbo and Judaism, and in a country currently torn apart by Christian-Muslim sectarian violence the idea that a third religious element could emerge is certainly intriguing. And there are many Igbo who believe that those historical rumors are rooted in fact. “I’ve always known the Igbo are Jews,” says Shmuel Tikvah, the central figure of the film.

And he has been acting on that belief for many years now, exploring Judaism through the Internet, teaching himself Hebrew and moving slowly from the Catholicism with which he was raised to Sabbatarianism, a hybrid apparently unique to Nigeria, and finally to Judaism itself. He is one of about 3,000 Igbos (out of a population of 25 million) who are practicing Jews.

As depicted by Lieberman, these Nigerian Jews are a warm and welcoming group, eager for knowledge of and contact with the rest of the Jewish world, vocal supporters of Israel and spirited worshippers, a small but charming community. Those qualities, combined with a refreshing candor, are what make “Re-Emerging” a delight despite its flaws and messiness. Shmuel is a wonderfully earnest young man, determined to get a bona fide Jewish education (he aspires to study for the rabbinate at Jewish Theological Seminary) and to become his nation’s first rabbi. His relationship with the elders of the tiny community is pleasing to watch, and the elders are nothing less than the Nigerian equivalent of the tough but tender Sisterhood ladies and Men’s Club old-timers that you admire in your own congregation.

The problem with “Re-Emerging” is that Lieberman lets his story drag him anywhere; like a child with a short attention span, the film wanders into numerous cul-de-sacs. There is a comparatively lengthy and utterly irrelevant section exploring the Igbo roots of the Geechee/Gullah communities of the Sea Islands of the United States and some eccentric and unconvincing passages attempting to tie the Igbo to Hebrew linguistically and one lost opportunity. More seriously, the film misses an opportunity to explore the function of Christianity in a post-colonial Africa, although it is smart enough to raise the issue. Equally problematic is Lieberman’s fascination with images of children at play; the kids are adorable and the footage is occasionally amusing, but the time could be better spent exploring the children’s lives as outsiders in their native land.

Therein lies the film’s greatest shortcoming. There are numerous questions left unanswered by “Re-Emerging.” Lieberman never offers expert historical testimony regarding the actual nature of the Igbos’ origins, only the kind of folk etymologies that are notoriously unreliable. He never explores why both Israel and the U.S. are so reluctant to grant student visas to Shmuel, or why the Jewish world seems so uninterested in the Nigerian situation. (Indeed, the film is completely lacking in any Israeli responses at all. The closest Lieberman comes is a newspaper headline claiming that the Israeli ambassador to Nigeria approves of the Igbos’ apparent interest.)

And yet, “Re-Emerging” is an entirely amiable film. If only it were a better film, it could be much more.

“Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria,” by Jeff L. Lieberman will be shown at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue) Tuesday, June 4 at 7:30 pm. For information, call (646) 505-4444 or go to www.jccmanhattan.org.
 

Comments

Our igbo people love to live abroad and embrace foreign cultures, and foreign spirituality. They are like the proverbial hunter who goes out to the wild to cut hare for goats while his own kids cry aloud of hunger!. Azi gbakwa ihe ojooo! No shame!! a few misguided folks has peddled this lie for over a decade and are still at it. I wonder when they will stop. For the Records, I Kachi Ihems wishes to state in plain words that we are no jews, The hebrews came from our ancestors and migrated outwards, everyone left from Africa and not the other way round, Anyone who sites or quotes some BIBLICAL verses just to cement this false claim that igbos are jews, would be struck by AMADIAOHA, KAMALU, OJUKWU DIOBU, ALAOGBAGA, CHUKWU ABIAMA ETC. His lineage would be lost abroad forever, his children would end up with foreign ,languages and his properties would be lost to foreigners, ISEEEEEE!. WE ARE PROUD AFRICANS, THE HEBREWS ETC, WERE OUR DESCENDANTS, OUR CULTURAL, LINGUISTIC AND ANTHROPOLOGICAL RECORDS GIVES CREDENCE TO THIS TRUTH.

In addition to Jeff Leibermann 's documentary film on Igbo Jewry , I challenge doubting Thomasses on this forum to go to amazon.com to pick up the book , COW WITHOUT TAIL , and read it thoroughly to fully understand why Igbo people are considered Jews . This new book examines genetics, lactose intolerance , cultural traits , archeological facts and above all , biblical references . Hurry Now !

Why are some people in this forum getting themselves unnecesary worked up on issue that does not concern them? Especially Yorubas.No matter how one tries to cover the pregnancy,just a matter of time it will expose.Its no more a new thing that Igbos are Jews or Hebrews as the case may be and i can see that Almighty God who promised that he will bring all his people(Israelite)wherever they were scattered is at work already.Shalom

Any mortal who ignorantly or out of mischief purposes, denies the hebraic origin of igbo-people, such a blasphemer is calling our Allknowing, Allseeing and Powerful God a liar.Because , He did reveal to His servant that His people the igbos origin is Israel.The revelation of this mystery He mandated me to inform Eze-Igbo of the blessed memory in 2003, and the Igbo Cultural Organization Ohaneze is aware of this truth. My Godly counsel to all Thomases of Igbo Hebraic Origin , to remember the consequencs of contradicting God, who is Spirit.

I think that it is probable that there was some israeli presence in present igbo landat some point in time. I don't pretend to be an expert on any of these issues but mere thought makes me cautious in completely ruling out the ideaM I have written no references because this will make things rather elaborate and I will be unable to complete my comments within a week. Let me start by saying that because some ill informed people or better put people with insufficient knowledge have embraced the theory of the igbo being jews doesn't make it improbable. I also would like to say that no form of inferiority complex has driven me to this quest. I am perfectly satisfied being black and rather grateful for my heritage. It came to my notice early in life that the question of the igbos origin was one of contentionM many igbos beleived they were jews and others without even giving ear to their arguement cried it was false and made fun of itM may they thought It was thr igbo persons way of claiming superiorityM however we must lay aside all pettiness and examine as much as limited knowledge will allow us the factsM I,ll start with circumsicin, although it might be practiced by othert tribes, and the practice might have been alterd through the years by some igbo communities for instance to include females, one can't help but ask why on the eight day? And why does it carry so much importance? Most other tribes do not perform this ritual on the eigth day. We all know from glaring history that this practice is one of the most important among the jews as a confurmatin of their covenant with God and one who did not perform this was cut off frtom thhe tribeM the could explain why this in spite of other lost culture would be retained with such exactness as to date and importance. I know little about language, however I think I'd be right to sy that the igbos belong to the qua linguistic group, a group different and distant from hebrew language. For some words to have the same pronunciation and meaning and others to have similar meanigremains a complete mystery to me if in fact there was not the least bit of hebrew influence. One could learn a lot from the english language, if over a thusand years it has undergone such dramatic changes could the same not have occured to the igbo languge with association with neighbouring tribes? As to archaeological evidence dating the presence ofthe igbos to many thousand BCs behind, it could be possible that these were tribes which inhabited that space of land befire igbo settlement, these tribes which affected her way of life, so this findings appear similar to mordern day igbo people, my point is just because there were inhabitants in igbo land at a certain time farme in history does not decisively rule out that some jews could have joined those inhabitants. As to the case of a gad stone being found and other articles that show some jewish presence, I have never seen bet have most definately read about, if they are true then give a strong arguements and take my theories out of the realm of mere speculations. The issue of thorough DNA studies and analysis would really help, but one can't help noticing some strange manifestations among the igbo stock that should atleast indicate some other races' influence. As to biblical evidence I can't help but feel as if the experiences of the igbo and neighboring tribes mightnt be a confirmation. Anyway I,m not sayin that igbos are hebrews , I'm just saying its a possibility. To me its arguements holds more water than some african narratives of their origins. Let me categorically state that I believe that Jesus is the messiah this will not change even if more substantial facts are found to back this speculation, I can't turn my back on him , He has done me no wrong, I pray others consider this fact also. If we are hebrews we will be restored because God promised before this time, I'm not worried. If not we still are blessed with faithful Abraham in christ. Love to you all!
ry

The only reason I stumbled on this article is that I am researching a family name that is the Hebrew word for "brother" and saw a NYT wedding announcement with a phonetically identical name for an Igbo young man. Interesting coincidence.

You Igbos need to stop with the low self-esteem. You are not Jews, you are West African and speak a beautiful language. Be proud of your own identity instead of wanting to be something you are not.

Ndi ibo in nigeria are hebrew. According to the holy bible, genesis 46 verse 16 gad and his sons:zephon,haggi,shuni,eri,arod,and areli. Eri people in anambara state,there they people bulid a palace and called it the name of their father GAD.

We Igbos are of the ancient Israeli stock. Not jewish. We one of the company of nation promised to Jacob by GOD.

If the Igbos are jews, than most african americans are jews! White jews don't want this to be true.

There is always a basher who comes along. My scattered people who live beyond the rivers of Ethiopia will come to present ... From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, those who pray to me will bring me tribute. Ancient Ethiopia was a lot larger than its current land. Beyond the rivers G-d says.. The Almighty foretold as did Moses our teacher that in the far future His lost people will harken to His voice and return.

What I find a little troubling about this whole project is the complete absence of any Igbo intellectual's voice in the conversation. I expect to hear informed opinions on this subject. But none has been forthcoming.

Thank you, Chika, for the informed comment. These lost tribe seekers have gotten ridiculous.

No we are certainly not Jews. Linguistic, archaeological, oral history and DNA science disproves the myth very easily. First Igbo has always been Igbo, not Ibo (colonial distortion and problematically many Igbo use Ibo which is incorrect). Secondly, most of the myth arises from researchers during the colonial era of the 19th and 20th centuries who remarked on SIMILARITIES (there are many similarities across populations, however, you need stronger evidence to draw conclusions of origin), some Igbo researchers who have been influenced by foreigners, the fact that Israel supported Biafra during the civil war, and a host of other recent phenomena. Our oral histories never pointed to a Jewish/Hebrew point of origin until RECENTLY. Looking at the history of Nigeria (missionary influence, civil war and so forth) it is clear why. There were no documented Jewish communities in Nigeria pre-19th century, in fact we can even push the date up further.

Many draw the comparison between Jews and ndi Igbo of circumcision practice. The 8 day practice of cirumcision is not universally practiced in Igboland and secondly, ndi Igbo is not special from other West African groups in their circumcision practice.

Another comparison is our method of slaughtering animal and refusal to eat pork in our diet. This is a blatant lie.

The central figure in the film Shmuel Tikvah changed his Igbo last name. This totally defies the premise that Igbo people are Jewish or Hebrew. If he were so confident we were there was no need to change his IGBO name. Tikvah is misguided and looked to the Internet to find his "true" identity. Is that not a red flag in itself? The film is revisiting an old theory about the Hebraic origins of certain West african groups that reputed Igbo and non-Igbo scholars have crushed already. If these Igbo want to convert to Judaism fine that's their issue however, we are NOT Jews and never have been. We have our own origin stories and traditions. We don't need to align ourselves with others to feel a sense of importance or feel were are the "chosen" people.

What do these researchers from the colonial era gain from igbo people being jews?
If they were researchers indeed, then it would be wise to give them the benefit of the doubt, that they had given at the very least considerable thought to what they had to say about the culture of the igbo.
These people might have had some exposure to other african cultures and so it might reasonable to be careful in despising their observations. These people had the opportunity to form their notions as external parties which at times can prove more objective.
I don't think there is anything to get worked up over. Will we stop people from making observations or deride every one for not seeing things from our perspective. People should be free to form their own opinions, we can only hope a good arguement can win them over.
I don't know how long this issue has lingered, but I know that almost every igbo person I have met has an idea of it. Many are willing to accept this, some for incomprehensible reasons. It is good that you have such a strong opinion, still new arguements might spring up, strong enough to convince even you.
I expected by now that such claims would have died down,but they seem somehow to be getting stronger and attracting more attention and more research. This is good because one of these days, the matter would be layed desicively to rest.

Ezi okwu (It is true)! Thank you for saying the truth Chika. Not all of us are fooled by this scam. If anyone is interested in finding out the details of these fraudsters, they should check out http://igbocybershrine.com/2012/11/21/a-re-emerging-scam-a-review-of-the-jews-of-nigeria-part-1/ and http://igbocybershrine.com/2013/01/23/a-re-emerging-scam-a-review-of-the-jews-of-nigeria-part-2-3/

would believe due to some reason.

If only this were a better article, it would be so much more.

The Igbos can't be Jews, they're ol
der. The question should be: Are Jews Igbo?

Thanks Israel for the help during the Biafran War.
Should have done more, but it's ok

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