Jewish Identity Among the Igbo of Nigeria: Israel’s “Lost Tribe” and the Question of Belonging in the Jewish State
By Daniel Lis (African World Press, NJ 2015), Reviewed by Remy Ilona
Daniel Lis, PhD, is a Swiss-Israeli social anthropologist who earned his doctorate in Jewish Studies from the University of Basel, Switzerland. He studied general Igbo history, Igbo identification as Jews, and Igbo cultural history as part of his doctoral work. A major aim of his work was to determine if the Igbo actually have ancestral linkages with the ancient Israelites, and how both the Igbo and the Jews, in the Diaspora and in Israel, have responded to and treated each other in modern times.
Jewish Identity Among The Igbo of Nigeria: Israel’s “Lost Tribe” and the Question of Belonging in the Jewish State came to fruition as a result of Dr. Daniel Lis having met an Igbo gentleman in Switzerland who told him that he was Jewish and that the Igbo are Jewish. Dr. Lis traveled to Nigeria, touring many cities and various parts of Igboland. While in Nigeria he interviewed many Igbo: in buses and taxis, on motorcycle rides, in people’s homes, in the synagogues, and at various Igbo communities such as Nri, which is the headquarters of a certain class of the Igbo priesthood.
He also went to my hometown, Ozubulu. While traveling in Igboland, Dr. Lis visited Abia State University in Abia State and the University of Nigeria in Enugu State to hear what the scholars in both institutions knew about the subject of the Igbo as descendants of the Hebrews. He interviewed officials of the Israeli embassy in Abuja and other Jews living and doing business there as well. After his journey through Nigeria, he traveled back to Europe and attended numerous meetings of the Igbo in his native Switzerland as well as France. Later he flew to Australia and the United States to meet and interview Igbo based in both countries.
During the time of his research, Dr. Lis asked more than 500 Igbo about the supposed Igbo connection to the Jews. The overwhelming majority confirmed such a connection and only a few individuals outright rejected such a claim.
Throughout this book, the author addresses the widespread belief that the Igbo originated in ancient Israel as well as the supposed Igbo connections to Judaism. In addition to the personal interviews which Dr. Lis conducted, he engaged in a thorough review of much of the academic and non-academic books and papers that have mentioned that the Igbo have, or may have, an uncommon relationship with the Jewish people. He also surveyed the Igbo religion scrupulously by interviewing the custodians: the elders in Nri and in the modern synagogues of the Igbo in Abuja. The book is an in-depth study and a genealogical history of the Igbo’s long-time narrative of their Jewish origin and accordingly provides ground for written Igbo history to be looked at from a different perspective, i.e. from the way it has been looked at since the independence era of Nigeria. He engaged with the Igbo, who in their own words are reverting and not converting to Judaism, and studied their culture which they are convinced demonstrates they are returnee Jews and not people that are converting to Judaism.
The book, which incorporates aspects of many of the humanities in its methodology, shows that consistently for at least 250 years the Igbo, and some non-Igbo, have maintained that the Igbo were Jews or were very much like Jews. The book also succinctly captures the place of the Igbo in pre- and post-Biafra, Nigeria, and narrates how the Igbo, having a special relationship with the Israeli government, offered to accommodate the Israelis when the other Nigerians barred them from entering some parts of Nigeria. The author also discussed how Israel helped the Igbo when other Nigerians began to kill the Igbo in 1966, killings which culminated in the tragedy inappropriately called the Nigeria-Biafra War. Lis recounted how one of the chief rabbis of Israel participated in demonstrations in front of the Knesset, protesting the attacks against the Igbo which many have described as genocidal. The chief rabbi condemned the murders, likening it to the Holocaust.
Proceeding to post-Biafra, the author discusses how, in a country which is potentially explosive, some Igbo who were born Christians became Rabbinic Jews without prompting from external sources, and how they later received encouragement and assistance from individual Jews, and from Kulanu and other organizations.
Over the past thirty years, many Igbo Jewish communities have been established in Nigeria. As mentioned earlier, Lis described his interactions with members of these communities and how he went to Israel and studied important developments there that have to do with the Igbo and the Israeli government and public. Some Igbo, beginning with one Chima Onyeulo who lived in Italy and was recommended by the Italian-Jewish authorities, made their way to Israel where they, in their own words, reverted to Judaism. Lis studied this development, and also studied the reaction of the Israeli government and public to the phenomenon. While some sections of the government and public showed sympathy to the cause of the Igbo, some did not.
Lis, himself, was also not comfortable that those people who were not sympathetic toward the Igbo cause made no effort to study Igbo history and culture. He repeatedly wondered why Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, who traveled the world in search of lost Jews, did not visit the Igbo, yet felt competent enough to offer an opinion on a matter as weighty as the Jewishness or “Israelitishness” of the Igbo. Lis was uneasy with what the Israeli government relied on when formulating its decision and policy: a report written by an academic without any record of involvement in Igbo studies or knowledge of it. Lis wrote clearly that he was of the opinion that the judgment or decision of the Israeli authorities which was followed by deportations of Igbo that had even undergone ultra-Orthodox conversions was short-sighted.
Lis worked as an interested observer, but a very professional one. This is, perhaps, to be expected, as he is also Jewish. But as I noted earlier, he was meticulously professional. The book is both a history and an ethnography of the Igbo. The author began with what may be regarded as the myths or oral traditions of the Igbo. He then reviewed discussions and references to the Igbo in written sources, some as old as four hundred years. After collating data from all over the world, he moved to Israel to study the Igbo living in Israel and how those Igbo were perceived by the Israeli government.
In my opinion, the survey and the report in the 271 pages of this book are major ethnographic contributions to the study of the Igbo people. As I mentioned, the scholar meticulously questioned numerous Igbo, studied what others wrote and said about the Igbo, and his work touched on many vital aspects of Igbo life and history (for example, the book dealt extensively with Biafra which was a watershed in Igbo experience).
However, no book is totally without some flaws. While considering the matter of the Jewishness of the Igbo, Lis offered that ‘some’ Jews very likely made their way across the desert. Lis may be implying that Jews and ‘Africans’ produced the Igbo, a position which though an improvement on what the mainstream in academia believes--that Jews were not known to have crossed the desert--is nevertheless in some measure an agreement with the academic consensus which views Israel in the north and west as established fact, but in a place like Igboland as a phenomenon. But this does not in any way reduce the power of the book which is a masterful and seminal study of the Igbo. It is rather an opening which Lis could utilize to do more work among the Igbo.
Remy Ilona is a spokesperson for the Igbo and a long time friend of Kulanu. He has written several books on the topic and blogs for the Times of Israel. He is completing a Master of Arts at Florida International University in Professor Tudor Parfitt's Global Jewish Studies program. Remy recently returned from a trip to Israel.