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Secessionist surge: Behold Nigerians who want Israel to accept them as Jews

Shlomo Ben Yaakov wants to become Nigeria's first rabbi

Shlomo Ben Yaakov wants to become Nigeria’s first rabbi

Moving backwards and forwards, Shlomo Ben Yaakov peruse from a Torah scroll at a synagogue on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.

At irregular intervals his soft mellow voice rises in Hebrew and he is connected by the dozens who repeat after him.

Most of them do not fully understand the language, yet this small Nigerian community claims Jewish ancestry dating back hundreds of years – and they are left unattended by a lack of recognition by Israel.

“I consider myself a Jew,” says Mr Yaakov.

Outside the Gihon Hebrew Synagogue in the suburb of Jikwoyi a table is set down inside a tent built from palm leaves to celebrate Sukkot, a festival that recall and show respect for the years Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land.

Mr Yaakov says, “Just as we are doing this now, they are doing same in Israel,”

as people share traditional cholla bread (baked at the synagogue) and wine from small cups being passed around.

He is an Igbo – one of Nigeria’s three ascendant ethnic groups which began in the south-east of the country. His given Igbo name is Nnaemezuo Maduako.

Unlike their parents, most of Nigeria’s young Jews have known no other religion

A large number of Igbos are convinced that they have Jewish heritage as one of the presumed 10 lost tribes of Israel, though most are not observing the teaching and rules of the Jews like Mr Yaakov. They consist of less than 0.1% of the roughly 35 million Igbos.

These ethnic group were said to have vanished after being taken into incarceration when the northern Israelite kingdom was overcome and taken control of in the 8th Century BC – and the Ethiopian Jewish community, for example, is acknowledge as one of them.

Igbo customs such as male circumcision, lamentations for the dead for seven days, commemorating the new moon and conducting wedding ceremonies under a canopy have strengthened this belief about their Jewish endowment.

‘No proof’
But an Igboman Chidi Ugwu, who is an anthropologist at the University of Nigeria in Enugu, says this empathy with Judaism appeared only after the Biafran civil war.

The Igbos had been fighting for break-up from Nigeria, but lost what was a cruel clash between 1967-1970.

Some say the belief that Igbos have Jewish heritage emerged after their defeat in the civil war in which more than one million died

A fairly large number of people

“were looking for some psychological boost to hang on to”

so started making the Jewish connection, he says.

They saw themselves as victimized people, just as Jewish people have been through Biblical history, mostly during the devastation.

He told the BBC that,

“It is insulting to call the Igbos the lost tribe of anybody, there is no historical or archaeological evidence to back that up,”.

He also argues that  proof proposed that the Igbos were among those who wander out of Egypt several thousand years ago, it may as well be that Jews picked up Igbo customs when they went there.

Many years ago contentious efforts were made to prove a genetic ancestry, but a DNA test found no Jewish link.

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz, chairman of the foreign affairs department of the Rabbinate Council of Israel – the body that determines claims of Jewish ancestry, is also in no doubt.

“They claim to be one of the descendants of Gad, one of the sons of our forefather Jacob – but they can’t prove their grandparents were Jewish,” he told the BBC.

“And the customs they speak of, you can find people all over the world who have Jewish practices.”

He said unless the Nigerian Jews converted to Judaism – a procedure that entails several rituals and appearing before a Jewish court (which is by the way unavailable in Nigeria) – they would not be accepted.

Mr Yaakov consider the idea of having to go through a spiritual rebirth as an insult.

“As a convert we would be seen as second-class citizens,” he says.

Secessionist surge
The congregants at Gihon took their faith solemnly – and they and Nigeria’s estimated 12,000-strong group of practicing Jews – are supported by many other Orthodox Jewish groups around the world, which donate to them, make agreement visits and crusade for their acceptance
One eminent supporter is Dani Limor, a former Mossad agent who once ran an operation to privately take Ethiopian Jews to Israel via Sudan. He has been visiting the Jewish communities in Nigeria since the 1980s and argues that Jewish practice in the West African nation exist earlier than the civil war.

He have confidence in a school of thought that says they came from Morocco 500 years ago, first reach an agreement in Timbuktu before travelling further south – and he hopes they will finally get the acceptance they deserve.

He told the BBC, “Judaism goes beyond the color of the skin, it is in the heart,”

Gihon synagogue, believed 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 resolved to turn to Judaism when they understood the Bible’s Old Testament was the footing of the Jewish religion.

He said it was like the Jew in him had been revived – and given the likeness between Jewish customs and Igbo traditions he was completely certain that Judaism was the true path.

Many Nigerian Jews see Nnamdi Kanu’s Judaism as politically calculated to win sympathy abroad for his separatist cause

Abuja’s Gihon synagogue now has a combination of non-identical genetic groups among the more than 40 families who attend.

The BBC’s Chiagozie Nwonwu, an expert on the region says, Few years back the number of those worshiping as Jews in southern Nigeria has increased sharply.

This is obviously and largely thanks to the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob), a group which restarted the Igbo crusade for breakaway in 2014.

It is led by Nnamdi Kanu, who has reminded his followers of their professed Jewish inheritance and encouraged them to embrace the faith. The charismatic leader was once allegedly pictured praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The first time Ipob emerged, I cried at the synagogue”
Ovadai Avichai
Gihon Hebrew Synagogue founder

Still his followers are not regarded as genuine Jews by Nigeria’s more entrenched communities as some combine elements of Judaism and Christianity in their worship most connected with Messianic Judaism.

Mr Kanu is now in incarceration facing trial for treason and Ipob, which has recently taken up arms, has been proscribed as a terrorist group.

“The first time Ipob emerged, I cried at the synagogue. I said: ‘This young boy has come to cause problems for us because what he’s doing is unnecessary,'” says Mr Avichai, a Biafra war veteran.

He alarmed the activities of Ipob endanger the peaceful worship of the 70 or so apolitical Jewish communities.

 

Nigeria

This occurred earlier this year when a Jewish community leader in the south-east was imprisoned for a month after her faithful received three visitors from Israel.

They came to film the donation of a Torah scroll – usually too costly for local groups to buy – but were accused of having links to Ipob and deported.

A worshiper at Gihon told me Mr Kanu had affected his decision to join the synagogue – but the recent growth of Ipob’s crusade into an armed struggle went against the principle of Judaism.

Mr Yaakov is not strongly attracted in the politics around being Jewish – for him it is the spiritual aspect that is significant.

Official acceptance by Israel of the fragment of Igbos like him as Jews would help the religious community become more assembled in Nigeria. For example, presently there is no chief rabbi and finding kosher products can be a problem. They are usually only marketed in a few shops owned by Jewish expats – the group generally eats what is produced locally to enable them follow Kosher rules.

Mr Yaakov would love to train to become the first Nigerian rabbi, something that can only be done by studying at a rabbinical school or under an experienced rabbi.

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

“If the Christians and Muslims can accept their own and support them, then I think the Jews should also show some encouragement.”

More on Biafra and the secessionists:

Remembering the war that many prefer to forget

Who is Nnamdi Kanu?

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