African, Black – and Part of the Global Jewish Community?

African Jewish identities challenge the misconception that Jewishness equals whiteness. They raise questions about what Jewish identity really is – and a case in point is among Nigeria's 30 million Igbo.

Izuchukwu Onuchukwu stands beside the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in Abuja, Nigeria.
Shai Afsai

While Jewish self-identification is found in many African countries today, it is nowhere as prevalent as in Nigeria, “the giant of Africa.” Members of a number of Nigerian ethnic groups self-identify as Jews, with the phenomenon most predominant among the Igbo, the country’s third-largest ethnic group, which numbers over 30 million people.

When in 2013 Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, a former governor of Nigeria’s Abia State, delivered a speech at the British House of Commons on “The historical plight and precarious future of Igbo people in Nigeria,” he answered the question “Who are the Igbo?” by quoting from a 1969 memorandum by Henry Kissinger: “The Igbos are the wandering Jews of West Africa — gifted, aggressive, Westernized; at best envied and resented, but mostly despised by the mass of their neighbors in the [Nigerian] Federation.” 

Over one million Igbo died between 1967 and 1970 during their failed bid for Biafran independence from Nigeria. Many Igbo came to see themselves as victims of genocide, like the Jews during World War II, and as inhabitants of a beleaguered plot of land surrounded by hostile forces, similar to the state of Israel.

As a result of decades of British colonialism and missionary activity, most Igbo now follow various forms of Christianity, rather than their ancestral Igbo religion. However, even many of those practicing Christianity consider themselves descendants of the tribes of Israel and hold their indigenous ancestral religion to be a residual form of Judaism. At least 2,000 Igbo practice Rabbinic Judaism in Nigeria.

Given that so many of its citizens identify with and as Jews, Nigeria, perhaps more so than any other country in Africa, raises striking questions about Jewish identity. For example, what ought to be the relationship between global Jewry and those in Nigeria who consider Jews their kin? More importantly, what ought to be the relationship of Jews around the world to communities of people, such as those several thousand in Nigeria, who see themselves as Jews and also practice Judaism, but are not yet part of world Jewry’s religious associations and communal institutions? 

One barrier to the latter’s integration into world Jewry’s associations and institutions is legalistic. Apart from a handful who have formally converted to Judaism before a bet din (religious court), those practicing Judaism in Nigeria are not currently recognized as Jews by any Jewish denomination or according to halakha (Jewish law). 

Another possible barrier may be racial, since some Western Jews have mistakenly come to associate Jewishness with skin-color. Igbo have been grappling with Jewish identity and the color question for quite some time. In his popular autobiography Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, first published in London in 1789, one finds Equiano, an Igbo, remarking on “the strong analogy” that “appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countryman, and those of the Jews.” Equiano points to circumcision, sacrifices, and purifications as examples of this resemblance, and concludes that the Igbo and Jews are of the same stock. “As to the difference of color between the Eboan [Igbo] Africans and the modern Jews, I shall not presume to account for it,” Equiano writes. 

A very similar exposition, though with an added awareness of twenty-first-century racial discourse, is found in Jeff Lieberman’s 2012 documentary Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria. The film’s Igbo protagonist, Shmuel Tikvah, tells Lieberman: “The color of our ancestors who migrated [from Israel to Nigeria] is not what I can tell.  I don’t want to sound racist.  If I say Abraham is black, then I’ll be saying his white descendants are not his descendants.  And if I say he’s white, then I may be saying he cannot have black descendants.  So I think it [i.e., the fact that most Jews are not black, while the Igbo are] has to do with environmental factors.”

Even apart from the color question, self-identifying Jewish groups without documented historical connections to more established Jewish communities face considerable challenges in gaining recognition. And Jewish identity in Nigeria is further complicated by the fact that, as mentioned, only a small minority of Igbo follow Judaism. 

Howard Gorin, an American rabbi who visited Nigeria several times and had a significant impact on the course of Judaism in the country, once put the following questions to me about those practicing Judaism there: “They identify with the Jewish people and they want to practice Judaism. Now that they’ve thrown their lot with us, what are our responsibilities to them? How can we enhance their standing in the Jewish community?” 

Jewish associations and institutions in America and Israel have yet to seriously consider the possible answers to such questions, as well as to the Jewish identity questions raised by Judaism in Nigeria. 

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