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In 1960 Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom. As with many new African states, the borders of the country did not reflect earlier ethnic, cultural, religious, or political realities. Their boundaries were lines drawn on maps by the colonial powers who arbitrarily carved up Africa with no regard for tribal cultural, religious differences, and rivalries that have persisted to this day. The northern region of Nigeria is Muslim and has more in common with the other Muslim states in Sub-Saharan Africa. The southern population is predominantly Yoruba and Christian. In the Southeast, it is the Igbo who are in the majority.
Over fifty years ago in 1967, the Igbo, fed up with being bullied by the larger tribes declared their state of Biafra, to be independent. For three years the Nigerian army pursued a violent war of suppression and blockade that left, according to some reports as many as millions of the Biafrans dead by starvation and thousands more killed. I, as a young rabbi, was very much involved in supporting Biafra at that time.
After three years of bitter fighting, Biafra capitulated and subsequently the Nigerian government confiscated property, land, and assets and has continued to discriminate against the Igbos in funding, investment, and infrastructure, imprisoning many of its leaders who protested. The tensions have simmered. In 1999 a new movement emerged to try to revive Biafra. This too has been brutally suppressed, its leaders jailed and tortured. But it has been the excuse for the Nigerian authorities to clamp down on the Igbo Jews in ways redolent of anti-Semitism and they are really suffering.
You may wonder what this has to do with me and the reason, not surprisingly, has to do with Judaism. There are millions of Igbos in Nigeria. Amongst them, there are smaller groups of Igbos who identify as Jews and live Jewish lives. What is their origin?
A Christian-educated Igbo man, and freed slave, Olaudah Equiano wrote in 1789 that “the strong analogy which … appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen and those of the Jews before they reached the Land of Promise, and particularly the patriarchs while they were yet in that pastoral state which is described in Genesis induce me to think that the one people had sprung from the other.”
Many Igbos claim they are descended from the so-called Ten Lost Tribes. But others think they were influenced by the Jews expelled by Islamists from Timbuktoo in the fifteenth century. Some have argued that they are the African equivalent of the Khazars of the Caucasus who converted to Judaism in the ninth century to act as a buffer between Islam and Christianity. Perhaps the fiercely independent Igbos wanted to avoid joining either the Christian or the Muslim tribes. Others attribute their Jewish identity to early Christian and Jewish missionaries more loyal to the Old Testament than the New.
The fact is that thousands of Igbos claiming Jewish identity are leading a very Jewish way of life. It is estimated that over 50,000 Igbos practice some form of Judaism and there are currently 70 synagogues, some accommodating thousands and others hundreds.
It was only after the Biafran war that individual Jews in the west became aware of the Jewish background of many Igbos and began to forge links with them despite, as with other so-called lost tribes, facing a lot of skepticism from the Jewish establishment. But individuals and communities both in America and Israel have persisted and have maintained contact, exchanged visits, and provided ritual and educational materials. During the Biafran genocide, Henry Kissinger wrote a memorandum for President Nixon in which he said that “The Ibos 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.”
The Igbo Jews do not see themselves as separatists in Nigeria, but they do really want to be seen as part of the wider Jewish world, according to the spokesman of Abuja’s Gihon Hebrews Synagogue, Prince Azuka Ogbukaa. Indeed, they are becoming more orthodox in order to feel part of the larger community. But they continue to suffer from Nigerian brutality. This past November over 50 Igbos were killed in clashes with security forces, six synagogues were destroyed and people were arrested for the crime of wearing Jewish attire and identifying as Jews. The Jewish communities are being accused of supporting the Biafran separatists, which they do not. And a campaign has been launched against them by the Nigerian armed and secret services that smells very much like anti-Semitism, if not attempted genocide. For example, the attacks escalated after President Trump recognized Jerusalem.
This past month three Israeli filmmakers were arrested in Nigeria together with Ima Lizben Agha the charismatic leader of the Ogidi community. Actually, many remarkable Igbo women have been a feature of Jewish life and keeping the flame alive. The Israelis are involved in a project called “We Were Never Lost” to produce a documentary project about communities in Africa who claim to be Jews. Thanks to the efforts of the Israeli, US, and French embassies, along with other diplomatic channels, the team has been released but they were forced by the Nigerian government to leave the country and Ima Lizben Agha has been released too.
I am certainly no expert on the origins of the Igbos and there is still controversy about the origins of the Ethiopian Jews and other communities long separated from mainstream Judaism. I feel that those who wish to identify with the Jewish people no matter how tenuously or controversially, and who do not practice another religion, should be welcomed and supported as Jews. Even those whose traditions do not completely coincide with the mainstream. And I believe Judaism can only be stronger for it. As with Ethiopian and other Eastern Jews, those of them who want to should be accommodated and helped transition to Israel. But at the very least, the majority who wish to remain in Africa deserve our support.
PS. The announcement that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel will oppose any change whatsoever to its powers over conversion, marriage, and Kashrut comes as no surprise. They are deaf and blind to the issues. In a dream world, they would have said that they would be willing to look carefully at the issues and see if they could find a resolution or accommodation to some of them. But no. Israeli politics and the failure of the rabbinic leadership are, sadly on full display once again and illustrate the toxic atmosphere of religious life in Israel today.
Weekly Torah. Shabbat Shoftim Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
Who is Responsible?
In a part of the Torah, full of important political and social laws, there is one of the weirdest in all the Torah, the Eglah Arufa, the calf whose neck had to be broken (Deuteronomy 21:1-9). Some say it is an example of a law that was never carried out. We should not forget that all the ancient rituals which may seem so strange to us now, had great significance in those days even if we may no longer understand why the message is as clear today as it was then.
Here is the text
If a dead body is found lying in the open and the identity of the slayer is not known, the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a young calf which has never been worked, or pulled in a yoke and the elders of that town shall bring it down to an overflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown….There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of God over every lawsuit and case of assault according to the law. Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the calf whose neck was broken in the wadi. And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, God Your people Israel and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain upon Your people Israel… for you must do what is right in the sight of the God.”
There is much discussion as to the meaning of the words as well as the procedure. What is clear is that someone has been killed, and it is the community that bears responsibility both for finding the killer and for preventing crime. One opinion in the Talmud is that this whole procedure is to publicize the crime in the hope that someone who witnessed it will come forward. This suggests that something is wrong in a specific society.
Unlike religious sacrifice, this animal is not slaughtered in the normal way, so this is a civil ceremony. It cannot have been used in any way or eaten. Its life has been cut short without any benefit. The unproductivity of the ground where it is taken to be killed symbolizes the curse on the land that resulted from Abel’s senseless murder. And washing hands is a way of saying one is not responsible legally even if one might be morally ( a custom the Romans governors took from the Bible). The elders may not have been not personally responsible, but in a way they are. When things go wrong in a society everyone, including the leadership shares in the crime. The priests and Levites are responsible too because they were the teachers and educators, and everyone else because they should have been better citizens and neighbors. The fact that no one has come forward with any evidence implies that some people were knowingly shielding the criminals.
This is another example of a law that is more important in its moral message than in the actual execution. It is that we all must bear some degree of blame when something goes wrong within our societies. Whether because we turn a blind eye or make excuses or pretend that it is not so important or allow our mistaken political dogmas to blind us to crime. As we see nowadays that violence is often being excused. We are to blame when things go wrong, and we should not minimize crime or try to shift the blame onto others.