For ages now, the Igbo people of Nigeria have claimed to be one of the lost tribes of the Jewish family. The claim to the Jewish heritage by Igbo people has been marred in many controversies by many who discredit it while many others embrace it with all their souls. Both Igbos and non-Igbos partake in both acceptance and undermining of this claim. Does Igbo people really have Jewish heritage? This question remains the most phenomenal issue amongst the Igbos after their quest for Biafran independence.
Mr. Adeyinka Makinde on October 22nd 2007 at a seminar in Cecil Sharp House, Camden Town in North London, delivered a speech on a special Black History event for the Jewish Museum. In his speech, he stressed on the point that one must not agree with him, that though not fully proven, the Igbos have a strong link with the Jews in the Holy land of Israel. Throughout his speech, he maintained that he is not Igbo and he is not Jewish but as a researcher, was compelled to doing so based on the level of connection discovered already by researchers on this issue.
In 1789, thirteen years after America?s independence, Olaudah Equiano, a Christian Educated Igbo freed slave made a remark in his narrative on this same subject. He was quoted as saying, “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, which alone would induce me to think that the one people had sprung from the other.” His essay was discarded just like the notion of Igbos being Jewish by some historians while some other historians still carefully study it alongside other evidences pointing to this fact. Mr. Equiano which was an English way of spelling Ikwuano meaning ?four kindred? was known throughout his life time as Gustavus Vessa. He was not only known to propagate Igbo-Jewish heritage but was also a loud voice against slave trade. Just like King Jaja of Opobo kingdom, he gained his freedom by hard work and strong belief to excel in whatever he does which he considered another hallmark of his Jewish heritage.
Sidney Davies who is the President and Lead Director at Niger Association of Global Africana Sciences – NAGAS and Senior Research Fellow at Catherine Acholonu Research Center for African Studies argues based on excerpt from Equiano?s quote, ?one people had sprung from the other.? He argued that Equiano?s statement does not ?necessarily or logically follow or conclude that the Igbos came from the Jews and thus are Jews, for Equiano also allows in his analogy the possibility that the Jews might have sprung from the Igbos.? Based on the Equiano?s statement in his philosophical narrative, one people could have come from the other which leaves the room that the Jews could possibly have come from the Igbos. His argument did not discredit the claim but leaves room for more clarification. This idea was based on the many similarities which exists in both Igbo and Jewish cultures, languages and idiosyncrasies which many believe to have gone beyond mere coincidences.
Some Igbos believe that Igbo people did not migrate from anywhere thus an autochthonous people in eastern Nigeria. This point of view was mentioned in Dr. Elizabeth Isichei book titled ?History of the Igbo People? where she quoted an unidentified Mbaise elder as saying that, ?the Igbos did not come from anywhere and that the ancestors of the Igbo people originated from where they live today starting from Nri, an ancient clan in present Anambra state.? Enough have been said about the pros and cons on Igbos being Jewish or having Jewish origin.
It is imperative to note striking similarities in many aspects of life between the two people?s socio-religious beliefs and way of life. First and foremost, Igbos are adventurous and aggressive like the Jews. The Igbo and Jewish customs permit a man to raise children from his brother?s widow. Both the Igbos and the Jews have a common tradition of lengthy funeral ceremony (Genesis 50:1-3). Igbos and the Jews have common circumcision date, the eight-day following the delivering of every male child. Igbos and the Jews use intermediaries in marriage negotiations and make a thorough family background check, this is practicable in Igboland up to the present time. Abraham did it while negotiating Rebecca for Isaac (Genesis 24.). Late Professor Dike?s book ?The Living Document of Ekwulobia?, which was expanded by I.C.U Enochusi propagated that Igbos have three origins and settled in their homes in two different periods. According to him, the first subdivision of Igbo people were pure Jewish stock that wandered through north east Africa down to their present settlement. These stock of Igbo people are said to be the Nris, Igbo ukwus, Aros and Otuochas. The second stock of Igbos came from eastward movement of population from Benin in 17th century A.D. which resulted in increased population of the Ika Igbos who are mainly found in present day Delta State. The third Igbo origin is the Benue River region origin. These Igbos migrated from Igala country of the lower Benue River into Igbo belt late 17th century A.D. to avoid the Fulani slave trade. Majority of these Igala Igbos settled in the Northern part of the Igbo territory and are mostly inhabitants of Anambra east and west local government areas and some parts of northern Enugu state.
All these wouldn?t make much meaning if the wooden stool in Nri, which is considered as the cradle of Igbos does not exist, more so existing in the said location before Igbos made any contact with outsiders. The wooden stool is said to be made from a wood whose tree only exists or grows in the city of Jerusalem. This appears to be one of the most compelling evidences of Igbo Jewish heritage that ignited former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to send delegates to Igboland in search of ?Eri? with the purpose of establishing this fact. The research in this regard is still on but to what extent can one think of Igbos having Jewish origin or the possibility of Jews springing out from Igbos still rages.
by OObi Ebuka Onochie can be reached via [email protected]