This year, a documentary came out, entitled: “Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria”, which claims that Igbo people are one of the “Lost Tribes of Israel.” Its a very interesting and entertaining documentary. However, its one that is very much misnamed. What the documentary should be called is “Re-Emerging: The Failed Oriental Hypothesis.” What the filmmaker Jeff Lieberman forgot to inform the audience of was that the propaganda he is trying to push has been debunked for nearly 100 years. Before we even get to review the film, let’s first go through history so we can figure out how this documentary came to be::
The first person to posit any relationship between Igbos and Jews was Oladuah Equianio. In his autobiography he states:
“Such is the imperfect sketch my memory has furnished me with of the manners and customs of a people among whom I first drew my breath. And here I cannot forbear suggesting what has long struck me very forcibly, namely, the strong analogy which even by this sketch, imperfect as it is, 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–an analogy, which alone would induce me to think that the one people had sprung from the other.”
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African (Chapter 1)
This statement compares the two groups, but doesn’t actually say which one came from another. In recent years, evidence has emerged that Equianio (whose legal name was Gutavus Vassa) was actually born and raised in South Carolina, and only wrote about Igboland from the stories he heard others who were born there tell.. Furthermore, one can argue that even if he were born in Igboland as he claimed, Vassa admits that not only is his memory very imperfect (having been removed from his people at such a young age), but that he is now looking at it from a Christian point of view, which would biased him to arguing for a Biblical connection to his people.
Professor Adele Afigbo, one of the prominent Igbo historians writes about other people who speculated on Igbo origins in the Middle Eastern area:
“(George) Basden (1912) pointing to certain constructions found in the Igbo language and what he considered the deep religious feeling of the people, propagated the view that Igbo culture probably evolved under the impact of the Levitical Code.
Impressed by what he considered the superior intelligence of the Aro Igbo and by their religious systems and rituals, (Sir Herbert Richmond ) Palmer contended that they carried Hamitic blood in their veins and that it was under their leadership that the “higher” aspects of Igbo culture had evolved.
Similarly, impressed by Igbo sun-worship and by the feature of dual organization in their social structure, (M.D.W) Jeffreys held that that the Igbo at some stage in the past had come under Egyptian influence, the carriers of this influence probably being the Nri of Akwa in northern Igboland.
The pseudo-scientific racial theories prominent in the colonial period made their impact on the Igbo in two ways. In the first place, colonialism was a severe humiliation for the Igbo. It also gave them Western education, which made them capable of accepting the myths about the cultural similarities between them and the peoples of the Near East. To show that they had not always been as “despicable” as the colonialists found them, they started laying claim to an Eastern origin on the basis of such cultural similarities.
In the same manner, the application of the Oriental hypothesis to Igbo cultural history by colonial officials had a propagandistic side to it. These men refused to concede that the Igbo cultural traits which they traced to the East could indicate that the Igbo came from there. To do so would, in the intellectual climate of the time, have been to assign this despised colonial people a higher place on the world tree of culture than the colonial masters would have found convenient. Instead, the colonial theorists claimed that these traits showed that he Igbo had once been under Egyptian or Jewish cultural dominance. Implicit in this claim was the idea, not hitherto emphasize by anyone, that British colonialism was not a radical departure from the past, but in some sense a continuation of the cultural education of the Igbo which had been started long ago by the Egyptians. In this regard it is revealing that the Oriental hypothesis was imported as an explanation of Igbo history in the 1920s, when the colonial government was experiencing great difficulty in the administration of the Igbo. It was in this situation that it came to be argued first that Igboland had once been under Egyptian influence, second that the spread of Egyptian culture in Igboland was the work of a small elite, who after interbreeding with the people, became the Nri and Aro of today, and third that if the British really wanted to rule the Igbo “indirectly”, then they had to do so through the Nri and the Aro (Afigbo 1965)
By the late 1930s, the Oriental hypothesis had been argued out ad nauseam and abandoned, since no amount of research, not even Matthew’s at Arochukwu and Jeffrey’s at Awka could uncover solid historical or anthropological evidence in its support. C.K Meek, the government anthropologist who had coordinate the research into this and related issues in Igboland, closed the debate as far as the government was concerned when he warned that: “no purpose would be served by engaging in speculations about ancient cultural contacts, such as that the prevalence of sun-worship, of forms of mummification, and of dual organization points to some distance connection with Ancient Egypt. As far back as we can see within historic times, the bulk of the Igbo peoples appear to have lived an isolated existence.”
By 1940 then, the Oriental hypothesis was to all intents and purposes dead as a serious explanation of Igbo culture history.”
“The Culture History of the Igbo Speaking Peoples of Nigeria” by Adiele Afigbo, West African Culture Dynamics: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives pages 307 to 309
This dead in the water theory was resurrected for a brief period of time during the Nigerian-Biafran War, when the Biafran republic received support in the form of arms from Israel, among other nations. Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia also supported Biafra, but nobody uses that as proof as any ancestral connection that Igbos have to any of those white settler regimes.
Over the years, other Igbo historical heavy weights through the years have also weighed in:
“It may well be that the proponents of this oriental hypothesis base their argument on circumstantial evidence. Non-Igbos who believe in this theory drew their conclusion on the strength of some similarities between Igbo sharp practices in trade and moneymaking ventures with that of the Jews. Still other people who buy this theory do so because the Igboman’s resentments in Nigeria resemble those of the Jews. The wide dispersion of the Igbo just like the Jews is also one of the reasons advanced to support this thesis. Today, however, the concept of the oriental or eastern origins is in danger. The idea has been impugned vehemently and is fast losing its credulity. The tradition is considered to be more of a fable than reality. No wonder the theory has been opposed and even rejected by some indigenous writers. Afigbo has written of its proponents as victims of the ‘oriental mirage’ and warned that the oriental extraction should not be taken seriously. Similarly (Professor. Elizabeth) Isichei has dismissed the theory as a ‘mistaken stereotype.’ To (M.A) Onwuejeogwu, the argument is unscientific and only fulfills man’s quests for its origin without coming close to the answer. Because of the caliber of these critics, the first Hermetic hypothesis of the Igbo origins as obsolete and untenable. This is because it has neither established convincingly the circumstances surrounding the original home of the Igbo nor trace chronologically how the Igbo came to live whre they are today. But put more succinctly, contemporary studies on Igbo origin are contending that earliest Igbo first emerged in Nigeria and not from the near or far East.”
“Migration and the Economy: Igbo Migrants and the Nigerian Economy 1900 to 1975” By Mathias Chinonyere Mgbeafulu page 8
“Some elders still claim that the Igbo are the original inhabitants of their present place of abode. Some late theories of Hebrew link are yet to be confirmed with authentic ethnographic data.”
“Some Igbo writers have since then followed him (Dr.George Basden) and written in the same vein saying that the Igbos are of Jewish origin. Some of the undisputed similarities in some Jewish practice and those of the Igbos are stated in support of their claims. One has to observe however that some of the examples given appear too far-fetched…This account of the origin of the Igbo is immediately knocked out out by archeological evidence that Igbos have been in their present settlement from well over 3000 B.C.”
“Igbo People: Their Origin and Culture Area” by Dibia John Umeh (Traditional Priest), Pages 32-33
So by 2012, when this documentary was made, the Oriental hypothesis, that Igbo culture and/or people is derived from Israel Egypt had been abandoned by the very people that promoted it in the first place (Basden, Jeffreys, Palmer, etc) had been dismissed by serious indigenous and non-indigenous academics (Afigbo, Isichei, Onwuejeogwu, Mgbeafulu, Onunwa) and had never been taken seriously by traditional priests (Umeh). You will not find arguments for the Oriental hypothesis in any academic journal, any dissertation or thesis, or any books written by traditional priest or practitioners. So how in the world did this movie actually get made?
There are two sources for the re-emergence of this failed hypothesis. As the film rightly pointed out, the Evangelical Christian movement began to spread like wildfire in Nigeria in the 1970s and 80s. Unlike its predecessors, the Pentecostal churches did not put an emphasis on education for either its clergy or its congregation. Compared to the highly educated Anglican and Catholic Priests, Pentecostal ministers could literally be anyone off the street who received a “calling.” Furthermore, the Pentecostal churches did not open up schools at the same rate or at the same caliber as the Anglican and Catholics did, and also appealed to many uneducated people.
The mid-1980s also saw Nigeria’s once strong economy start to decline due to a poor decisions from the military leadership, as well as Structural Adjustment Programs by the World Bank. By the 1990s, Nigeria’s economic situation was extremely bleak. Many people looked for ways to escape. In 1993, an Igbo migrant worker in Israel named Chima Onyeulo went to the Interior Ministry to claim Israeli citizenship as a “returning” Jew. Onyeulo claimed that although most Igbos were now Christians, they were once Israelites, and on that basis, he should be allowed the “right of return” afforded to Jewish people. Furthermore, he insisted that Igbo was simply a corruption of the word “Hebrew.” His application was rejected.
His failure didn’t deter others from also trying to trying to be recognized as a Jew and escape out of Nigeria. In 1999, after one Igbo man traveled to Israel, he came back and told the rest of his Pentecostal church that they were from Israel , and convinced them embrace Judaism Members of that church became practicing Messianic Judaism, which is Christianity that also keeps some of the Old Testament law. Messianic Judaism constitutes the overwhelming majority of self purported Igbo Jews today. That same year, the Association of Jewish Faith in Nigeria was founded.Is it a coincidence that the Oriental Hypothesis began to re-emerge when Nigeria’s economic and political situation worsened? Does anyone else find it interesting that theres no record of any of these Igbo Jewish groups before the 1990s? How it is that in 2012, Jeff Lieberman has been able to find evidence for this supposed Hebrew lineage that Basden, Jeffreys, Palmer, Meek and Matthews could not nearly 100 years ago before people had embraced Christianity as much as they do now? Isn’t it pretty clear what is going on here?
The Igbo Jews are trying to escape Nigeria by any means. They want Israel to airlift them out of Nigeria as they did to the Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) in the 1991 during Operation Solomon. They have even gone so far as to fabricate physical evidence and create traditions out of thin air that never existed in Igboland. While other Nigerians have used “green card marriages” or fake visas as a way to illegally immigrate out of the nation, these people have decided to pursue the religious route, and imitate foreign Ashkenazi traditions like donning the yamaka caps, which is something that came from Poland. They have even gone so far as to wave the flag as Israel as much as possible, despite the fact that the state Israel as a secular nation and Judaism are not synonymous, and there are many Jews that do not identify with that state. Other commentators on various websites have pointed out the scam as well:
“Fraudsters! If I was an African living in squalor I would also claim to be Jewish to get a free ticket to Israel. The more we indulge these so called ‘Jews’ the more they will continue appearing”
“If Nigeria was a British colony, why couldn’t they find out about Judaism prior to the internet? The same Christian missionaries who converted many Nigerians to Christianity could have given them access to knowledge of Judaism. Were there no Jews in Nigeria during the British era? Wouldn’t the Christians have used the Old Testament which talks about the Jews.
“The men are all circumcised as babies 8 days old??? I’m sure NOT. This is just a scam to get into Israel.”
This comment hit the nail right on the head:
“Well, looking at the situation i Nigeria where there is no social security, no light, no water, no good roads, no affordable health care system coupled with bad governance, one cannot but seek affiliation with another good country that may be willing to accept him. If Nigeria were to be a good country where the welfare of its citizen is well attended to, the Igbos would have denied that they are Jews even if Israel request for them.”
So in conclusion, the only thing that has been re-emerging, is a racist scam that perpetuates the notion that African people are only intelligent enough to create their own traditions. This failed hypothesis, which says that Igbos in particular, could not have derived their culture by themselves, and must have been influenced by Jews or some other foreign group is being used as a means of leaving a failing state. In the next article, we will point out every single false or half-true statement in this video, and start the process of finally killing the debunked Oriental hypothesis once and for all. Please spread the word and don’t let others get caught up in this latest Nigerian scam.
-NwaMazi Onyemobi Desta Anyiwo is a an Igbo cultural scientist and public commentator. He lives in the United States of America