According to oral traditions, the Ibo have resided in “Iboland,” a region of modern-day Nigeria, for over 1500 years. Before that, the tradition asserts that they were migrants from ancient Israel. There exist a number of theories that explain from whom the Ibo are descendant, and how they came to reside in Nigeria. One theory contends that the Ibo are the descendants of a number of Jacob’s son. Within the Ibo, there exist three ethnic sub-identities. They are Benei Gath, Benei Zevulun and Benei Menashsheh,
The Ibo of Benei Gath are said to have descended from Gath (Gad), the eighth son of Jacob. The lineage traces itself through Gath’s son, Eri ben-Gath. A number of Ibo clans claim this identity. They are the Aguleri, Umuleri, Oreri, Enugwu Ikwu, Ogbunike, Awkuzu, Nteje and Igbariam.
The Ibo of Benei Zevulun trace their ancestry to Jacob’s fifth son, Zevulun. Tradition holds that a descendant of Zevulun named Zevulunu married Oji, a descendant of the tribe of Judah. They had a son: Ozubulu ben-Zebulunu. Ozubulu had four sons who are said to have settled in various areas located in what is now Nigeria. The resulting ethnic sub-identities are the Neni, Egbema Ugwuta, and Ohaji Egbema.
The Ibo of Benei Menashsheh are believed to be descendant from Meneshsheh (Menashe), the son of Joseph, Jacob’s eleventh son. The Amichi, Ichi and Nnewi-Ichi ethnicities trace their lineage to Menashe.
There exist other theories that explain how the Ibo Benei-Yisrael are the descendants of ancient Israelites. One such theory postulates that the Ibo are descendants of Levitical migrants. The theory contends that the Levites left Judah in the periods of destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. They are said to have settled in Jerban, Tunisia. A more likely theory states that the Ibo Benei-Yisrael are the descendants of clans of ancient Israelis and Judeans that fled the Levant before and during the Assyrian and Babylonian sieges. This particular theory explains how individual Ibo sub-ethnicities would have oral traditions that link them to specific tribes.
According to 9th-century Jewish traveler Eldad ben-Mahli (Eldad the Danite), the Ibo Benei-Yisrael may be descendants of members of several of the “Lost Tribes of Israel.” He contended that the Jews of Africa came from the tribes of Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher, who had fled the Land of Israel so as not to participate in the civil war between Judah and Israel during the time of Jereboam’s succession and reign over the Northern Kingdom (922-901BCE or 931-910 BCE). Eldad contended that these Jews originally settled in Havilah, beyond the rivers of Ethiopia. With them, they had a copy of the Tanach, less the books of Esther and Lamentations. These Jews had no knowledge of the Mishna or Babylonian Talmud, but had devised their own Talmudic tradition, in which all the laws were credited to Yehoshua bin Nun, who received them from Moses.
Just as there exist a number of theories about from whom the Ibo are descendant, there are as many theories as to how they came to reside in Nigeria.
One theory holds that ancient Hebrews and later, ancient Israelis migrated west from the Arabian Peninsula through Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan. No one is certain when ancient Hebrews first emigrated from the Middle East and settled in West Africa. It is thought that they began to arrive before 202 BCE, the date associated with the arrival of iron working civilizations in West Africa (e.g. the Nok).
An additional theory states that North African Jews traded and traveled within the West African Kingdoms of Mali, Songhai and Kanem-Bornu. Jews are believed to have been a prominent demographic in these empires. It is even thought that several rulers of the Songhai empire had Jewish roots. It appears however that Judaism in the West African empires came to an abrupt end when Askia Muhammad came to power and in 1492, ordered that all Jews convert to Islam or face expulsion.
Another theory maintains that Jews traveling with trade caravans from Northeast Africa moved through West Africa. According to certain accounts, such as Travels in North Africa by Nahum Slouschz, Jewish identity can be found in North Africa since the founding of Carthage, specifically, descendants of the tribes of Zevulun and Asher.
Persecution and trade have been the major influencing factors in how the Jews migrated through Africa. During periods of Islamic persecution and for the purposes of trade, Jews moved from communities in Egypt, Ethiopia, Tunisia and Morocco to more remote regions of North and West Africa. Trade routes to West Africa may have been established as early as the period in which David ruled Israel, and the term Tarshish, found in the Tanach, may refer to the Ivory Coast of West Africa.
The decline of the Jewish communities of West Africa can be traced to the arrival of Muslim invaders in the 14th and 15th centuries. North and West African Jews banded with other local communities of Berbers, Christians and Greeks to ward of the invaders, but eventually succumbed. Many were forced to convert to Islam, sold into slavery or simply massacred. In the face of this persecution written traditions, such as the Torah, were lost. The Ibo Benei-Yisrael, though having no written evidence of their Jewish heritage, maintained a strong oral tradition and practiced many Jewish customs in secret. Records of these medieval Jewish communities, found in the Timbuktu, Mali Islamic Library, indicate the presence of Jewish families in the region before the arrival of Islam in the 1300’s CE.
In modern-day Nigeria, the Ibo Bnei-Yisrael practice a number of customs borne of Jewish tradition. Males are circumcised on their 8th day of life, women are separated during their menstrual cycles, the cross-breeding of plants and animals is forbidden, as is the consumption of non-kosher animals. Even Yom Kippur and Sukkoth are celebrated. There has been a resurgence of Jewish learning among the Ibo Benei-Yisrael. There are currently 26 Ibo and non-Ibo synagogues in Nigeria and Hebrew and Torah study have increased as well. The Ibo continue to work with researchers to better trace their history, so that they may be recognized as Jews by Israel, and therefore be eligible for Israel’s Law of Return.
Rabbi Howard Gorin made several visits to Nigeria starting in 2003 after he was invited by a leader of the Nigerian-Jewish community and he observed that many Igbo consider themselves ethnically Jewish, but practice Christianity - what is known as 'Messianic Judaism'. There are also some Yoruba who claim to have Jewish roots, but amongst the Hausa this is not a common occurrence.
Nigerian Jews may observe kosher dietary laws and keep the Sabbath, and some also maintain a belief in Jesus. Fully practicing Jews are known as 'Orthodox,' though Rabbi Gorin estimates that less than 10,000 ‘Orthodox' Jews live in all of Nigeria. Nigerian Synagogues are often dual-purpose common meeting rooms in the middle of a housing compound. Several Torahs circulate in the small community.
Jews in Nigeria can be faced with ostracization, discrimination, and can be cut off from their family if they convert to Judaism. This attitude comes mostly from Nigerian Christians as Islam, despite being the dominant religion in Northern Nigeria, is not very prevalent in Southeastern Nigeria; where the majority of Nigeria's Jews are. Rabbi Gorin argued that in order for the Igbo Jewish community to be accepted by the larger community, they would need to show their commitment to Judaism through a conversion ceremony.
The wider Jewish world began taking more notice of the Ibo in 2012 - filmmaker Jeff Lieberman released a documentary “Re-emerging: The Jews of Nigeria,” and Northeastern University professor William F.S. Miles published “The Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey."