Religious group from Arizona claims DNA testing proves that Igbo tribe are not genetically Jewish, drawing ire
In a move that has garnered condemnation and anger from Nigerian Jews and international scholars, Jewish Voice Ministries, a messianic group from Arizona, announced this week that the Igbo are not “genetically” Jewish based on their private DNA tests. (Messianic Judaism, whose adherents consider Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah, is regarded by Israel and Jewish organizations as a form of Christianity.)
Jewish Voice Ministries said they traveled to Nigeria to investigate claims that the Igbo people are descendants of ancient Israelites. Some Igbo believe that the term “Igbo” is a bastardized version of the word “Hebrew” and point to many cultural similarities between Igbo traditions and Judaism.
“The purpose of the tests was to provide them with testing and the pursuit of truth in terms of historical identity,” said a spokesman for Jewish Voice Ministries. “The DNA did not support their claim to be an ancient people of Israel, but we still consider them our brothers through common faith in the Messiah Yeshua.”
Remy Ilona, a Nigerian lawyer and professor, strongly denounced the test. Ilona is Igbo and a member of the approximately 10,000 Igbos who follow what he calls “rabbinical Judaism.” Ilona, a Times of Israel blogger, recently graduated from Florida International University with a Master’s in Religious Studies and will be an adjunct professor there in the fall.
“There is no test that can prove Jewishness,” said Ilona. “The culture has to point in that direction, and maybe a test can confirm what the culture is already saying.”
“The Igbos that are connecting to Judaism have no connection to these DNA tests and we oppose this,” he added.
Ilona said he understands why some Igbos agreed to get tested. “Africa is an area of the world that everyone tends to look down on,” he said. “Even though my Israelite culture is strong, because we’re Africans we are viewed with skepticism. I wanted that [question] to be covered so if you talk about culture, we will provide proof that our culture is Jewish.”
But Ilona was furious about the way the test was conducted. “The Jewish Voice came in and gave people the impression it’s a Jewish organization,” he said.
Ilona added that he views the Jewish Voice Ministry’s attempt to connect with the Redeemed Israel Community of Nigeria as thinly veiled proselytizing. He also faulted the organization’s testing methodology for being faulty and incomplete. He said the sample test group was too small given the vast population of Igbo, and in parts of Nigeria that are not majority Igbo. The Jewish Voices Ministry spokesman refused to comment on the organization’s testing methodology or other issues.
“I’d like to do a DNA test myself of those people [from Jewish Voice Ministries] who are coming to Nigeria,” to determine if they’re really Jewish, said Ilona.
The Jewish Voice Ministry also provides medical care and services to international communities as part of its social outreach. In March, the head of Jewish Voice, Jonathan Bernis, told the Forward that the organization will base their medical outreach to Nigeria on the results of the test.
“We go to areas with a Jewish population or people who are historically tied to the Jewish people to provide aid,” Bernis told The Forward. “The result of the DNA testing would determine what degree of service we provide going forward.”
‘I know my ancestors were at Mt. Sinai, but maybe some of the Igbos don’t have that information’
Despite his dismissal of the Jewish Voice’s test, Ilona still believes that DNA tests can hold important information, but they should be done on a personal basis for people who are interested in learning more about their history, not by an outside group with a vested agenda. Ilona did a private DNA test himself a few months ago and found that he has Western Semitic roots which traced to the Red Sea region, which he believes proves his genetic ties to Judaism.
“I know my ancestors were at Mount Sinai, but maybe some of the Igbos don’t have that information,” he said.
Professor Tudor Parfitt, a world-renowned scholar who was one of the first people to utilize DNA testing to hypothesize about Jewish migration into Africa, called the Jewish Voice Ministry’s test “irresponsible.”
Parfitt, the head of Jewish Studies at Florida International University, where Ilona studies, gained recognition for his work in determining, via DNA, that the Lemba tribe in Zimbabwe and South Africa migrated from the Middle East. This was widely accepted as proof for the tribe’s oral tradition of being Jewish. He started his research into the subject on a trip to Israel in 1998 when he walked along the beach in Tel Aviv and asked Israelis who self-identified as kohanim, or part of the priestly class, to have their cheek swabbed so Parfitt could map their DNA. He was one of the scientists who worked to identify the “Cohen modal haplotype,” a specific DNA marking unique to descendants of Aaron, was found in 52% of kohanim on the Tel Aviv promenade.
Afterwards, the Lemba tribe in Zimbabwe turned to Parfitt and asked to have their DNA tested in order to support their claims of Jewish identity. Parfitt agreed, and found that many members of the Lemba tribe, especially a sub-clan called Buba, shared the same genetic marker of the Cohen haplotype.
Parfitt is quick to point out that this DNA marker does not mean that the Lemba tribe is Jewish, but rather that the tribe likely migrated to Africa from the Middle East. Since this migration dovetails with the oral history of the tribe that they were descended from Israelites, it was widely interpreted that the Lemba are “genetically” Jewish.
“The DNA in that case seemed to justify the fact that there was a connection of some sort that solidified their faith and their Jewish or Semitic origin,” said Parfitt.
“Many people now believe their claim to be Jewish. The Igbo story now won’t have that same support,” he said.
Parfitt himself is Anglican Christian, though he jokes he’s “never had his own DNA tested for Judaism.”
Parfitt added that in the years since he publicized the Cohen haplotype, people have interpreted the information in many different and surprising ways. On a recent trip to Israel, Orthodox Jews who are trying to rebuild the Third Temple danced around him in ecstasy at the Western Wall, because the marking enables them to find “genetically pure” priests to serve in the Temple.
‘I didn’t stand up and say, hey, you’re not Jewish’
In 2003 and 2004, Parfitt was in Papua New Guinea with the Gogodala tribe, which also claimed to be one of the Lost Tribes. They also asked him to do genetic testing on their community, which Parfitt did.
“I had to go back and share that [the connection] was very circumspect,” said Parfitt. “I didn’t stand up and say, ‘hey, you’re not Jewish.’ I said, on the basis of DNA that was collected, there was no direct link between them and other Jews in other parts of the world. But I was not saying, ‘oh, stop it, you’re not Jewish.’”
Parfitt hopes that DNA can be used as part of a toolbox for understanding ancient migrations, a topic that fascinates him. He also pointed out that the DNA testing can be much more accurate for determining if “Jewish” tribes in Africa are connected to Spanish or Portuguese Jews who were expelled in 1492. Many ended up on the West Coast of Africa and disappeared, making it entirely possible that they assimilated into local culture while still maintaining Jewish traditions, Parfitt pointed out.
The key to accurately using DNA research is finding places where two groups have genetic similarities. So it’s much easier to trace a genetic line from 1492 than a migration through some parts of Africa thousands of years ago. “It’s difficult to get some kind of comparison, we don’t have lost tribes of Israel floating around the world,” he said.
Parfitt estimates that there are 14 to 15 million “shadow Jews,” people around the world who identify as Jewish but might not be accepted by the Jewish community as “traditional Jews.” In some cases, like the Lemba, there is a historical connection; other times, as in the case of the Abayudaya in Uganda or the Kehilat Kasuku in Kenya, it is a community that feels it is Jewish. “You don’t need historical justification to be part of a religious group,” he said.
“Can [DNA] say something about ancient migrations? Of course,” said Parfitt. “It’s the only tool we have to talk about ancient migration. But is it possible to reduce Judaism to DNA? The answer is no. It shouldn’t be used by anyone to decide who is Jewish and who is not.”
“The truth of the matter is it’s a racist discourse that has been around for a long time,” said Parfitt. “There are countless tribes that claim they come from the north-east or they’re Syrian or Roman, which is another way of saying ‘we don’t feel comfortable with being black and African.’ This was imposed upon them over many years by colonialism.”
“On the other hand, the idea that the Igbos are Jews is not a recent idea, it goes way back to the 18th century,” Parfitt added. “This is the lived experience on the part of the Igbo and many other Africans. Whether technically they’re connected with the ancient people of Israel, to my mind, is utterly and completely irrelevant. There is no bearing on the story. The idea of testing that hypothesis with DNA is not a good idea. It’s like testing myth, and you can’t test myth. Identity politics is connected to faith. It’s what you do with this identity, and they’re doing a lot.”