While Messianic Jews are not deemed Jewish by the Ministry of Interior and subsequently many have been denied citizenship to Israel, one organization is on a quest to determine Jewishness through DNA testing.
Jewish Voice Ministries International offers private genetic testing to establish Jewish DNA, and according to the information on their website, with a one-person, two-swab, $300 DNA kit one can determine with a 99.9 percent accuracy and find out within six to eight weeks whether one belongs to the tribe.
The Arizona-based Jewish Voice Ministries went to Nigeria to investigate claims of Jewishness by the Igbo Tribe as per the request of Dozie Ikedife, an 86-year-old Igbo doctor and activist. Following the testing, the ministry has been on the receiving end of criticism after declaring that the results of the testing of the Nigerian tribe proving that they are not genetically Jewish.
The Igbo people comprise around a third of the Nigerian population. A small percentage of this tribe have identified as Jewish and follow a form of rabbinic Judaism. Considering themselves descendants of Ephraim, these people — numbering around 10,000 — believe that they are one of the supposed lost tribes of Israel. They are not the first people group to have DNA testing to determine Jewish identity.
Jewish Voice Ministries is not the first organization to perform genetic testing to determine historical DNA and demographic patterns based on collected samples from willing parties. Professor Tudor Parfitt, the head of Jewish Studies at Florida International University, has dedicated his studies to using DNA testing for the purpose of mapping Jewish migration. He specialized in DNA testing to determine the connection of “Jewish” tribes in Africa to Spanish or Portuguese Jews who were expelled in 1492.
Parfitt proposes that there are around 14 to 15 million “shadow Jews” around the world – people groups who identify as Jewish but aren’t accepted as such by the authorities of Judaism. There are the Ugandan Abayudaya, the Kenyan Kasuku and the Sefwi people of Ghana, for example, who historically identify as Jewish but do not have a genetic connection to the “tribe.”
Parfitt gained recognition in the 1990’s when he identified the Cohen haplotype, a unique genetic marker found in the offspring of Aaron the Priest. Looking for validation in their Jewish identity, the Lemba tribe of Zimbabwe and South Africa, numbering around 50,000, approached Parfitt to confirm their Jewishness. The scholar discovered that many Lemba people, especially those from the Buba sub-clan did indeed share a similar genetic marker as the Cohen haplotype but this did not prove Jewish heritage. It simply confirmed a migration from the Middle East to Africa.
In the early part of the 2000s, Parfitt did genetic testing on the Gogodola tribe of Papua New Guinea who too identified as one of the Lost Jewish Tribes culturally. Disappointingly for the Gogodolas, the result of their genetic testing proved no biological link between them and other Jews.
Parfitt’s stance is that using DNA to determine Judaism is racist and should not be used to decide who is Jewish. Speaking of the Igbos he said that their genetic connection with the ancient people of Israel is irrelevant and that their traditions and experience override the biological evidence.
A Nigerian lawyer, professor and a Times of Israel blogger, Remy Ilona, has also lashed out at Jewish Voice Ministries on a number of levels. He is angry at the way the test was allegedly conducted and says it is faulty and inaccurate. He also claims that the Igbo people were deceived into taking the test and should not have been tested. Furthermore, he says that the Igbo’s connection to Judaism is unrelated to DNA.
Ilona, himself an Igbo, denounced the results of the test. He cast aspersions on Jewish Voice Ministries and their testing methods, and Messianic Judaism in general. His believes that Jewishness is cultural and not about DNA. Stating that Messianic Judaism is a form of Christianity, he accused Jewish Voice Ministries of being an outside group with a proselytizing agenda. He expressed a desire to perform DNA testing on the testers themselves to disprove their Jewishness.
Other vocal contributors to the debate are active on social media. A video blogger called Chukwuemeka said in a YouTube video that Igbos should be confident with their Israelite ancestry and it is the Jewish foreigners whose genealogical ties to Israel should be called into question. He said it was said that the Igbos were running to get DNA proof from ‘the white man’ instead of believing for themselves that they are the people of the Bible. His website is called Igbos Are The Real Hebrews. He claims that the Jewish people today in the State of Israel who claim to be the Hebrews are not the real people of the Bible.
On his Facebook page there is an exchange between himself, an Emmanuel Okafor, and another man, Job Moses Ojodom.
“We are Jewish people so don’t panic over it,” Okafor says.
Ojodomo writes: “Beware of the white people.”
Jonathan Bernis of Jewish Voice Ministries explained that his organization provides aid to Jewish populations or people who are historically linked to the Jewish nation. The results of the testing determines the level of help they will provide. With the coordination of Ikedife, they performed the DNA investigations on a test group of 100 Igbo men, because the doctor wanted closure.
Bernis maintains that the purpose of the tests was to provide the Igbo people with the testing as they requested in the pursuit of truth in terms of historical identity. The DNA simply did not support the claims that they are connect to the ancient people of Israel.
Dozie Ikedife said about being Jewish, “If we are, then we are. If we are not, we are not, period.”