Nigeria’s ‘Igbo Jews’ Returning to Their Roots
Could 30 million Nigerians have Jewish roots? Remy Ilona, a leader of Nigeria’s Igbo ‘Benei-Yisrael’, says yes – and they’re returning.
As I think about what just happened – my move to America, to study for an MA in Religious Studies at the Florida International University – I just can’t help but think of another operation that was far more grand and significant than my move, but which shares more than a few similarities with my own. In fact, my personal journey is a program which may in fact be critical in an unfolding process of similarly historic proportions: the Ingathering of the Igbo people of Nigeria.
I am referring to Operation Solomon, the program through which the Jewish people – represented by the Israelis, some Jews who were citizens of other countries, and important non-Jewish allies – brought tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, endangered in a collapsing Mengistu’s Ethiopia, and resettled them home in Israel.
My own personal “operation,” which I am writing about now, while not nearing it in scale, shares some similarities. This one, too, involves some non-Jews who are fervent friends of the people of Israel, working together with Jews and Igbos, in the planning and execution.
30 million “Lost Jews” – in Nigeria?
I should say a little about the Igbos at this stage because this story is as much about the Igbos as it is about me, and my coming to America.
The Igbo people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria. In Nigeria we number up to 30 million, and very likely more. Millions of people of African descent in the Americas and in the Caribbean also have ancestral roots among the Igbos, as have millions of people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Gambia.
In 1966 a military coup in Nigeria was followed by a major pogrom directed against the Igbos, and the Nigerian war – also called the Biafra Tragedy – which lasted from 1967 to 1970. During that period the Igbos lost an estimated three million people to starvation, shootings, strafing and bombings, in a campaign by the Nigerian state that many saw as genocidal.
Many observers compared the suffering of the Igbos at the time with the Holocaust, and in fact many referred to the Igbos as the “Jews of Africa” as a result. However, while that particular analogy was based strictly on the similarities between the tragic experiences of the Jews of Europe and the Igbos, from what we know there may be other reasons to use it.
Some think that the Igbos drew worldwide attention back then for the first time, but that is not exactly correct. Before and during the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade era and European colonization of Africa, many people found the Igbos to be “strange,” because in many respects they were radically different from their neighbors in customs, physical appearance and worldview. Many written sources – some put together by Europeans and Igbos – which suggest that the Igbos were of Jewish stock originated from that era. Dr. Daniel Lis, a Swiss-Israeli Social Anthropologist who studied this area of Igbo history, did a great job of compiling this part of Igbo history and writing a ground-breaking book based on it.
Remy Ilona featured in a documentary about the Igbos:
It’s believed that some 30,000 Igbos practice some form of Judaism, although the number practicing normative Orthodox or “rabbinic” Judaism is believed to be between 1,500-2,000.
Those Igbo Jews call themselves the “Benei-Yisrael,” and mostly live in an area which straddles the River Niger, near the Anambra states.
The Igbo Jews are said to have migrated from Syria, Portugal and Libya into West Africa around 740 C.E. It is claimed that the initial immigrants were from the biblical tribes of Gad, Asher, Dan, and Naphtali. Later, they were joined by more Jewish immigrants from Portugal and Libya in 1484 and 1667 respectively.
Some Igbos claims the legendary “River Sambation,” beyond which it is said the ten lost tribes of Israel were dispersed by Assyrian King Sennacherib, is in Africa.
Legendary 9th century Jewish traveler Eldad ben-Mahli (also known as Eldad the Danite) wrote that the Igbo Jews in Africa had an entire body of Jewish scriptures except for the books of Esther and Lamentations. They did not know the Talmud, having been exiled prior to its authorship, but had compiled an equivalent scripture with all laws cited in the name of the biblical Joshua.
For years I have been studying the connections between the Igbo people and the Jews; by conducting a systematic comparison of Igbo culture (called “Omenana”, which in English means n English means “the things or the commandments to be observed in the land”) with Judaism, and via close examination of historical sources. This effort has enabled me to publish five books on the subject. In 2014 I published the most definitive one: The Igbos And Israel-An Inter-Cultural Study of the Largest Jewish Diaspora.
I have also been very active in a “strange” development that is taking place among the Igbos: Many Igbos have been leaving Christianity – which the Europeans that colonized the Igbos imposed on us – and have been forming rabbinic Jewish congregations. As I watched all these, participated in it, and even kick-started some of the developments myself, my hunger to know more about the Jews and the Igbos grew – and I knew then that I had to go back to school.
Some months ago I informed Professor Nathan Katz, who was a Facebook friend and who wrote a great review for my above-mentioned book, that I would like to go back to school to get more knowledge of Judaism. Why Judaism? Knowledge of Judaism helped me to gain greater knowledge of my own Igbo culture.
After a few days Professor Katz put me in touch with Professor Tudor Parfitt, whose great and pioneering work on African Jewry I had followed from a distance for several years. Both distinguished professors – with the support of their colleague Professor Oren Stier – took the lead, and we began to plan and execute this “operation.”
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