Home Opinion Featured Articles DISCOVERING THE JEWS OF NIGERIA


ByRemy Ilona
How did I discover that the Igbo people who are up to 30% of the Nigerian population are of Jewish descent?

In 2002 I began to seriously investigate the origins of the Igbo people of Nigeria who have also been known as the “Ibos”, and during the Nigerian Civil War as the “Biafrans”. I began by studying the lore of the Igbo people. Their lore is intriguing. Most of them talk about droughts, famines, hunger, and relief when the rains began to fall, in ancient times. This is abnormal and unusual for a people who are thought to have ‘always lived in the rain forests of Nigeria‘, where the real worry is about flooding and erosion. Most parts of Igbo-land have heavy rainfall for up to ten months every year, and irregular rainfall for the remaining two months. Presently (at the time that I am writing this story) large parts of Igbo-land are submerged by flood water. Accordingly, that droughts and famines have become ingrained in the collective memory of the Igbo people certainly raises questions. And careful examination of the stories of droughts and famines lead a researcher to observe that the stories are intended to teach a lesson. One can safely surmise that the Igbo people must have passed through experiences that were remarkable and compelling enough to make them to save stories of droughts, and famines in their lore. Based on the foregoing, and other issues which I will bring up soon, we can say with a certain degree of certainty that those experiences that made such an impact on the Igbos were not experienced in the Igbos present location, but in a place where droughts and famines occur. After making this observation I decided to take a closer look at the oral traditions of the Igbos.

Taking a closer look I saw what could be seen as an Igbo version of the “had gadya”; a rhyme sung by Jews on the Passover Night. Every Igbo child learns the nursery rhyme which begins with ?o gini mere nwa aniga, nwa aniga o nwa aniga?.?. At this stage I began to think that perhaps the Igbo claim of an Israelite origin might have some substance.

A prominent group of Igbos who inhabit the Ubulu/Uburu clans believe that they are descended from Jacob?s son Zebulun. A principal Ubulu clan is Ozubulu in the Nigerian Igbo state called Anambra. The Uburu Clan in Ebonyi State is in this group. Another large group believe that they descended from Jacob?s grandson Menashe (Manasseh). Several clans that belong to this group have the word ?ichi? or ?chi? in their names. Examples are the Nnewi Ichi Sub-Clan, the Ichi-da Clan, and the Ichi Clan in Anambra. The Ame-chi Awkunanaw clan in the Enugu area. And the Am nna ?chi Clan in the Igbo state called Imo. We also have some group of clans that are said to have Judahite origins. The Uda clan in the Enugu area belongs to this group. A large section of the Igbo population that live in the western part of the Nigerian Igbo state of Anambra believe that they are descendants of Eri, one of the sons of Gad, who was a son of the Biblical Jacob. Interestingly the names of some of the families/clans of the claimants have the prefix eri. Prominent examples are Umuleri, and Aguleri (Umu-eri, and Agu- Eri). There is talk that the later were their names, and that the l’s were added by the colonizing British who could not pronounce the Igbo names. And the Nri clan which traditionally provides a certain class of priests for the Igbos very interestingly bears an attribute that was allotted to Levi; the priestly tribe of Israel. Every knowledgeable Igbo agrees that the Nri priests take precedence in certain ritual matters among the Igbos.
Reflecting on these actually spurred me to begin a systematic study of the Igbo people. With American Jewish and Ethiopian Jewish support I began to compare the Igbo, and the Jewish cultures. I can recall a great Ashkenazi Jew saying that the research is worthwhile, and that the ‘differences’ between the Igbo and the Jewish cultures will disappear if subjected to the searchlight of real research, if the Igbos actually came from Israel, because according to him; ‘the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewish) culture which was not influenced by Rabbinical Judaism has been found to be incredibly similar to Rabbinical Jewish culture’. What he was saying, put another way, was that if Igbo culture is Israelite, even though the Igbos were not influenced by Rabbinical Judaism, that the similarities to Israelite culture would still be manifest. One of the Ethiopian Jews recommended that we look seriously at the agricultural, food storage, and religious practices of the Igbos, because, according to him, they would yield evidence of Judaism if the Igbos actually came from Israel. And one of my associates, an Afro-American Israeli suggested that we should look at everything, and explore every cultural practice, because according to him, overwhelming evidence is necessary to be found for the Igbos to be believed to be descendants of Israel. In other-words that the cultural similarities have to be found to be so many and significant that they could not be said to be merely coincidental. I like to think that what he meant was that the Igbo culture should be proved to be more similar to Judaism than Arab culture. The Arab peoples, the Edomites and some other peoples are believed to be ethnically close to the Jews, and it is thus believed that their cultures are similar to Jewish culture.

We began to work in earnest. The first fruit of our labor was entitled “Uri’s Travels”. The book is a compilation of many Igbo traditions centered around a legendary Israelite soldier called Uri who migrated to what is now Igbo-land, and produced the Igbo people. This book will be published soon, and a screen play of it is been written by an American Igbo- Israel activist. Encouraged we began to look at the cultural similarities. The results came out, and are still coming out. While working on my second book “The Igbos: Jews in Africa”, I visited Nri, the premier religious clan of the Igbos which I had mentioned before. I interviewed many of the priests and elders. I asked them questions about the origins, history and culture of the Igbos. Their answers were very enlightening.

All the interviewees who were very old men said that the Igbos were Hebrews. Importantly, they were not lettered in Western education, and they had never been Christians, so their testimonies are very valuable, because some non Igbo persons have suggested that because there are no records (that they know of) that mentioned Jews migrating to the rain-forests of West Africa, that the Igbos might have learnt about Judaism from the Bibles that the missionaries brought, when they colonized the Igbos. This of course ignores the salient evidence which is that many important Jewish customs which are Igbo customs are not only not in the Tanach, but also that many which are, are not discussed at length in the Tanakh. A topical example is celebration of marriage under a huppah. This is not prescribed in the Tanakh, but it is a long-standing Jewish practice. Igbo marriages only take place under an?okpukpu?(canopy). I recorded some of the sessions with the priests and elders on DVD. During one of the sessions they enacted some Igbo practices which observers have noted that they are Israelitic.

Satisfied with what we found in the inter-cultural study of Ome na ana (Igbo culture) and Judaism, and inspired by the evidence that the Igbos more than likely moved into the forests from a drought prone area I decided to try to trace the migration routes. To find out if there are surviving evidences of Jewish presence in the possible routes that the Igbos used on their march down from Israel to the forests of what has become West Africa, I traveled to the north of Nigeria, crossed into Chad, moved up into the desert, and surveyed some of the ethnic groups and cultures that live in the desert country. From Chad I veered west to the Niger Republic, journeyed into Mali, and stopped at the border between Mali and Morocco. In all the countries that I surveyed I met interesting ?tribes?. I met ?Muslims? who do not go to mosques at all. I met Fulani, Tuaregs, Berbers, Arabs, Hausas, Moors, many other desert peoples, and a people who might well be the intriguing and mysterious Iddao Ishaak whom a possible Jewish origin has been ascribed to. Remember that old Jewish, Arab and other writings mention that there were Jewish communities in the Sahara many centuries ago. Scholars generally agree that there were well established Jewish communities in the four great empires that rose and blossomed in the Sahel Sahara region: Ghana, Mali, Songhai, and Kanem Borno. And, interviewing some knowledgeable Hausa and Fulani people in 2008, I was informed that they heard from their fathers and mothers that there wereYehudawa?in places like Kano, Katsina, Rano, Gobir, and other important Hausa cities, in olden times. Yehudawa is the Hausa word for Jew. Asked where those Yehudawa are now, they responded that they heard that they were asked to leave after the society experienced some changes. We know that Askia Mohammed?s edict that all non Muslims should convert to Islam or to leave resulted in the emigration of some Jews from Songhai. History has not revealed that a similar ploy was employed in the Hausa States and Borno which had both come under Islamic influence more than 1250 years ago. We are not also speculating that it was strictly those Jews of the Sahelian empires and kingdoms that were expelled that became the Igbos, but we are bold enough to say that more likely than not, that some of them ended up in what is today Igbo-land, to join other Hebrew ?migr?s already there. People are drawn to water. Certainly the rivers in what is Southern Nigeria today would surely magnet a people who are looking for a place to settle, especially if there are disturbances where they lived. Our objective is to show that Jews existed in the Sahel, and that there were conditions that made them to emigrate. Ismail Haidara who is a Malian and lives in Mali presently is a living testimony to this assertion that there were Jewish communities in Mali. Haidara is a descendant of the Sahelian Jews. Another great story is that of Yehuda (Judah) Pasha, the man that led the Moroccan army that sacked the Songhai Empire. As I have mentioned on several occasions; in one of my earlier books, and in a recently released film about the Jews of Nigeria; only a Jew would have borne the name “Judah” in the Maghreb, and in the Sahara many centuries ago. The Arab variant of Judah is “Yahuza”. So Judah Pasha could not have been an Arab, a Moor, or a Muslim. We can say with some reasonable degree of certainty that Judah Pasha was Jewish. A Jew in the service of the Moroccan sultan in power then. Hopefully one day there will be academic interest in this Jew who led an army into the southern recesses of the Sahara, as there is growing interest in Christopher Columbus, that other possible Jew, or New Christian who discovered the Americas for the Europeans. And it must be noted that if there was one Judah Pasha, there must have been countless other unnamed ones. Also very important to mention is that in old Arab writings there were Jewish communities in Kokia which was in the Kanem Borno Empire, and which is presently called Kukawa. Kukawa is in the present day Yobe State of Nigeria. In some of the places that I visited I saw recognizable survivals of Jewish culture. But because what I primarily went to do was to confirm if there was actually Jewish presence in the Sahara, as pointed out in some old records, and not to conduct intensive studies on the peoples that I found in the areas I did not spend enough time studying them in order to determine their ethnic origins definitively. But in some places such as Kukawa, Maiduguri, and other areas of Borno and Yobe, which were in the old Kanem Borno Empire; the identity is still very clear. There I met the Shuwa, who are ethnically what? Good old Arabs! They cannot remember when they immigrated into the Sahel, and what is today Northern Nigeria. They are known as Shuwa Arabs in Nigeria. In the same area I also met the Kanuri, the (Beri-beri), those descendants of astute warriors whom Berber ancestry has been ascribed to. When I met them, interviewed them, and heard their stories what came to my mind was; if the Arabs whose entry into Africa is relatively recent have reached Northern Nigeria, why couldn?t the Jew whose period of entry is so ancient, have reached nearly to the sea? The period of Jewish penetration of Africa is so ancient and lost in antiquity that the best that scholars have managed to say is that the ?Jews entered in an unknown time?,
Next I began to look at the experiences of the Igbos, and to compare them with those of the Jews. After-all I was advised to look at everything, and everywhere. The unique experiences of the Jews have been seen by many scholars in many experiences of the Igbos. Some Jews have even opined that they hear echoes of the Holocaust in the Igbo experiences between 1966 and 1970. Indeed the Igbos have been addressed as “Jews” by their Nigerian neighbours, and by many foreigners before, and especially during the anti-Igbo Pogroms in Nigeria, and the Nigerian Civil War which occurred in 1966, and 1967-1970 respectively, and in which millions of Igbos died from bullets, strafing and starvation.
I surveyed the Lost Tribes of Israel, and I published the book in 2004, and updated and revised it two years after. In 2007 I revised it again. The revisions were primers for what I like to see as my most definitive work so far: my latest book; “The Igbos And Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of The Oldest And Largest Jewish Diaspora” which was released as an eBook on the 1st of June 2012. In this I decided to just concentrate on the similarities between the Igbo, and the Jewish cultures, because I realized that all the topics that I have been dealing with deserved separate books. The book was reviewed by many authorities on Afro-Jewish studies including a professor emeritus of the Harvard University, a professor of the University of Basel who earned his doctorate with his groundbreaking work on the contemporary relationship between the Igbos and the Jews. In this book I looked at and compared Igbo culture and Jewish culture comprehensively. As the University of Basel anthropologist put it in his review of the book; ‘In his book, Ilona focuses on Igbo rituals during life cycle events (chapter one). Those include the rituals surrounding the birth of children, eight-day circumcision of males, seclusion of newly delivered mother, marriage, levirate marriage and so on. Remy also enters the long debate about the Igbo conception of a supreme God, (chapter two); Igbo rituals surrounding death (chapter three); feast and festivals (chapter four); Igbo social organization (chapter five); Igbo understanding of clean/unclean (chapter six); Igbo sacrifices and offerings (chapter seven); Igbo classes (chapter eight); socio-religious customs (chapter nine); Code of moral behavior (chapter ten); Igbo code for crime and other offenses (chapter eleven); sexual behavior (chapter twelve); the Igbo connection to the land (thirteen); the importance of ritual cleanliness (chapter fourteen); the distinction between clean and unclean food and ritual slaughter (chapter fifteen); similarities between Igbo and Semitic manners of dress, (chapter sixteen); parallels between the Igbo and the Hebrew reckoning of time (chapter seventeen); joining the Igbo and Jewish peoples and leaving them (chapter eighteen), a detailed study of the organization of the Igbo society (chapter nineteen), and concludes (chapter twenty) with an Igbo rhyme that actually resembles the Jewish had gadya sung during the Passover; the section that relates what the Igbos and non Igbos have said and written about the Igbos Israelite origins; and finally using Igbo agricultural practices and lores he makes a case that the Igbos actually migrated into what is called Igbo-land presently, from somewhere drier’.
By the time that I finished writing the inter-cultural study I was sure that I had found what numerous Igbo scholars had discovered; which was that the Igbos are the Jews of Nigeria. Reinforcing this conviction is the fact that no Igbo has been able to prove convincingly that the Igbos came from somewhere else. In the words of two United States based Igbos; Gavriel Ogugua, and ???..to
The quest to look for those Jews of Nigeria that an Ashkenazi Kew described as part of the lost Diaspora of Israel has led me to the modern synagogues of the Igbos, in Igbo-land, and in other parts of Nigeria. The setting up of modern Jewish communities/synagogues by the Igbos deserve a story. According to my friend who is a Christian pastor; “if the compelling evidence which exists and shows that the Igbos are Jews, is not enough, the starting of modern Jewish synagogues by the Igbos in fundamentally and semi-officially Christian and Muslim Nigeria, is still a marker/evidence that even the reckless skeptic should not treat with levity”. Because, to use his words, “why would a people who have nothing to do with Judaism chose to become Jewish in a semi-officially and very vibrant Christian and Muslim country in Africa?”. In Nigeria Islam and Christianity, and their adherents receive support, patronage and recognition from the government.
Also worthy of mention is what I call “Igbo Christianity”: the Sabbatharian Movement, because unlike the other brands of Christianity that predominate among the Igbos, it is Igbo inspired, and in it could be found some evidence of the Igbos? Israelitishness. It has some distinctive features that are remarkably Jewish. Igbo Sabbatharians observe all the feasts that are in the Old Testament. And they rest, shun work, and pray on the seventh day of the week. This is in sharp contrast with its equivalents which were founded by the neighboring Yorubas, Binis, Ishans, and other Nigerians. My discovery is that the Christianized Igbos who founded this movement threw off “Christianity”, sought to return to what they thought was the Igbo religion, and stopped midway. They came up with a distinct and new religion which has elements of Judaism and Christianity. At least one million Igbos belong to this religion.
I have also traveled extensively in Igbo-land while looking for the Igbos who are still keeping to the core religious tenets of Omenana. As I have mentioned previously the Igbo culture is called Ome na ana, and is pronounced Omenana; which literarily means- (“things that will be done in the land/country”). The members of this group are called ndi ogo Mmuo (worshippers of the Spirit). To the Igbos the Supreme Being (Chi-ukwu), “Great God”, is a Spirit. In 2008/9 I visited some communities in the west of Anambra State, close to the eri clans. There the elders who are mainly those still at home as the rural-urban migration trends affect the Igbos quite adversely, are still full-time adherents of Omenana. Their territory has not been materially developed. The houses are primitive. The roads are unpaved. The area reminds visitors of how Igbo-land looked like hundreds of years ago. But the people live long, and healthy lives. I saw men and women that had became centenarians walking stiffly erect. When I asked them the secret of their longevity, in a few words they summed up what is central in the Igbo culture; they live lives based on avoidance of sinfulness, and they try their best to keep themselves?nso?(holy). A few of the people are aware that the religion that they are practicing is akin to the religion of the ancient Israelites. I will recommend the area as a good location to archeologists, anthropologists, historians, rabbinic students, other religious studies students, and other scholars who are interested in studying how ancient Israelite communities lived.
Because I had time I also looked at the Igbos that became Christians. These Igbos are more than the Igbos who are not Christians, because the British colonial administration all but made acquisition of Western education and Christianity the only tools that could be used to gain upward mobility in their administration. Thousands became Christians when the British ruled. Today millions of Igbos are Christians. These Christian Igbos try to live as Christians, and as Igbos. At events, you will see these Christians starting by reciting Christian prayers, and the Igbo prayers which they call?igo oji, because they conduct it with a meal offering, which is standard Jewish practice. When they want to get married they get an Igbo marriage which is a far cry from the authentic Igbo?inu nwanyi, which still has some of the rituals that a Jewish marriage has, including the huppah (canopy). And they then get a Christian marriage. And when they die, they get a watered down version of the Igbo mourning, which is still very much similar to the Jewish mourning, and their pastors come to give them a Christian burial.
In addition to the University of Basel Social Anthropologist Dr. Daniel Lis, some other Jews have joined the effort to see the Jews of Nigeria. To mention a few: Rabbis Howard Gorin, Brant Rosen, Shlomo Oriel; Dr. Jeffrey Davidson, Evan Green, Hartley Springman, Karen Hudes, J.Helz. Jeff Lieberman who spent a considerable time among them has released his film: “Re Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria” a few months ago. And some Jews have joined the effort to know more about the Igbos. A very powerful team of Jewish scholars led by Professor Isaac Mozeson, and Avraham Phil Van Riper is leading the effort to compare the Igbo and Hebrew languages because many parallels and similarities have been found to exist between the two. The University of London scholar who published “The Black Jews of Africa” is presently raising support that she wants to use to sponsor a DNA study of the Igbos and the Jews. In the month of September 2012 a Northeastern University historian published “The Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Jewish Odyssey”.
An Israeli musician, Irene Orleansky is visiting Nigeria in the first or second month of 2013 to begin an important and fundamental work on Igbo Jewish (religious) and secular music, with Igbo musicians. I like to think of her as following in the footsteps of Paul Simon who released ?Graceland?, a collaboration between him, and notable South African musicians like Hugh Masekela, and Miriam Makeba.
The writer is the author of “The Igbos And Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of The Oldest And Largest Jewish Diaspora”-


By Remy Ilona
Abuja, Nigeria

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