By Remy Ilona How did I discover that up to 30% of the Nigerian population are of Jewish descent? An Exclusive for Israelseen by Remy Ilona
In 2002 I began to seriously investigate the origins of the Igbo people of Nigeria who have also been known as “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 their lore mention 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 large parts of Igboland is submerged by flood water. So that droughts and famines became ingrained in the collective memory certainly raises questions. The 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. So we can say with a certain degree of certainty that those experiences were not undergone 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 lore of the Igbos.
I saw what could be seen as an Igbo version of the “had gadya”, a rhyme sung by Jews on the Passover Night. 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 area of Igboland called Anambra. Still another large group believe that they descended from Jacob’s grandson Menashe (Manasseh). And the Nri Clan which traditionally provides a certain class of priests for the Igbos very interestingly bears an attribute that was attributed to Levi; the priestly tribe of Israel. Every knowledgeable Igbo agrees that the Nri priests take precedence in spiritual matters among the Igbos.
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. 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 the Igbos actually came from Israel, because according to him; ‘the Beta Israel culture which was not influenced by Rabbinic Judaism has been found to be incredibly similar to Rabbinic Jewish culture’. What he was saying in effect was that if Igbo culture was Israelite, even though the Igbos were not influenced by Rabbinic Judaism, that the similarities to Israelite culture would still be manifest. While one of the Ethiopian Jews recommended that we look seriously at the agricultural, food storage, and religious practices of the Igbos, because 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 for the Igbos to be believed to be descendants of Israel, the cultural similarities have to be found to be so many 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. Arabs, Edomites and some other peoples are believed to be ethnically close to Jews, and thus 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 legends 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. We then began to look at the cultural similarities. The results came out, and are still coming out in stages. While working on my second book “The Igbos: Jews in Africa”, I visited Nri, the premier spiritual 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 said that the Igbos were Hebrews. I recorded some of the sessions with the priests and elders on DVD. I published the book in 2004, and updated and revised it two years later. 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. This book was reviewed by many authorities on Afro-Jewish studies including a professor emeritus of the Harvard University, a don of the University of Basel who earned his doctorate with his groundbreaking and monumental 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 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’. The quest to discover the Jews of Nigeria has led me to the modern synagogues of the Igbos, in Igbo-land, and in other parts of Nigeria. I have also traveled extensively in Igbo-land while looking for the Igbos who are still practicing Omenana. The Igbo culture is Ome na ana, pronounced Omenana; literarily, (“things that will be done in the land/country”). 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 more than proportionately, are still adherents of Omenana. Their territory has not been materially developed. The houses are primitive. The roads are unpaved. The area reminds visitors of how Igboland looked like hundreds of years ago. Many 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 anthropologists, historians, rabbinic students, and other scholars who are interested in studying how ancient Israelite communities lived. In addition to the Social Anthropologist, some other Jews have joined the effort to discover the Jews of Nigeria. To mention a few. Jeff Lieberman released his film: “Re Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria” a few months ago. A very powerful team of Jewish scholars are 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 2011 a Northeastern University historian published “The Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Jewish Odyssey”.
The author is the writer of the “The Igbos And Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of The Oldest And Largest Jewish Diaspora”-
By Remy Ilona