FEATURE ARTICLE

Ikechi Udegbunam ChukwunonyeSaturday, January 27, 2007
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ARE THERE JEWS IN NIGERIA?


he word Israel is conspicuous in the song. A man wearing a white turban around his head shunts around with his mouth brimming with excitement . On his left hand, he holds a black book. He reaches out and grabs a long white horn from a man nearby. He pauses a bit and concentrates on the musical instrument. Around him, is a man wearing a Jewish skull cap and other people, clapping and dancing with energetic possession. The synagogue in Aba was busy on this day. 'May Adoni be with you and sun shine upon you and give you peace!' Sing men, women, children and ladies in another video clip. In another gathering, a man is holding a book, while his body swerves. His mouth blows out with deep melodious sound. In a separate video clip - still the same gathering - his voice retains the same poignancy, urgency and religion. These are the Kodesh L'Hashem Nigerian Hebrew communities comprising of Igbos, Annangs, Ogonis and Ibibios .This is the face of modern Nigerian Jewry.


The Judaic religion is well-rooted in Nigeria and recognized by many Jews according to the leading figure in the Nigerian Judaic explosion - Abuja-based Remy IIona. IIona sees this trend as the rebirth of Igbo nationalism or spirituality, whom he says make up the vast majority of Judiac practitioners in Nigeria. 'The main people behind the Nigerian Jewry are Igbos, they are the only ones taking it up with might and main. doing researches,' he says. 'There is no book written by other ethnic groups about their Judaic ancestry, infact it is an Igbo affair.'

According to an article The Ibo Benei-Yisrael Jews of Nigeria, he co-authored with New-York based Ahab Eliyah, Igbos still retain commands laid out in the Torah i.e. circumcision of sons on the eight day of life, separation of women during the menstrual cycle, not cross breading animals or plants, celebration of Yom Kippur and Sukkoth, immersion for uncleanness and the prohibition of un-kosher animals for consumption.

The Igbo ethnic groups are said to comprise of 3 lineage groups: Benie Gath, Benei Zevulum and Benei Menashsheh.

The Ibo Benei-Yisreali of Nigeria are said to be descendants of southern and westward migrations of both ancient Hebrew and later Isreali peoples from the Middle East into Africa.

Early Israeli settlements in Africa are thought to have been in Ethiopia, Egypt and Tunisia. It is believed that these settlements may have been in existence as early as the Kingdoms of Solomon, as well as during the Assyrian invasion of northern Israel in 722.

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Different authors and personalities have at sundry times posited or alluded to a Jewish ancestry in Igboland. G.T. Basden in his book, "Among the Ibos of Nigeria'', p.31 noted: 'There are certain customs which point to levitic influence at a more or less remote period. The language also bears several interesting parallels with Hebrew idioms.'

Recent Igboukwu discoveries are said to be evidence of ancient relationship between Igbos and Jews.

The decline of Jewish communities in West Africa, is said to most likely be the result of Muslim invasions into North Africa starting from 640 CE and later into West Africa in the 1300's and 1400's CE. Various accounts link Jews with resistance struggles against Islamic invasions.

The Ibo Benei-Yisreal and other West African Jewish communities are said to have lost religious documents and other written documents during Islamic repressions and other pressures.

There are thriving Maghrebi Ibo communities in places like Tel Aviv Isreal,south-eastern Nigeria , the United states and other places in the earth. There are synagogues scattered all across Nigeria .

When I speak to Remy IIona on the phone in Nigeria , he seems pensive and concerned. He believes that only a return to the Judiac religion would salvage the Igbo race from headlong perishment. 'The Igbo society is shattered, there is no unity,' he says, 'we have to go back to our old religion that shares similarity with the Jewish religion.'

As a young child, his father instilled in him, the belief that Igbos are Jews. His life is dedicated to the Judaic religion .He sees the religion as a potent tool for 'Igbo regeneration.'

IIona is the liaison officer in Nigeria responsible for Nigerian Judiasm.He believes passionately in Igbo Hebraic roots. According to him he has long past the stage of doubts: 'When I wrote my book Jews in Africa 1, the Jews who read it cried.they cried,' he says, 'they were so touched by the book. The book was just so convincing and it is only a draft.'

'Colonialism and slave trade shattered us,' he says with regret.

He is very positive about the international embrace of the Igbo by world Jewry: 'Outward-looking Jews align with us. There have been tremendous interactions.' He continues: 'Last Sabbath, 10 Jews visited the major synagogues in Abuja .'

He goes on to weave the nativity of Judaism in Igboland: 'M.A.S.S.O.B always makes reference to Zion in their activities,' he tells me. 'There is a great connecting to Judiasm by the Igbos.'

According to IIona, more than sixty Israelis visited major synagogues in Nigeria last year.He said that the Israeli government is watching the young Judiac movement in Nigeria with interest and care: 'The Isreali government is aware of what is happening and they are keeping a very close eye on developments' he says.

'When you think about Jews, you think about very zealous people, people who never give up under any condition. People destined to only success. The Igbos are just like that,' he says with great pride.

'The Igbo society is a picture of disunity - Igbo Catholics do not marry Igbo Anglicans.99.9% of Igbos are astray; there is great moral void in Igboland,' his voice blares with concern.

He laments the 'effect' Christianity 'has had' on the Igbo race: 'The 'religion' put a knife between us.Igbos used to be the crème de la crème but now they grapple with festering rot.'

He tells me that people of all ages come to the synagogues in Abuja and leave with a great sense of satisfaction: 'Whenever they come they bustle with energy. There is always something to hold your their attention.'

He prophesies a great return of Igbo Jews: 'They would come from the North, West, all over.back to Judiasm,our original religion.'

He says that there is a great interest in Isreal by the Igbos in Nigeria: 'All Igbos are talking about Isreal.'

He emphasizes the Igbo connection with Isreal: 'There are lots of Igbo migrants in Israel doing well.'

'Igbos are marginalized in Nigeria. They need to retrace their steps back to our original religion to regain posture' he says. 'I am going to write an article about Igbo Jewish roots, that would shock the world. The book I wrote is outdated. There are much more stronger facts, that clench the Igbo Jewry belief.'

Jews number at least 14 million and are found in more than ten countries in the world, with the largest presence in Israel and America . Isreal has an outreach programme that embraces all Jewish descendants around the world. In the eighties, Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel. Jewish languages include Hebrew, Yiddish and Bukhori.

Sources