Igbo Jews with American Jwish visitors in Nigeria
Igbo Jews with American Jwish visitors in NigeriaRemi Ilona

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.

Finding Judaism

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."

Igbo "Benei Yisrael"
Igbo "Benei Yisrael"Courtesy

After Professor Stier had given me information about the programs that were available at the Florida International University, and I had indicated that I would like to study Religion, so he recommended that I should take the GRE.

Avraham Van Riper, a long-time Jewish friend who had served in the U.S., Army and whose friendship with me had grown to the extent that we have become more like close family, and Dr. Daniel Lis, the Swiss-Israeli Social Anthropologist that I mentioned earlier, helped carefully design a program that would enable me, a practicing barrister, residing in a country facing a major insurgency and caring for a young and growing family, to clear the hurdle at the first attempt. They also provided me with much of the material resources that I needed to have to be able to tackle the GRE.

I took two months to prepare for the GRE, took the examination and passed it well. Professor Parfitt and his team worked diligently every step of the way to get me admitted to the MA program in Religious Studies at the Florida International University, with a graduate assistantship, and some fellowships to boot. And I must mention some other people whose behind-the-scenes work proved crucial: Chief Herman Storick, also a veteran of the U.S. Army; Andria Spindel, a Canadian Jew who is a board member of Kulanu Inc. who has been a long-time friend of mine; and Kulanu Inc’ itself, which I have worked with for over ten years as its Nigerian liaison. Also Professors Samuel Klausner of the University of Pennsylvania, Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, William Miles of Northwestern University, and Dr. Nathan Paul of the University of Utah, wrote letters of support for me.

There was still much to be done, so many loose ends to tie up. With my wife Irene Malizu-Ilona assisting faithfully I went to work again. I began to rouse more members of the "Jewish troops": widening the circle of people involved in staging this operation I called up Gedaliah Gurfein, an Israeli rabbi and Talmudic expert, and Dean Draznin, an American Jewish PR expert, and both men and I, working together with the indefatigable Avraham Van Riper, cleared a lot of obstacles, and set the stage for my departure to America.

Members of the Igbo community around the world provided invaluable assistance: Ikechukwu Amobi, a Scotland-based Igbo Jewish oil engineer; Ihuoma and Ijeoma Inwere, friends of my wife who work in Nigeria’s oil industry; Hon Oji, a former legislator from the Igbo Abia State; Chioma Osuji, my wife’s elder sister who lives and works in Dallas; Bechikka Charles Ogamanya, a lieutenant colonel in the Nigerian Army and friend of mine; all weighed in, and gave me significant support.

As my departure neared, two outstanding issues had to be sorted out: a place of residence in Miami, and persons who would receive me upon my arrival.

Dean Draznin and his friend Sheila Ross and her husband took care of the first issue. Next on the list was the matter of reception at the airport, as I had not visited the U.S. before. Little did I know that a great reception was waiting for me in Miami, nearly twenty four hours after leaving Nigeria. Avi Charlop, son of a prominent rabbi; Harry Rozenberg, a rabbi who is active among Igbo-Jewry and who took a flight from New York to Miami, and planned to come to the airport with sports star Amar'e Stoudemire, were among many others at the airport when I arrived.

Dumisani Washington, a renowned friend and advocate for Israel and Jews, and a personal friend too, provided crucial help throughout. Since Washington - who founded and heads the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel - announced my arrival I have received numerous invitations to visit and speak.

Many other colleagues and friends like Judy Manelis of Kulanu Inc’, have been giving me significant support since I arrived. And from the Igbo community individuals like Chukwudi Nwangwu, an Igbo reconnection to Israel activist who lives in Houston, and Ozo Okenwa Ewudo, an Igbo businessman who is based in California presently, and whose experience as an Igbo nze (nazirite) deserves to be told in another story, have been on hand to give me a great welcome.

Another Operation Solomon?

Now, for some of the fascinating things I have learned since starting the program, under the stewardship of so many great teachers.

For many years I have found myself playing the role of strategist and spokesman for the Igbos who are returning or reverting to Judaism, which the Igbos associate with our traditional culture “ome na ana”, which is pronounced Omenana.

For many years a dialogue has been going on between the Igbo people and the Jewish people. Dr. Daniel Lis discovered letters written nearly or over two hundred years ago by European Jewish rabbis addressed to the Igbos. Recently I came across information that is startling in a way: over one hundred and thirty years ago, a descendant of Igbos named Edward Wilmot Blyden had publicly supported the effort for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel.

Many Jews, such as Rabbi Howard Gorin, who was at one time a chief rabbi of a section of Igbo Jewry; Dr. Jack Zeller, who founded Kulanu Inc’; Daniel Limor, who works with Shavei Israel; Daniel Lis, who wrote a history of the Igbos; Rabbi Capers Funnye, Chief Rabbi of a section of Black Jews; Harriet Bograd, current president of Kulanu; Jeff Lieberman, who made a good film about Igbo-Jewry; Irene Orleansky, who recorded the synagogue music of the Igbo-Jews; and many too numerous to mention have participated in this ongoing dialogue. Some Igbos such as Distinguished Professor Eleazer Alaezi, anthropologist Moore Black Chi Mmadike and thousands more have participated in the talks.

This dialogue has reached some important quarters in Israel, such as the courts, offices of important religious and administrative officials where some important people acting very likely not with malevolent intentions, but relying on information that is not based on facts took decisions that have been hurtful to some of those participating in the dialogue and impeded progress.

There have been human ties too, ties that transcended synagogue-to-synagogue ties. Prior to the Biafran tragedy, Dr. Michael Okpara, the second most important Igbo political leader, described himself as ‘almost an Israelite’ and said that he would be going to Israel all the time. This was in an era when some non-Igbo Nigerians had laws that barred Israelis from visiting some Nigerian cities.

I would like to think that my visit and stay in America will provide opportunities for increase in the tempo of the dialogue, and will also provide grounds for the strengthening of the ties that have become frayed due to lack of nourishment, because American Jewry has a major voice in Jewish matters.

Some think that what is happening among the Igbos is a precursor to another Operation Solomon, and that my movement will oil the wheels. I say, yes, a rescue seems to be on the way, a rescue that may not involve boots on the ground, air-planes landing and taking off, but that may herald a sweeping spreading of Torah - but we’ll wait and see!

Remy Ilona, lawyer, author, graduate student and graduate assistant at the Florida International University, Miami, Florida, is an Igbo Jewish leader and activist.

More background on the Igbos can be found here.