Sep 22, 2021

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The Foreign Ministry confirmed on Tuesday that three Israelis that were filming a documentary in a separatist region in southeast Nigeria were arrested last week. According to media reports, Nigerian authorities arrested and interrogated the three on suspicion that they had come into contact with Biafran separatists.

Popular Israel advocate arrested

The Times of Israel interviewed the family of one of the Israelis who claimed that the allegations were entirely unfounded. The family explained that the separatist social media accounts took advantage of the Israelis’ trip to claim that the three were supporting Biafran separatist groups.

As of the publication of this article, the Israeli film crew is still in the custody of Nigerian authorities. The Israeli Embassy in Abuja is following the case closely and is in contact with Nigerian authorities, according to the Foreign Ministry.

One of the Israelis arrested is Rudy Rochman, a dynamic Israeli-Jewish rights activist who has made a huge impression on social media with over 178,000 followers on Facebook, over 50,000 subscribers on YouTube, and almost 95,000 followers on Instagram. Making the flight with him were filmmaker Noam Leibman and French-Israeli journalist E. David Benaym.

The crew arrived in Nigeria on July 6 with the intention of filming their documentary. According to locals, the crew was detained at a synagogue during Friday night services in the Igbo village of Ogidi and were taken by Nigeria’s secret police to Abuja.

The filmmakers were aware of the political sensitivity surrounding the filming of the Igbo community. Last Thursday, the We Were Never Lost Facebook page announced  “We do not take any position on political movements as we are not here as politicians nor as a part of any governmental delegations.”

The group met last week with Igbo leader Eze Chukwuemeka Eri and presented him with a framed picture depicting the ‘Shiviti’ prayer which was made in Jerusalem.

History of conflict and long-lost Israelites

The Igbo are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa and are native to present-day south-central and southeastern Nigeria. Most of the Igbo are Christian but there is also a small population of Igbo Jews, some of whom merely identifying as Jews, while others have converted to Judaism. Igbo Jews claim that they are the descendants of the ancient Israelites.

During the Nigerian Civil War of 1967–1970, the Igbo territories seceded as the short-lived Republic of Biafra and continued a non-violent struggle for the independence of a Biafran state. The campaign, which is calling for the secession of the former Eastern region of Nigeria, is a group that calls themselves the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and represents 50 million Igbo. The IPOB has been outlawed and is led by Nnamdi Kanu, who identifies as Jewish and is a British citizen, who has been living in exile in undisclosed locations since 2017.

Biafran separatists adopt Torah as a symbol of national independence 

In October 2018, Kanu announced on his radio station, Radio Biafra, that he was in Israel and videos appeared on the internet claiming to show him praying at the Western Wall. 

“The Sefer Torah will return when the Igbo Jews choose to bring it back, but first Israel must choose to let their Igbo brothers and sisters return Home,” Rochman wrote on Facebook. “The Sefer Torah is a gift for them to bring light and to give them the strength to fulfill their aspirations and potential.”

But the Igbo’s aspirations to express their Jewish identity are harshly suppressed by the Nigerian government. In November 2020, the Nigerian army destroyed six synagogues and killed 50.

This struggle continued as Kanu was arrested, with some reports claiming in Kenya and others claiming he was arrested in the Czech republic. He was extradited to Nigeria two weeks ago. Kanu made an explicit connection between the Igbo Jewish identity and the Biafran struggle for independence. His detention sparked mass protests and clashes with security services.

On July 7, Radio Biafra, an Igbo media run by Kanu, posted an announcement that the Israeli film crew had arrived in Nigeria with a Sefer Torah. 

“Kanu has said in one of his broadcast anyday you see the Sefer Torah in Biafraland just know Biafra has come, this signifies a lot and puts the Nigeria Government on it’s feet,” Radio Biafra posted on its website.

It is unknown whether Kanu himself made this statement. It should be emphasized that there was no contact between any of the film crew and Kanu before their trip to Nigeria.

Remy Ilona,  the secretary-general of Hebrew-Igbo people, an Igbo socio-cultural organization, explained that the Torah was not universally accepted by the Igbo as a symbol of separatism.

“There are surely some who see the Sefer Torah as a magic symbol,” Ilona told Israel365 News. “But this has never been expressed until after the film crew arrived in Nigeria.”

Last-minute Torah scroll

The Sefer Torah was a last-minute aspect of the film crew’s trip to. Just before traveling, the filmmakers had the idea of gifting a Torah Scroll to an Igbo congregation. This is frequently done by many organizations who gift Judaica to remote Jewish communities. The film crew was introduced to Harry Rozenberg who was in the process of acquiring Torah scrolls to distribute around the world in memory of his father who had passed away before Passover. 

A few days after Kanu’s arrest, Rochman arrived in Nigeria with the Sefer Torah.

“This was a trip that was being planned for quite some time with the sole purpose of filming a documentary on the tribes,” Rabbi Rozenberg told Israel365 News. “Literally three days before departure, one of the filmmakers came to me with the idea that it would be great cinema to bring a Sefer Torah to the Igbo as a gift. It seemed un-doable on such short notice since a sefer Torah takes a long time to write and is very expensive. One of their people happened to know of a scribe who had old and unused Torah scrolls. We approached the scribe and we told him that we intended to give it to the Igbo. He told us about a 200-year-old Ukrainian Torah scroll that he hadn’t intended to sell. It is written in a style that isn’t even in existence anymore. He was willing to sell it at a special price.”

Rabbi Rozenberg was unable to fund the purchase of the Sefer Torah however directly after speaking with them, he was approached by a friend, wanting to help the special Igbo documentary project. Rabbi Rozenberg suggested that he help purchase the Sefer Torah and he jumped at the opportunity. The day before the film crew flew to Nigeria, they set the scroll in a Sephardi style case, though the scroll was written in the Ashkenazi style. 

“The Sephardi case protects the scroll,” Rabbi Rozenberg explained. “Also, the Igbo traditions are more closely related to the Sephardi. “The artist, Solomon Souza, who decorated the case.”

“The Nigerian government is flagging anything having to do with Biafra,” Rabbi Rozenberg said. “Unfortunately, and inaccurately, the government equates Igbo Judaism is synonymous with an independent Biafran state and what it stands for. From the side of Rochman and the film, the trip was planned months in advance. But the Torah scroll was a spontaneous decision and certainly had nothing to do with Nnamdi Kanu, his arrest, or the  Indigenous People of Biafra movement.”