Remy Ilona was born into a Catholic family in Nigeria, but these days he spends his time proving that his African tribe, the Igbo, are descended from the 12 Tribes and were exiled from Israel after the destruction of the First Temple 2,600 years ago.
Currently in Israel networking and doing research, Ilona spoke to Breaking Israel News about his upbringing and his 20-year quest to have his people recognized as Jews.
He described how, 200 years ago, the Catholic and Anglican churches sent missionaries to Nigeria. From the age of 6, Ilona was “very, very uncomfortable with the Catholic Church. Everyone in the family was skeptical of the Catholic Church.
“They set up churches that failed because the Igbo did not go. The religion was odd and strange to the Igbo,” he said. Despite a Catholic upbringing, “Once I became fully aware of myself, the teachings didn’t make sense to me.” No one in his family is Catholic today.
From age six, Ilona remembers being “drawn to anybody who had any link to Israel or the Jews. My elder brother was like that too. He always talked about Israel. My father too had a special interest in Israel. We came to understand that it was not unique to our family. The Igbos felt like that generally. Many Igbos retained their very keen connection to the Jewish people even though they are Catholics and Anglicans.”
In fact, Ilona claims that everybody in the Igbo tribe knows of their Jewish origins. His plainly-spoken claim is “Every Igbo knows that all Igbos are Jews.” Ilona told Breaking Israel News that when Igbos first tried to connect with Jews outside of Nigeria, “they were shocked that they were not accepted as Jews.”
Beginning in 2001-2, when he was already working as a lawyer, he devoted himself to proving the connection. Since then, he has published seven books comparing Jewish culture and tradition to Igbo culture and tradition. He has also documented how Igbo migrated to Nigeria from Israel.
Asked to give a few clear examples of the parallels between Jewish and Igbo customs, Ilona mentioned that, exactly like the Jewish people, Igbos circumcise newborn males on the eighth day.
And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed. Genesis 17:12
He also said that Igbo couples marry under a chuppah (canopy) like Jews do. Igbo also have the custom to mourn for seven days after the death of a family member and to have a ceremony 30 days after the burial, just as Jews do. Among other examples, he said that Igbo traditionally avoided pork, which the Bible forbids for Jews, and that they only saw pork for the first time 200 years ago when the missionaries brought it to Nigeria.
And the swine, because he parteth the hoof but cheweth not the cud, he is unclean unto you; of their flesh ye shall not eat, and their carcasses ye shall not touch. Deuteronomy 14:8
Ilona’s dream is for his people to reclaim their heritage. “Torah is our heritage. I would like us to become His penitent children again. And then do our fair share in building the Land of Israel. We want to contribute to the security of, and benefit from connection to, the Land.”
Largely through his personal efforts, the Igbo have hundreds of western supporters today. Ilona told Breaking Israel News that there are currently “Eighty synagogues in Nigeria where western Jews can walk in and feel happy to pray.” The vast majority are in Igboland, a 16,000 square mile area in Nigeria twice the size of Israel.
Ilona explained that there are 40 million Igbo alive today. Of those,“5,000 are practicing rabbinic Judaism.” He is one of only a handful of Igbo who have visited Israel. “If I’m recognized [as Jewish by the State of Israel], I would like to live in Israel. It would send a powerful message and bring more Igbos to the Torah. Anything that will draw Igbos close to Torah is what I want to do. What I want is for all 40 million Igbos to return to Torah.”
David Mark, founder of Israel Rising, spoke to Breaking Israel News about a crucial step in recognizing Igbo as lost Jews. “There is enough circumstantial evidence that indicates a Jewish connection that many Rabbinic leaders require only a giur l’chumra (a pro-forma conversion performed when a person’s Jewish status is uncertain) for the Igbo instead of a full conversion. It is important that we both embrace [the Igbo connection to Jews] as well as steering Igbo towards a true Torah lifestyle and ultimately converting the way our Rabbinic leaders demand.”
Michael Freund is the Founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel, which seeks out the Lost Tribes of Israel and other hidden Jewish communities and assists them with returning to Israel and the Jewish people. He confirmed for Breaking Israel News that Shavei Israel has been involved with the Igbo since 2014. According to Freund, “The Igbos have a real thirst for Jewish knowledge. Many want to learn Hebrew and learn Jewish history and tradition.
“There is clearly a movement afoot among various Igbos who have embraced Judaism and have begun to practice it. It’s something remarkable to witness. The efforts they are making to learn and practice Judaism are noteworthy. While their historical connection to Israelite ancestry requires further study, the fact is that there are thousands of Igbo who are practicing Judaism and who sincerely want to be part of the Jewish people,” he said.
Freund observed, “More and more people are awakening to their Jewish roots and I think it’s a spiritual phenomenon and almost a mystical phenomenon. It’s hard not to see it as part of the Divine plan, the stirring of the Jewish spark in many souls that has been hidden for generations but is now coming to life and being rekindled.”
On this point, Ilona concluded, “I believe that God is behind this [return of the Igbo to Torah] but what He wants it for, I don’t yet know.”