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Israel filmmakers arrested in Nigeria over alleged support of separatists

Policemen patrol the area in Abuja, Nigeria on 23 July 2019 [KOLA SULAIMON/AFP/Getty Images]
Policemen patrol the area in Abuja, Nigeria on 23 July 2019 [KOLA SULAIMON/AFP/Getty Images]

Three Israeli filmmakers have been arrested in Nigeria whilst filming a documentary about obscure Jewish communities around the world after being accused of supporting a Biafran separatist movement in the predominantly Igbo-speaking south-east of the country.

Israel's Foreign Ministry confirmed on Tuesday that the trio who were detained last week included Rudy Rochman, a pro-Zionist activist, filmmaker Noam Leibman and French-Israeli journalist Edouard David Benaym. The Israeli embassy in Abuja is following the case and is in contact with the Nigerian authorities.

The Times of Israel reported that they had been arrested by Nigerian authorities from the Department of State Services on Friday and interrogated after being suspected of coming into contact with the separatists.

According to local reports, the crew were detained at a synagogue on Friday evening in the Igbo village of Ogidi. The community claims to be among the lost tribes of Israel and the crew are said to have presented them gifts including a shiviti made in Jerusalem and a Torah scroll to another Igbo community group. Rochman was pictured with Igbo King Eze Chukwuemeka while donning a Palestinian-inspired keffiyeh.

However, relatives of the crew believe the meeting had been "twisted" by some locals who interpreted it as showing political support for the separatists. "The filmmaking crew thought it would be a nice gesture to bring several gifts with cultural symbolism to the communities it planned to visit," the families said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, members of non-state political groups have hijacked, for their own purposes, images of the filmmakers gifting a Torah to a local community."

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Before their arrest, the trio had posted on social media that "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 documentary film entitled 'We Were Never Lost', explores "the history, claims, stories, struggles, and aspirations of the Jewish/Israelite tribes of Africa" and looks at "Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and beyond".

According to the Jewish Chronicle, the Igbo Jews are currently not recognised by Israel and therefore are not eligible for citizenship via the so-called Law of Return unless they formally convert to Judaism, although a small number have made aliyah having converted through the Chief Rabbinate. Hamodia newspaper also explains that unlike Ethiopian Jews, the community also do not have mesorah, or an established chain of transmission of religious traditions, which is determined by the Rabbinate.

At the start of this year, fighting broke out between government forces and the military wing of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement, which is said to be on-going. The short-lived secessionist Republic of Biafra fought a bloody civil war with the Nigerian government between 1967 and 1970 that left over a million dead.

Last month, a pro-Biafran separatist leader Nnamdi Kanu, who has previously claimed the Igbo people are a lost Jewish tribe with a Biafran "promised land" was arrested by Interpol in the Czech Republic and is facing charges of treason in Nigeria. He has previously been in hiding in Israel and the UK.

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