Wednesday 30 March 2011

The Igbo and Jewry

The following is an adaptation of the substantive aspects of a private response to Mr. Ozodi Osuji's rejoinder to a lecture that I delivered to an audience of the Jewish Museum in London. In it, I attempted to pick up on a number of points and observations of Mr. Osuji; many of which have added alternate perspectives and further depth to my knowledge and understanding of the topic.

I embarked on this topic fully cognizant of the controversies and sensitivities attendant to it. It was in anticipation of your query: "Why do black men always want to be associated with white folks when white folk do not want anything to do with them?", that I took the trouble to highlight genuine reservations that a black person would have about the premise of proposing a consanguineous link between a black African people and Jewry, which as I specifically mentioned are a people who in modern times are identified as white skinned Caucasians.

Indeed, I referred to one particular comment posted on the messageboard of a website which I visited in the course of my research. The poster referred to a fellow poster who had postulated such a link as "indulging in a brazen expression of inferiority complex and self devaluation." And in the same vein, towards the end of the talk, I had referred to the issue of the black descendants of Sally Hemmings and their claim to be formally recognised as part of the extended family of Thomas Jefferson.

I can't remember which side of the fence Jefferson stood over the issue of the status of Africans in America. Some delegates to the constitutional convention felt their humanness should not be acknowledged while others thought it should and the compromise was the infamous declaration of blacks as being three-fifths human.

Yes, your experience at his estate demonstrates the racism inherent in his treatment of the slaves that he owned. But I thought it prudent to put forward another view that the facts be put squarely in the faces of the white descendants, and that this should not be automatically referred to as kow-towing. Otherwise we get into that emotionally satisfying but not too helpful attitude of blacks describing themselves as "Field Negroes" and "House Negroes": There should be a penumbra of views.

I also recognised the fact that there are Jews, probably a sizeable number of them who would be hostile to the premise of a genetic link between an African people and Jewry. There are no particular records of salient episodes of disharmony between Blacks and Jews in the United Kingdom, but this is not the case in the United States where there was rioting in the Crown Heights district of New York between Blacks and their Orthodox Jewish neighbours sometime back in the 1980s.

Louis Farrakhan's infamous comment denouncing Judaism as being a "gutter religion," the publication of a book by the Nation of Islam detailing their claim of heavy Jewish involvement in the slave trade, and Farrakhan’s perceived influence in the Black community led to an examination of Black-Jewish relations.

So while mutual antipathies between U.K. based Black/ African and Jewish communities have not been obviously played out, I prepared the talk mindful of the fact that there are Jews with racist attitudes towards blacks, and that there are blacks who view Jews in an unfavourable light. It would not have escaped your keen eye the post talk comment by a Jewish lady in the audience who stressed that she felt that many of her fellow Ashkenazi Jews are in denial about the fact that they were "originally a people of Colour."

Of course, being a people of colour does not mean that the Jews were originally black in the sense of having being a Nubian people with Nubian features, it is perhaps more likely that they were a dark skinned Caucasian people. There is the school of thought which believes that the Semitic peoples were an admixture of Negroid and Caucasian strains.

But if we are accepting of the thesis that the Jews of ancient times were 'non-white', then the premise of whether the Igbos are a lost tribe of Israel takes on a whole different meaning. Put another way, there would be less unease among black skeptics if the link postulated was between Igbos and say, the Ancient Egyptians who are widely understood by blacks to have been of black African origin, even though the image of the modern Egyptian is that of a darker hued Caucasian.

Your elaboration on possible vistas of Jewish migration into the hinterland of Alaigbo is most welcome. I appreciate your reference to the possibility of certain Hebrew sounding words as having possibly come from avenues other than Trans-Saharan migration such as from Jews who perhaps were of Portuguese origin.

The time scale of about 300 years for certain words to become imbibed into the lexicon of the language of a community is compelling. On the other hand, one must question how a miniscule number of Jews among a small population of Portuguese could have spread certain words and customs which are seemingly congruent to that of the Jews. Surely, there would have been a similar or proportional acquisition of non-Jewish Portuguese customs and elements of the language in Alaigbo.

The interpretation of evidence, even when there is universal agreement of evidence is a crucial factor and I am in essence sympathetic to your wariness about the interpretation that could be given to a future consensus view which formally identifies the Igbo with Jewry, and specifically one which would permit the 'enemies' of the Igbo to maintain that the Igbo would therefore constitute an 'alien' group in West Africa.

You are right about persons seizing upon a theory that the Igbos are Jews as a weapon to incite say the masses of the Moslem North of Nigeria—the 'Talakawa'— to take up arms and unleash pogroms against the Igbo. This is why I categorically stated in my lecture that one: The Igbo language is a West African language belonging to the KWA linguistic group, and two: The Igbo people are a West African people who are of 'Bantu' stock. They have flat noses, thick lips and woolly hair.

Of course, Igbos have a high rate of albinoism and in many instances appear to be lighter hued than their Bini or Yoruba neighbours. This tendency to light skin has also been a source of supposed 'pride' on the part of the Igbos. Other than instances of albinoism, is this a distant reminder of intermarriage with Portuguese or Semitic elements or even related to the texture of the earth on which they reside? I also did speak of the dangers which political or rabbinical "recognition" of Igbos as Jews would pose in the political context of Nigeria.

So far as the reference you made to my mention of the Khazar theory as giving the Arabs the justification to overthrow a putatively 'alien' and non-Semitic state of Israel (and by analogy, a justification for the Igbos to be swept into the Atlantic for being a non-authentic African people), I would offer that the Arabs do not use the thesis of the Jews being mainly of non-Abrahamic lineage as THE justification of sweeping the state of Israel into the sea.

Remember that much of their antipathy stems from the Mohammedan policy of hating Jews since the time when they refused to offer the prophet aid in his time of need. This level of hatred, enshrined within and encouraged by the Koran is enough reason to oppose the state of Israel and even if every single Jew in Israel could account for the veracity of the Semitic origins of their genes, it would make no difference.

I made references during the course of my lecture to similarities between certain Hebrew words and customs and that of the Igbo. I did not refer to one Professor Alaezi's contention that the name of 'Eri', a son of Gad, appears in as a suffix to certain words in its original form or as a corruption in, for example, Aguleri, Umuleri, Nri and Nkwerre. Neither did I refer to the purported discovery by archaeologists of a stone in the town of Aguleri which had the name 'Gad' etched in the Hebrew language.

Much of this need not be accepted at face value and should be forensically examined and corroborated by reference to empirical standards. There perhaps is a whiff of desperation in the references relied upon by some Igbos who subscribe to the premise of their being a lost tribe of Israel. For instance, the writings of early British travellers whose referrals to 'Heeboes' is interpreted by that as evidence that the word 'Igbo' is a corruption of 'Hebrew.'

There is something inherently disturbing and dangerous when a people believe that their fortunes and misfortunes are pre-ordained by biblical injunctions and prophesies. It is apparent that some Igbos believe that the Old Testament words, attributed to a fearsome God that he would, "scatter" the children of Israel among the nations and that their neighbours and other tribes would "hate" them relates to their experiences of being hated and of being targeted for pogroms in Nigeria.

As a people who pride themselves as been adaptive to modernity, it is crucial that they resort, as has been the standard of enlightened peoples, to the application of reason—as opposed to emotion or metaphysical traditions—when assessing the trends of their existence. If, for instance, as you say that there is a commonly held perception among their neighbours that the Igbos are an 'arrogant' people, then this must be cause for some form of internal analysis of the patterns and traits of the group culture. Nations and peoples have changed over the course of time and such change can be effected by the calibre of the intellectual leadership that they possess.

The quotations by Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chinua Achebe to which I referred as indicative of the Igboman's belief in his special-ness was in essence a form of a rebuke. As to your allusion to have been on a life-long mission to "save the Igbos from themselves", I would tend to interpret this as an implied critique of a lack of leadership from the elites within the Igbo society.

Goethe was on a mission to save the German people from themselves. He knew that they were an aggressive sort of people prone to chauvinist thinking and expansionist ideologies. And he spoke against such tendencies to the extent that he did not support his people in their quest to be freed of Napoleonic control when the French were on the retreat from their ill-advised attempt to subjugate the Russians.

The Germans—remember there was no corporate entity at this time called Germany—vilified him for thinking that way. Goethe foresaw the militarism inherent in the Germans which was later borne out by the rise of Prussia and then of Hitlerism, which would lead their people to disaster in the 20th century. His advice to them was to "invest" their prodigious talents into what he termed "The culture": in the arts, the sciences, and in trading which would serve as a means of pacifying those aggressive impulses which he was convinced inhabited the German psyche.

This is what leadership entails—not only in the obvious sphere of the political classes, but from the intellectual elite of a people—people who while they are the embodiment of the best of their people are nevertheless understanding of the foibles and weaknesses of their people and are not afraid to say so. The Igbos, by implication, do not appear to have such persons.

It is arguably an indicator of an underdeveloped and unenlightened pattern of leadership where a leader indulges in superfluous aggrandizement of his ethnic group at the expense of being a more imaginative contributor to the development of an understanding of the psyche of his people. The role of the novelist, poet and. intellectual par excellence is to do just that. This is the task for all African peoples, and not only the Igbo. But this will surely change with the passage of time as the political and intellectual culture becomes more sophisticated.

I mentioned that one cultural similarity between the Jews and the Igbos was their sense of being special and that this has had widespread ramifications in the fate of each people. One critique of Jews—and one which has not been limited to what one might refer to as the "racially conscious" extreme right of the political penumbra—has been to accuse Jewry of a form of racial supremacy and exclusiveness.

The extreme right claims that the Jews are hypocritical in their stances as purveyors of liberal values and of being in their view the main proponents of equality of races and citizens in Western societies, when they practice this sort of racial exclusiveness which finds a particular ugly corollary in the neo-apartheid policies of the state of Israel.

They also claim that the Jew was at the forefront of the American Civil Rights movement, or at least providing sustenance and encouragement for the movement as part of their grand scheme or unconscious policy of undermining the culture of the dominant populations where they live. To the racist right, civil rights means integration and race mixing which the Jew "forces down the throat" of the white majority while he himself does not condone such race mixing.

As you mention, there were those historical injunctions not to marry non-Jews and today there are these stipulations by conservative rabbinical authorities on who should be considered a Jew. You will note, as I explained in my lecture, that most Jews of western and eastern European origin (Ashkenazim) would fail the test.

You will also note the stringent tests for obtaining Israeli nationality contained in The Law of Return which was covered during the question session that followed my presentation. A member of the audience referred to the case of an Igboman whose legal argument that he be categorised as a returnee Jew by virtue of his Igbo heritage, was dismissed by the Supreme Court of Israel.

There are those who will argue that the Talmud makes derogatory references to non-Jews, i.e. Gentiles as been little more than "animals," while of course there is the insistence that the book does not denigrate Gentiles by refusing them the possibility of salvation and condemning them to eternal damnation. Those who are termed 'Ethical Monotheists' have souls which are apparently salvageable. There are further categorisations depending on which scholar you read, but the fact that even those who receive a favourable classification can never be accepted into the Jewish community or society merely confirms for some the 'apartness' of Jews.

A straightforward comparison with Igbos in this vein is not possible. There is no specific canon of the traditional Igbo religious system, at least of which I am aware, with commensurate stipulations although it is worth noting the practice of the Osu system; a system which mandates that Igbos cannot marry certain people who are categorised by reasons of descent as being of lower caste.

One of the core precepts pertaining to the age of enlightenment and reason is that concerning the equality of human beings. And given that a fundamental assumption of today's world is that all humans are entitled to the gamut of human rights, it amounts to a moral stain on the cultural mores of the Igbo if they continue to perpetuate a system which condones a practice which categories groups within them as being virtually sub-human.

One of the themes which I mentioned in my lecture was the perception which the neighbours and host communities had of the Igbos and the Jews and it is fair to say that this perception has often been unfavourable. Even today, and this is not confined to the obviously racist far right, there are those who believe that Jews are selfish and only interested in promoting their own ends.

I stress that I am not saying I agree with such views but that they are a reality of the perception of many in the Western world for centuries. The Igbos too, have been viewed as selfish and arrogant. Both peoples have suffered immensely from violent uprisings during which they were targeted. As with all sorts of phenomena it is a matter of cause and effect.

But while it is easier to achieve unanimity in assessing the effect of the destruction and humiliation of human beings, it is harder to achieve consensus on what the causes were. Should we merely stop at a finding that Jews and Igbos have been attacked solely because of the 'jealousies of their neighbours and their neighbours needs to find a 'scapegoat' in times of specific societal crisis?

And if it is postulated that other causes abound which relate to the conduct of and the characteristics of Igbos and Jews, does that bear the connotation of blaming the victim, and further, of being anti-Semitic or anti-Igbo? I believe not. Not if we are embarking on a genuinely objective enquiry into the nature of man.

I, for instance, would welcome 'genuinely objective' and purposeful enquiries by black and African intellectuals into whether there is a common thread existing within the black African psyche which has contributed to the poverty and mistreatment of his kind over the ages.

An enquiry which does not overwhelmingly keep blaming others for his misfortune, but instead asks why black Africans sold their kind as slaves, first to Arabs and then to Europeans, and whether the destructive and self defeating tendencies of that sort have contributed to the corrupt misrule of African nations and the maladies suffered by African descended communities in the Americas are related to some transmitted cultural facet.

Such enquiries must be purposeful and be active in presenting points of action which over the course of time will eradicate what you, Mr. Osuji, refer to as "negative" tendencies. It will involve the conception of new philosophies and shared precepts aimed at re-socializing African peoples with new values to replace old ones while maintaining and promoting those positive cultural traits.

You deduced from my lecture an overt as well as a subtle insinuation that the "sense of specialness and tendency to look down on other people" has played a part in generating anti-Jewish and anti-Igbo sentiments. The Igbo found themselves friendless inside Nigeria during the turmoil of 1966. They were the victims of large scale injustices.

But is it not ironic when you consider that the murderous acts within the ranks of the military in 1966 could not have taken place without the participation of Christian soldiers of middle belt origin who formed the bulk of the foot soldiers in the Nigerian Army? Is there no truth in allegations that some Easterners in the North including, but not limited to market traders were openly and overbearingly triumphal in their attitudes about the rise of Ironsi?

Is there no truth to comments made by certain Yorubas of some Igbos indiscreetly asserting at the time of Ironsi’s administration that they would obtain greater 'living space' in the West and other parts of Nigeria?

You also mentioned my note on the frequent accusation of Jews and Igbos being involved in the unholy pursuit of money. The Igbo are often made the face of Nigerian '419'; this, the art of swindling foreigners, usually North Americans and Western Europeans of large amounts of money.

Igbo names such as Ajudua and Nwude are referred to as being the most successful of these 'scammers'. The backdrop to this of course is that Nigeria presently is a very corrupt state and society, and if a thesis of a preponderance of Igbos in this form of financial crime is accepted, the rationale could be based on the matter of the marginalisation of Igbos from the corridors of political power such that many of them have not been in a position to steal from the Nigerian treasury as have the leaders of other ethnic groups from the North, Middle Belt and the West. So for many, the route to acquiring equivalent massive forms of money is through executing these scams.

As for the Jews, there are those who assert that the face of the Russian oligarch, who epitomizes the wanton rape of the Russian treasury and acquisition of state assets by crooked means, is represented by that of a Jew. Berezovsky. Gusinsky. Freidman. Khodorkovsky. These oligarchs were supposedly aided by Jewish financial figures in the West in the transfer of assets out of Russia in that chaotic period following the fall of communism. So too is the face of what is referred to as the 'Russian Mafia.' The Jewish gangster Simone Mogilevich is often cited as the quintessential Russian 'Don', although the fact is that such 'mafia' is composed of a range of ethnic groups.

While it is the case that the first portion of my lecture dwelled on certain similarities in terms of cultural traits and experiences in history, at no point did I mention that this was indicative of a lineage between Igbos and Jews. In fact, I was at pains to refer to the other possible comparisons such as the Armenians and the Chinese who live outside of their homeland in other Far East Asian countries. They, like the Japanese, are noted for their industry.

But let us face it, almost every group which demonstrates traits of industry and resourcefulness are likened to Jews. Love them or loathe them: they are the standard. And what standards they have set. When one considers their relatively miniscule population and matches that against their achievements and their influence it is obvious that all comparisons with other peoples are in essence superficial—a description which I used in my lecture.

The Jews have played an important role in the constructing of Western civilization. They can boast of numerous philosophers such as Maimonides and Spinoza; of scientists like Einstein and Oppenheimer, who was the lead scientist in the Manhattan Project which oversaw the development of the atom bomb; of bankers like the Rothschilds and so on. They practically invented Capitalism—and because Karl Marx was of Jewish origin, some would say they also invented the idea of Communism.

There are recent studies propounding the theory that Ashkenazi Jews are the most intelligent form of the human species and have attained such levels of intelligence by virtue of their having to improvise and contrive the strategies which were required to cope with the vicissitudes of societal exclusion, pogroms and expulsions from various lands. However, there are no available studies which would permit a similar view in regard to the Intelligence quotient of Igbos.

The Igbos are a black African people, labouring under the accusation, like other Africans and peoples of black African descent, that they have not been significant contributors to the development of civilizations. They, like other African groups, had not developed a comprehensive written system by the time of the arrival of the Europeans and as with other Africans were subjugated and pacified by European powers.

There are of course two ways of looking at the level of social and political development among the Igbo when the Europeans came across them. One view tends towards that of them having primitive, stateless underdeveloped polities, while the other is to view them as ruling themselves in autonomous enclaves. Where the Igbo sees the evidence of a meritocratic, "republican" heritage, his critics see a chaotic, malformed political heritage based on the fact that they existed as a "stateless" people.

It is perhaps as you argue that because of the achievements of the Jews, that some Igbos will want to push all they can to become associated with Jewry; analogous to the human psychological condition whereby persons wish to be associated with those who are successful.

When I devised my lecture on Igbos and Jews, I was wary of people misconstruing it as an attempt of black people trying to link themselves with a people perceived as white for the purposes of obtaining a shaky, self esteem by association. I am mindful of the fact that Africans and African descended persons should preferably display the qualities associated with being inspirational and not merely being aspirational.

You do not copy or imitate—you adapt knowledge, precepts and modes of behaviour to suit your own cultural needs.

I devised the lecture in a manner by which I presented evidence so that a debate—with reference to cogent evidence—may ensue and the theory can be proved or disproved. It was conceived on basis that while the Igbos have discernible traits and a history which can be adjudged as being similar to that of the Jews, there is in existence certain linguistic and cultural points of reference which demanded further investigation. This is simply a result of what I consider to be a natural and healthy sense of intellectual curiosity.

One which finds, say, the proposition that the Japanese language is somewhat related to the Magyar and Finnish languages fascinating in the extreme and worth exploring.

I would find it abhorrent for anyone to dismiss a link between Jews and Igbos for reasons other than those based on empirical scrutiny. It would be abhorrent for a Jew to dismiss it out of hand on the basis that he considers himself "white" and "superior" to an African people just as I would abhor the situation where an Igbo is accepting of such a link merely to be associated with what he perceives to be a successful white ethnic group.

Are the Igbos specifically a "lost" tribe of Israel? A reading of the text of my lecture clearly shows that I describe them as a black African people who speak a black African language. If Jewish elements migrated to what is now Igboland, they would have been a miniscule amount and would have merged with an indigenous people already existing there. That much was alluded to in my talk.

I am fairly agnostic about the whole thing, but enjoy the process of forensic enquiry. What motivates others in terms of their interest in the proof or disproof of the subject at hand is another issue. One vista of enquiry which has so far not been pursued is the undertaking of large scale blood testing in the manner in which the Lemba people of Southern Africa subjected themselves. If the Igbo are related to Jewry, they will bear the traces of Semitic chromosomes which with the passage of time and intermarriage would doubtlessly have mutated, but would be present.

The results might just settle this matter.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2007)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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