Book Review: The Igbos And Israel -An Inter-Cultural Study Of The Oldest And Biggest Jewish Diaspora


Book Cover

By Dr. Daniel Lis-University of Basel

Remy Ilona, Abuja based Igbo author, lawyer and activist some years
ago coined the term “the modern day George Basden“ for me. I never
completely agreed that I had earned that title since George T. Basden
– a Welsh-Anglican Missionary – had lived for 40 years amongst the
Igbo and I – after all – had just spent two weeks in Nigeria with
Ilona, touring newly established Igbo Jewish communities in Abuja and
visiting Nri priests at Agukwu-Nri- a group of people that had already
been compared to the Levites of the Israelites in the 19th century by
outside observers because of their position in matters of ritual
significance to the Igbo society.
Ilona’s book is written with the background that a very significant
part of the Igbos identify the origin of their customs as emanating
from the ancient Israelites, and that Jewish identification has been
part of the Igbo experience, as I have argued myself in my recent
publications and in my forthcoming book.
This identification intrigued Ilona more than a decade ago. This made
him to start his comparative research; studying what others have
written earlier on the subject and interviewing some of the eldest
priests and others at Nri, and other Igbo locations who all confirmed
the Israelite origin of the Igbos in oral interviews.
Make no mistake, it is unlikely that Igbo people before their contact
with Western societies were conscious Jews in a rabbinical Jewish
sense, and no clear-cut archeological evidence of a large scale
Israelite or Jewish migration into Igboland has been found so far.
However, there can be no doubt that the Igbo people have been in
existence long before the introduction of a Western type of nation
model and that indeed some of their traditions resemble the customs of
the Hebrew patriarchs as described in the Hebrew Bible.
In this inter-cultural study Remy Ilona presents a systematic
comparison of Igbo culture to Hebrew and Israelite culture.
In conducting such a comparative study, there exists a methodological
difficulty to reconstruct the traditions of a society – like the Igbo
– who had no written records – a major difference to Rabbinic Jewish
Societies. Cultures are not monolithic and are prone to change over
time (and that includes Jewish and Igbo cultures as well). Ilona
however, is well aware of those difficulties and he rightfully writes
that Igbo culture has interacted and was influenced by many of the
surrounding cultures as well and makes convincing arguments in this
A number of Igbo authors have in the last few years attempted to
explain the widespread notion of the Igbo that they are Jews, giving
linguistic, archeological, genetic and also cultural explanations.
However, the argument did not always seem to be based on a careful
comparison of the two entities.
Remy Ilona on the other hand has been following the project of
cultural comparison intensely for a decade. In addition to a careful
study of what earlier authors have written on this subject (a point
that I will relate to a bit further down) and his own research – by
way of oral interviews and observation – Ilona might be one of the few
Igbo authors with a profound knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and its
later Jewish commentaries. Ilona has devoured a body of literature on
Rabbinic Judaism and has interacted intensely with Western Jews in
order to compare the customs of contemporary Rabbinical Jews to those
of the Igbo, noting that many Jews – like the Igbo in their own
culture – no longer practice what is today defined as Rabbinical
Judaism. In addition Ilona highlights that Judaism has undergone
changes as well and that there are difficulties in comparing Igbo
culture to Rabbinical Judaism.
Judaism since the destruction of the second temple has slowly
developed from a sacrifice oriented cult and a life style – indeed
with many similarities to a reconstructed Igbo tradition – to a
religion of the Book. Rabbinical Judaism for a large part took its
present and dominant form in medieval Ashkenaz. Judaism needed a
response to the religions surrounding it (Christianity and Islam) in
order to survive. Ilona then rightly points out that the modern day
Igbo are not Rabbinical Jews (although there’s a growing number of
them) but that their customs rather resemble Israelite culture as
described in the five books of Moses.
Remy is well aware of the few cultural differences that existed and
still exist between different Igbo clans but presents those traditions
which are common to all Igbos, and which are most close to Israelite
culture, as capturing core concepts of Igbo culture best.
Thereby, Remy follows in the footsteps of authors that were central in
the definition of Igbo culture and I will only name here the works of
Olaudah Equiano, Chinua Achebe and George T. Basden. Especially the
latter who is repeatedly quoted in Ilona’s book.
And here some words need to be said about Basden not only because
Basden was one of the few longtime and early outside observers who
looked at the Igbos with the eye of an anthropologist, but also
because Basden arrived in Igboland at the turn to the 20th century
before Igbo culture began to change in a major way. Although Basden
was not the first to write on the similarities of Igbo customs to
those of the Israelites – several Igbo and non-Igbo had done it before
– Basden did it continuously and even more elaborately, as he became
more and more involved with the Igbo. One of Basden’s motivations to
publish his ethnographic work on the Igbo was to capture and document
the traditions of a world that was changing rapidly under the
influence of Christian missionaries – like Basden himself – and the
colonial regime that the British began to establish in Nigeria at the
beginning of the 20th century. Basden viewed it as important that
future generations of Igbo would know what the traditions of their
forefathers and mothers were. His influence on Igbo society as a
chronicler of Igbo traditions, as well as an educator and politician
cannot be overstated and his work is still well known even amongst
young Igbos.
Few Igbo during the time of Basden would wander around in Igboland
before the advent of colonization and think of themselves as Jews in
the sense that we understand it today, or at least we have no
indication for that. Only in the Igbo Diaspora were Igbo learnt about
the Israelites or Rabbinical Jews do we find earlier expressions of
such a thought. Being aware of this Remy however opens up the
conception of what a Jew is and shows a much more inclusive
understanding of Jewish people-hood, a model that is worthwhile to
give some thought in my opinion. I however, did not quite understand
why the Igbo are described to be the oldest Jewish Diaspora.
For me as an anthropologist who has studied the Igbos’ Jewish
identification from a historical perspective and from a perspective of
contemporary attempts of Igbo in Israel to be recognized as Jews, one
of the most interesting aspects of Ilona’s book was how an Igbo author
of Ilona’s standing, is looking at his own culture 70 years after
Basden published his Niger Ibos. It shows then that those Igbo
customs, as described by Basden in their relation to those of the
Israelites, have been solidified over time as central markers of Igbo
In his book, Ilona focuses on Igbo rituals during life cycle events
(chapter one). Those include the rituals surrounding the birth of
children, eight-day circumcision of males, seclusion of newly
delivered mother, levirate marriage and so on. Remy also enters the
long debate about the Igbo conception of a supreme God, (chapter two);
Igbo rituals surrounding death (chapter three); feast and festivals
(chapter four); Igbo social organization (chapter five); Igbo
understanding of clean/unclean (chapter six); Igbo sacrifices and
offerings (chapter seven); Igbo classes (chapter eight);
socio-religious customs (chapter nine); Code of moral behavior
(chapter ten); Igbo code for crime and other offenses (chapter
eleven); sexual behavior (chapter twelve); the Igbo connection to the
land (thirteen); the importance of ritual cleanliness (chapter
fourteen); the distinction between clean and unclean food and ritual
slaughter (chapter fifteen); similarities between Igbo and Semitic
manner of dress, (chapter sixteen); parallels between the Igbo and the
Hebrew reckoning of time (chapter seventeen); joining the Igbo and
Jewish peoples and leaving them (chapter eighteen).
Every book of course has its flaws.
Not all comparisons might be equally convincing and some cultural
characteristics might be part of a human organization per se. Also,
the author has clearly put the emphasis on commonalities and not
differences that do exist.
The division of the book into eighteen chapters makes it at times a
bit heavy handed and leads to some repetitions. For someone not
knowledgeable in Igbo culture those repetitions might however be
helpful. Some parts of the book, like were prominent Igbo and non-Igbo
state that the Igbo are Jews; represent a repetition of parts of
earlier books that might have been omitted and simply referred to.
Coming to a close, I would say that the title of the “Modern Day
Basden” rather belongs to Remy Ilona and would recommend the book to
anyone interested in a Jewish interpretation of Igbo culture and –
speaking with Israeli sociologist Eliezer Ben-Rafael – as for an
important example of African Jewry that might well represent one of
engines of the Jewish reality in the years to come.


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