Season of Genetic Testing Gaffes: Igbo and Ashkenazi

Today as I went through the Forward newspaper of Aug 29, 2017, I found an article written by Ari Feldman, titled “Why Did 23andMe Tell Ashkenazi Jews They Could Be Descended From Khazars?” Going through carefully I found the following; “The genomics company 23andMe has retracted a statement made on the profiles of some users with Ashkenazi heritage that they may be descended from an extinct tribe from the Caucasus known as the Khazars, inadvertently wading into a political-genetic debate with far-reaching implications for Jewish identity and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The company said in a statement that it will remove any reference to the theory from its site.” This spiked my interest, because it was worrying, as it is dangerous. And it seems to fit a pattern as my article will try to demonstrate.

Less than 5 weeks ago a very similar controversy raged around the Igbo people who are presently living in all parts of the world, but who have been in West Africa for at least 1000 years.

The Igbo who have been known even in recent times as Ibo, Heebo, Hibo, have a culture which they call Ome na ana. The translation of this phrase to English yields “……to be done in the land”, but as what are to be done on the land are the rituals, practices and customs of the people, one can say that translated to English Ome na ana yields “rituals, practices and customs which are to be done in the land.”

The Igbo have some very ancient cultural practices, beliefs and institutions, that I have carefully searched for their equivalents everywhere, not seen them in other cultures, except some which I found only on the pages of the Hebrew Bible. An example is the Osu institution-the Osu were assistants to the priests in the sanctuaries of the Igbos.  This institution is significant enough in the Igbo society that Chinua Achebe, the Igbo who made the list of the 100 greatest writers of the twentieth century explored it in his first three books, among which was the best-selling Things Fall Apart. He did because after the British conquered the Igbos, and began the process of changing the society which critically involved replacing the religion of the Igbo with Christianity, the condition of the Osu began to deteriorate rapidly that by the time Achebe dramatically wrote about them in the middle of the 20th century he described them as “outcasts.” This institution, and the segregation against the members is still very much one of the most important issues in the Igbo society today. This institution exists in the cultures of no other national ethnicity in Nigeria. The Igbo who was an Osu 100 years ago, had the physical mark that the Hebrew Bible prescribed for the equivalent of the Osu in Israel.

But there are still questions hovering over the Israelite or Hebraic origins of the Igbo, and because the questions are always wrongly framed, they get the wrong answers. For example, asking if the Igbos knew that they were ‘Jews’ 700 years ago, would be as disingenuous as asking if a Sefardi knew that he was an Igbo, or an Ashkenazi 700 years ago. The relevant question should be; did Igbos know that they were ‘Ibri, or whatever Hebrew was pronounced as 700 years ago? This would then entail deep analysis of the term “Igbo.”

Well, in search of the questions over the origins of the Igbo, a non Jewish but missionary group which markets itself as a Jewish group, found some Igbos who share faith with them, but who thought that they were Jewish, who also thought that they had found American partners, and they both agreed to sample Igbo DNA for “Jewishness.”

When I read about this in far away America I was angry due to several reasons: I have many important questions hovering over the matter of determining the ancestry of a group solely with DNA evidence because I still haven’t seen meaningful evidence that there is a group that has distinct markers which no other group possessed. This means to me that there is no such thing as “Jewish genes.” I have read about the “Kohen genes”, but it didn’t impress me. I will explain why I was not impressed. If we are to seriously consider that such a gene or group of genes exist that will mean that we agree that Aharon the brother of Moses, or a progenitor that fitted him existed. I have no problem with accepting that Aharon existed, but as Aharon didn’t fall from heaven, we must admit that he came into existence through a line of ancestors through whom he must have gotten the genes that he transmitted to his “Kohanim descendants.” But these ancestors of Aharon included men and women who were not in the line of the Levites/Israelites-people like the father of Abraham, the Hebrew Patriarch, Terah. Terah had other children: Haran and Nahor, who had children. The children of the duo could have like the progeny of Terah that became Israelites received the same “Kohanim genes” that the Israelites “received” from Terah. We don’t have to be specialists in Molecular Biology to arrive at this, after all, while science can provide answers to many of the “whats”, it can not always answer all the “whys.” And as Abraham Carmel noted in “So Strange My path”, “the queen of the sciences, religion starts where the sciences stop.” Because I knew that no “Jewish genes” exist I was angry when I read that messianic, addressed as Israeli and Jewish scientists arrived Nigeria to test the genes of my people for “Jewishness.” I had my own genes analyzed to destroy the reprobate argument that the Igbo didn’t live anywhere else before settling in Igboland put forward by Igbocentrists/Afrocentrists, and my DNA results showed definite evidence of Middle Eastern presence in my ancestral history. Deeper analyses showed the shores of the Red Sea. I did this because I saw Israelite culture in Igbo culture, and as Israel developed into a society with a distinct culture in the Middle East, I had to have that test done to prove scientifically that a migration occurred from the Middle East. And not to prove that my genes are Jewish. The proof that I am a descendant of the Israelites is Ome na ana. DNA evidence only confirmed it.

To be continued.

Remy is the author of “The Igbos And Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of the Largest Jewish Diaspora”, and the forthcoming, “Are African Americans: From Jerusalem to Bight of Biafra to Babylon?”, and “Dissecting The Osu Institution: The Bells of Freedom Toll for the “Outcasts” of Israel.”

About the Author
Remy Ilona, is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where he also functions as a teaching assistant. He is also the secretary-general of Hebrew-Igbo people, an Igbo socio-cultural organization. He is also an author of 10 books. He is of Ibo or Igbo extraction, and a lawyer by training, as well as a historian of the Ibo. He is among the leaders shepherding the Ibos re-emerging Judaism.
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