In the early 20th-century, much of the island of New Guinea was terra incognita to Europeans. At that time, the eastern half of the island was divided into two colonial territories, Papua and New Guinea, both administered by Australia; the western side was part of the Dutch East Indies. New Guinea is the second largest island in the world – almost 30 times larger than Massachusetts. But I say with some confidence that, had its entire expatriate population assembled in 1920, any Jew seeking a minyan—even an egalitarian one—would have been disappointed. The same is probably true today, with the exception of anthropologists such as myself. In fact, the country of Papua New Guinea, which gained independence in 1976, is one of the few nations today that lacks a synagogue, or even a Chabad house.
In 1904, Ivan Francis Champion was born in Port Moresby, the capital town of colonial New Guinea, to parents from New Zealand. Champion would became a well-known patrol officer and administrator in New Guinea. One day during a famous expedition in 1926, Champion trekked to the village of Bolivip in the Bol River Valley, perhaps the first European to do so, and “out of the crowd,” he wrote in his patrol report, “stepped a short stocky man with Jewish features, huge chest and shoulders, wearing the customary cassowary plumes.”
What does it say when non-Jewish Europeans can see Jewishness anywhere, even in the most unlikely of places?
Now, recall that Champion was born and raised in New Guinea. If he had ever encountered any Jews in those formative years, never mind spoken with them, they would have hardly totaled a numerical sample suitable of defining “Jewish features.” Champion attended public school in Manly, Sydney, then boarded at the Southport School in Queensland, an Anglican institution. Granted, there were more than 15,000 Jews in Australia. But how many would Champion have known? I suspect that his idea of physical Jewishness was based less on empirical observation and more on the pervasive ideology of anti-Judaism that permeated European society for centuries and travelled with colonists around the world. And what exactly, to a European boy who grew up in New Guinea, would have been a characteristically Jewish feature? I doubt it was the “huge chest and shoulders” or the plumed headdress. And Champion himself later clarified these “Jewish features” when he published a book about his exploits: “black beard, hooked nose, black twinkling eyes.”
This was not the first time that indigenous Pacific Islanders had been identified as resembling stereotypical Jews. Early explorers said likewise for Tongans, the Gilbert Islanders of Kiribati, and the Maori of New Zealand or Aotearoa, among other native folks. One missionary (John Hunt) saw further Jewish characteristics among the Fijians in addition to their physiques: shrewdness in trade and “anything but brave” in battle. Even Rear Admiral John Moresby, who named the capital of Papua after his father, remarked on the “peculiarly Jewish cast of features” of the Papuans in the 1875 edition of The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. In those years, Jewishness was a scientific fact of biological race.
In those years, too, the main framework for explaining cultural variation worldwide was called diffusionism. Thus it was often held that many Pacific Islanders were descended from a Lost Tribe of Israel. I do not know if Champion subscribed to this view. But I have no doubt that many Pacific Islanders did, in fact, recall Jewishness to their non-Jewish European visitors. What is so striking is that these Europeans—Judeophobes, Judeophiles, and Judeoambivalents alike—all had a singular image of what Jewishness looked like, as if it that aquiline nose and long whiskers were hewn in stone, even though they themselves surely had little direct experience with Jews.
And that’s what makes the young patrol officer’s comments so important. They do not represent a momentary, off-color remark. Indeed, the comment doesn’t even really belong to Champion although the words were all his. Rather, his words illustrated a much broader and historically enduring drive by non-Jews to call out Jewishness as Otherly whenever it might be glimpsed, even in interior New Guinea. (Of course, such identifications also deny the legitimate identities of indigenous people.) After all, Jewishness was not only different from proper Europeans, but generally antithetical to civilization—not unlike the natives of colonial-era New Guinea. For if one can glimpse the telltale traits of Jewishness in the Bol River Valley in 1926, then one can surely see it anywhere.
The Jewish body is an indelible archetype, one might say, that expands beyond the Jewish community proper. It knows no boundaries defined by skin color, language, culture, ethnicity, or history. But this cross-cultural archetype is not a progressive celebration of multiculturalism. Rather, this archetype, beginning with the Letters of Paul in the 1st-century ACE, serves as a means of exclusion. It is unwanted atavistic trait, like the appendix, that nobody really needs and, if you are not careful, might someday flair up to cause trouble.
In anthropology, it is often said, the so-called “savage slot” has long been occupied by New Guinea. By the same token, I suggest, the savage in European thought has long been the Jews, forever stuck in their misguided ways, forever refusing the graces of spiritual and moral progress, and bound by their ungainly bodies.
Just ask Ivan Francis Champion in Bolivip village.
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