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Hunting identity: a Jewish fixation on genes

Computer image of DNA, from Mirkin laboratory, department of biology, Tufts university

Thanks to Brian Robinson for providing the material and Professor Steven Rose for a guiding hand wading through it. No more guidance will be provided on interpreting these five articles:

1) Jewish Forward: Israeli Scientist Challenges Hypothesis of Middle East Origins;
2) Diana Appelbaum: A Problematic Reading of the Genetic History of the Jews;
3) Jewish Forward: Jews Are a ‘Race,’ Genes Reveal; May 2012
4) Science magazine: Who Are the Jews? Genetic Studies Spark Identity Debate;
5) New Scientist: How religion made Jews genetically distinct, 2010;

‘Jews a Race’ Genetic Theory Comes Under Fierce Attack by DNA Expert

Israeli Scientist Challenges Hypothesis of Middle East Origins

By Rita Rubin, Jewish Forward
May 07, 2013, issue of May 10, 2013.

Scientists usually don’t call each other “liars” and “frauds.”

But that’s how Johns Hopkins University post-doctoral researcher Eran Elhaik describes a group of widely respected geneticists, including Harry Ostrer, professor of pathology and genetics at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine and author of the 2012 book “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People.”

For years now, the findings of Ostrer and several other scientists have stood virtually unchallenged on the genetics of Jews and the story they tell of the common Middle East origins shared by many Jewish populations worldwide. Jews — and Ashkenazim in particular — are indeed one people, Ostrer’s research finds.

It’s a theory that more or less affirms the understanding that many Jews themselves hold of who they are in the world: a people who, though scattered, share an ethnic-racial bond rooted in their common ancestral descent from the indigenous Jews of ancient Judea or Palestine, as the Romans called it after they conquered the Jewish homeland.

But now, Elhaik, an Israeli molecular geneticist, has published research that he says debunks this claim. And that has set off a predictable clash.“He’s just wrong,” said Marcus Feldman of Stanford University, a leading researcher in Jewish genetics, referring to Elhaik.

Eran Elhaik. According to his research, the (Turkic) Khazars massively converted to Judaism, forming the basis of today’s Ashkenazi Jews. Photo by Rita Rubin.

The sometimes strong emotions generated by this scientific dispute stem from a politically loaded question that scientists and others have pondered for decades: Where in the world did Ashkenazi Jews come from?

The debate touches upon such sensitive issues as whether the Jewish people is a race or a religion, and whether Jews or Palestinians are descended from the original inhabitants of what is now the State of Israel. Ostrer’s theory is sometimes marshaled to lend the authority of science to the Zionist narrative, which views the migration of modern-day Jews to what is now Israel, and their rule over that land, as a simple act of repossession by the descendants of the land’s original residents. Ostrer declined to be interviewed for this story. But in his writings, Ostrer points out the dangers of such reductionism; some of the same genetic markers common among Jews, he finds, can be found in Palestinians, as well.

By using sophisticated molecular tools, Feldman, Ostrer and most other scientists in the field have found that Jews are genetically homogeneous. No matter where they live, these scientists say, Jews are genetically more similar to each other than to their non-Jewish neighbors, and they have a shared Middle Eastern ancestry.

The geneticists’ research backs up what is known as the Rhineland Hypothesis. According to the hypothesis, Ashkenazi Jews descended from Jews who fled Palestine after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century and settled in Southern Europe. In the late Middle Ages they moved into eastern Europe from Germany, or the Rhineland.

“Nonsense,” said Elhaik, a 33-year-old Israeli Jew from Beersheba who earned a doctorate in molecular evolution from the University of Houston. The son of an Italian man and Iranian woman who met in Israel, Elhaik, a dark-haired, compact man, sat down recently for an interview in his bare, narrow cubicle of an office at Hopkins, where he’s worked for four years.

In “The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses,” published in December in the online journal Genome Biology and Evolution, Elhaik says he has proved that Ashkenazi Jews’ roots lie in the Caucasus — a region at the border of Europe and Asia that lies between the Black and Caspian seas — not in the Middle East. They are descendants, he argues, of the Khazars, a Turkic people who lived in one of the largest medieval states in Eurasia and then migrated to Eastern Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. Ashkenazi genes, Elhaik added, are far more heterogeneous than Ostrer and other proponents of the Rhineland Hypothesis believe. Elhaik did find a Middle Eastern genetic marker in DNA from Jews, but, he says, it could be from Iran, not ancient Judea.

Elhaik writes that the Khazars converted to Judaism in the eighth century, although many historians believe that only royalty and some members of the aristocracy converted. But widespread conversion by the Khazars is the only way to explain the ballooning of the European Jewish population to 8 million at the beginning of the 20th century from its tiny base in the Middle Ages, Elhaik says.

Elhaik bases his conclusion on an analysis of genetic data published by a team of researchers led by Doron Behar, a population geneticist and senior physician at Israel’s Rambam Medical Center, in Haifa. Using the same data, Behar’s team published in 2010 a paper concluding that most contemporary Jews around the world and some non-Jewish populations from the Levant, or Eastern Mediterranean, are closely related.

Elhaik used some of the same statistical tests as Behar and others, but he chose different comparisons. Elhaik compared “genetic signatures” found in Jewish populations with those of modern-day Armenians and Georgians, which he uses as a stand-in for the long-extinct Khazarians because they live in the same area as the medieval state.

“It’s an unrealistic premise,” said University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer, one of Behar’s co-authors, of Elhaik’s paper. Hammer notes that Armenians have Middle Eastern roots, which, he says, is why they appeared to be genetically related to Ashkenazi Jews in Elhaik’s study.

Hammer, who also co-wrote the first paper that showed modern-day Kohanim are descended from a single male ancestor, calls Elhaik and other Khazarian Hypothesis proponents “outlier folks… who have a minority view that’s not supported scientifically. I think the arguments they make are pretty weak and stretching what we know.”

Feldman, director of Stanford’s Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies, echoes Hammer. “If you take all of the careful genetic population analysis that has been done over the last 15 years… there’s no doubt about the common Middle Eastern origin,” he said. He added that Elhaik’s paper “is sort of a one-off.”

Elhaik’s statistical analysis would not pass muster with most contemporary scholars, Feldman said: “He appears to be applying the statistics in a way that gives him different results from what everybody else has obtained from essentially similar data.”

Elhaik, who doesn’t believe that Moses, Aaron or the 12 Tribes of Israel ever existed, shrugs off such criticism.

“That’s a circular argument,” he said of the notion that Jews’ and Armenians’ genetic similarities stem from common ancestors in the Middle East and not from Khazaria, the area where the Armenians live. If you believe that, he says, then other non-Jewish populations, such as Georgian, that are genetically similar to Armenians should be considered genetically related to Jews, too, “and so on and so forth.”

Dan Graur, Elhaik’s doctoral supervisor at U.H. and a member of the editorial board of the journal that published his paper, calls his former student “very ambitious, very independent. That’s what I like.” Graur, a Romanian-born Jew who served on the faculty of Tel Aviv University for 22 years before moving 10 years ago to the Houston school, said Elhaik “writes more provocatively than may be needed, but it’s his style.” Graur calls Elhaik’s conclusion that Ashkenazi Jews originated to the east of Germany “a very honest estimate.”

In a news article that accompanied Elhaik’s journal paper, Shlomo Sand, history professor at Tel Aviv University and author of the controversial 2009 book “The Invention of the Jewish People,” said the study vindicated his long-held ideas. ”It’s so obvious for me,” Sand told the journal. “Some people, historians and even scientists, turn a blind eye to the truth. Once, to say Jews were a race was anti-Semitic, now to say they’re not a race is anti-Semitic. It’s crazy how history plays with us.”

The paper has received little coverage in mainstream American media, but it has attracted the attention of anti-Zionists and “anti-Semitic white supremacists,” Elhaik said.

Interestingly, while anti-Zionist bloggers have applauded Elhaik’s work, saying it proves that contemporary Jews have no legitimate claim to Israel, some white supremacists have attacked it.

“The disruptive and conflict-ridden behavior which has marked out Jewish Supremacist activities through the millennia strongly suggests that Jews have remained more or less genetically uniform and have… developed a group evolutionary survival strategy based on a common biological unity — something which strongly militates against the Khazar theory,” former Louisiana state assemblyman David Duke wrote on his blog in February.

“I’m not communicating with them,” Elhaik said of the white supremacists. He says it also bothers him, a veteran of seven years in the Israeli army, that anti-Zionists have capitalized on his research “and they’re not going to be proven wrong anytime soon.”

But proponents of the Rhineland Hypothesis also have a political agenda, he said, claiming they “were motivated to justify the Zionist narrative.”

To illustrate his point, Elhaik swivels his chair around to face his computer and calls up a 2010 email exchange with Ostrer.

“It was a great pleasure reading your group’s recent paper, ‘Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era,’ that illuminate[s] the history of our people,” Elhaik wrote to Ostrer. “Is it possible to see the data used for the study?”

Ostrer replied that the data are not publicly available. “It is possible to collaborate with the team by writing a brief proposal that outlines what you plan to do,” he wrote. “Criteria for reviewing include novelty and strength of the proposal, non-overlap with current or planned activities, and non-defamatory nature toward the Jewish people.” That last requirement, Elhaik argues, reveals the bias of Ostrer and his collaborators.

Allowing scientists access to data only if their research will not defame Jews is “peculiar,” said Catherine DeAngelis, who edited the Journal of the American Medical Association for a decade. “What he does is set himself up for criticism: Wait a minute. What’s this guy trying to hide?”

Despite what his critics claim, Elhaik says, he was not out to prove that contemporary Jews have no connection to the Jewish people of the Bible. His primary research focus is the genetics of mental illness, which, he explains, led him to question the assumption that Ashkenazi Jews are a useful population to study because they’re so homogeneous.

Elhaik says he first read about the Khazarian Hypothesis a decade ago in a 1976 book by the late Hungarian-British author Arthur Koestler, “The Thirteenth Tribe,” written before scientists had the tools to compare genomes. Koestler, who was Jewish by birth, said his aim in writing the book was to eliminate the racist underpinnings of anti-Semitism in Europe. “Should this theory be confirmed, the term ‘anti-Semitism’ would become void of meaning,” the book jacket reads. Although Koestler’s book was generally well reviewed, some skeptics questioned the author’s grasp of the history of Khazaria.Graur is not surprised that Elhaik has stood up against the “clique” of scientists who believe that Jews are genetically homogeneous. “He enjoys being combative,” Graur said. “That’s what science is.”

Contact Rita Rubin at

A Problematic Reading of the Genetic History of the Jews

Book Review
Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People by Harry Ostrer. Oxford University Press, 2012

By Diana Muir Appelbaum, GeneWatch blog
September, 2012

Harry Ostrer is a distinguished medical geneticist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine whose new book, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, is not nearly as good as it could-or should-have been.

Part of the difficulty arises from Ostrer’s tendency to make un-nuanced assertions. The book opens with the statement: “In June 2010, I published a scientific article that demonstrated a biological basis for Jewishness.”

 Harry Ostrer, photo by Lou Manna.

Ostrer is referring to the findings of his 2010 study, “Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era: Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern Ancestry,” which appeared within a month of a study by an Israeli group led by Doron Behar, “The Genome-wide Structure of the Jewish People.” Both studies compared DNA microarray analyses of Jews whose recent ancestors lived in a variety of Jewish communities scattered across several continents. The data for these Jewish communities, all of which had strong traditions of endogamy, were compared with existing data on West Eurasian populations.

The Behar et al. study looked at a wider assortment of Jewish communities, while Ostrer et al. sampled a larger number of individuals, but the two came to remarkably similar conclusions. Most of the communities of the diaspora, and all of the largest communities, are more closely related to one another than they are to the populations of the countries in which they have lived for centuries or millennia. This despite the fact that they were spread from Lithuania to Yemen, ranged from short and swarthy to tall and blue-eyed, and in many cases had limited opportunities for contact with one another for the better part of two millennia.

The non-Jewish population to which Jews can at present be shown to be most closely related is the Samaritans, an ethno-religious group that most people associate with the New Testament parable of the “good Samaritan.” Samaritans are understood as originating in an ancient (first millennium BCE) schism within the Jewish community in Palestine. The group, which follows the law of the Torah but not rabbinic Judaism and never left the land of Israel, practices endogamy and has shrunk over the millennia to a mere handful of families. Genetic mapping also shows high overlap between Jews and Druze, another indigenous, endogamous Levantine ethno-religious group, and with Cypriots. Jews and Palestinians are less closely related, not only because Jews mixed with other populations during the long diaspora, but also because Palestinian Muslims have substantial non-Levantine ancestry.

There is interesting work still to be done. It would be interesting to compare Jewish markers with those of more populations historians regard as most likely to have continuously resided in the Levant, such as Palestinian Christians, Maronites, and Aramaic-speaking Christians. But we may be able to get even closer to knowing what the ancient Jewish gene pool looked like by examining DNA from Jewish burials in the Roman catacombs or graveyards in Palestine such as Beit She’arim.

These fine-grained details would be interesting to see, but the debate over whether Jews can claim significant Middle Eastern descent is settled. DNA evidence of Jewish peoplehood and Near Eastern origins corroborates the evidence of Jewish unity and cultural continuity in the linguistic, historical and archaeological record. Less than twenty years ago almost all historians assumed that while Jews shared a unique cultural heritage traceable to origins in the hill country of Judea, they shared most of their ancestry with the peoples among whom they lived. These assumptions have been overturned by the work of Ostrer and others demonstrating that Jews from every continent share genetic markers with surprising frequency. Racists, of course, always suspected something of the sort.

None of this, however, suggests that there is a biological basis for “Jewishness,” whatever that vague entity might be. As the genetic data and the historical record make clear, no small number of non-Jews has joined the Jewish people over the last several millennia. Ruth, the Moabite ancestor of King David, may have been the most widely publicized convert, but she was by no means the last. Debates over whether Jews are best understood as constituting a religion or a nation may continue forever, but neither category has a biological basis.

Ostrer also exhibits a disappointing proclivity for overreading the import of his findings for contemporary geopolitical dilemmas. This is why readers will be troubled by Ostrer’s assertion that “the stakes in genetic analysis are high,” because genetic evidence lies at “the heart of Zionist claims for a Jewish homeland in Israel.”

This is a problematic assertion for several reasons, of which the simplest is that Ostrer conflates the claim to a national homeland made by pre-state Jewish nationalists and the right to sovereignty on the part of an existing nation state. More troubling is Ostrer’s assertion that investigation of where one’s ancestors lived upwards of 2000 years ago is relevant to the rights of nations-a standard that would leave few contemporary nation states on firm footing. Ostrer “can imagine future disputes about exactly how large the shared Middle Eastern ancestry of Jewish groups has to be to justify Zionist claims.” It doesn’t require much imagination. One only has to look at the emerging use of genetic information for similarly dubious purposes, for example the Hungarian Member of Parliament from the Jobbik party who hired a genetic testing laboratory to certify that he is free of Jewish and Roma (Gypsy) genetic markers.

The Zionist claim was not based on genetics; it was based on the liberal political principle that sovereignty resides in the people. The claim that Israel is the territory in which Jews are entitled to have a sovereign state was based on the demonstrable cultural continuity of the Jewish people since ancient times, on the argument that Israel was the “cradle” of the Jewish nation, and the fact that the Jewish nation has historically been a sovereign nation on this land before. But the claim to sovereignty itself is based on the right of a people to self-determination, not on genetic data or ancestry.

Some of Ostrer’s misstatements will make Jewishly knowledgeable readers smile; his assertion that Sephardic Jews spoke “Latino” has real charm. (They spoke a Judeo-Spanish language called Ladino.) Other statements, like the false precision of asserting that “27,290 members of the kingdom of Israel” were deported by Assyria in 722 BCE, make it clear that Ostrer has no idea how to judge the reliability of historical sources. And no one familiar with European Jewish history or geography could describe a world in which Warsaw lies east of Kiev. Indeed, the proofreading of the book as a whole is abysmal.

Beyond unfamiliarity with the details of Jewish history, there is a quirkiness to the topics Ostrer chooses to discuss. He is, for example, fascinated by a minor early twentieth- century Jewish medical researcher named Maurice Fishberg who “proved” that Jews are not a race by the assiduous measurement of Jewish crania. But Ostrer fails to provide the context of the fin de siècle investigation of race and eugenics in which Jews figured in a minor way. He might have been better off with a coauthor better versed in Jewish and intellectual history.

A thornier problem is that Ostrer, like many research physicians, takes genetic data to be more scientific, and therefore more definitive, than they are. Genetically described populations reflect probabilistic clusters of markers inscribed in our DNA. They are not a concretization of race. Moreover, many of the conclusions that can be drawn from genetic evidence are reliant on the quality of accompanying historical data. For example, the Cohen modal haplotype is a cluster of distinctive genetic markers shared by a high percentage of contemporary Jewish Cohanim (the priestly clan that traces its ancestry back to Moses’ brother Aaron). The idea that the ancestry that these men share can be traced to the ancient Israelite priesthood makes sense to almost everyone who views these data, but it is not inherent in the data. The data show only that these men share common ancestors who lived a specified number of generations ago. Estimating when those ancestors lived depends on an educated guess about the length of an average generation during the last 3000 years or so. But the idea that those ancestors were Cohanim is derived from our knowledge of Jewish history, it is not inscribed in the genetic markers.

Determining who does and who does not bear West Asian genetic markers is even more fraught. We do not have the genomes of the ancient Israelites, Phoenicians, Philistines or any of the other ancient peoples of the Near East. All that we have are genetic data on the peoples who live in the region today, and even these are not as refined as data for some other populations. We do know that there have been significant in-migrations, depopulation events, population bottlenecks, and constant contact with other peoples. What we do not know is the relative significance of these factors in producing modern Middle Eastern populations. The ongoing work on the genetic roots of the British, in which the influence of waves of conquest is beginning to be limned, is a possible model for the kind of investigation that could be done on the ancestral origins of the peoples of the Middle East. Meanwhile, Ostrer necessarily used a cruder tool, comparing his Jewish samples to modern populations of Druze, Bedouin and Palestinian Arabs. Although his findings show enough similarity to make shared origins for some ancestors among these four groups clear, there is work yet to be done.

This is important because there has been more than a little over-interpretation of the findings. For example, studies of the Y-haplotypes passed from father to son show that a remarkably high percentage of the male founders of Jewish communities in almost all parts of the diaspora were almost certainly descended from Near Eastern ancestors. This naturally roused curiosity about the mitochondrial DNA passed on by the founding mothers of diaspora communities; the findings support longstanding assumptions by historians that diaspora communities were often founded at least in part by Jewish men who reared Jewish families with local women who had not been born Jewish. A 2006 study of the mitochondrial DNA of Ashkenazi Jews excited particular interest because it demonstrated that as many as 70% of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews descend from four women who lived about 2000 years ago.[5] The authors of the study argue that “Near Eastern origin” of these four ancestors was “likely.” Ostrer agrees that evidence shows “four common types of mitochondrial genomes… suggesting four founder females… (who) originated in the Middle East and their descendants migrated to Europe by way of the Rhineland.” But the data do not trace a route along the Rhine-this is an assumption borrowed from historical evidence. Nor do the data make the ethnic or geographic origin of these four maternal ancestors of Ashkenazi Jews at all clear; merely, they raise the possibility, or arguably the probability, of a West Asian origin.

The greatest surprise has been the discovery of genetic evidence showing that Jews from the large communities of the diaspora-from Persia to Morocco, and from Basra to Vilna-are more closely related to one another in the male line than they are to the peoples among whom their ancestors lived for centuries. Harry Ostrer is surely correct when he writes, “To look over the genetics of Jewish groups and to see the history of the Diaspora woven in is truly a marvel.”

What we have with advances in population genetics are new and marvelous tools with which to explore the past. Together with what we know from linguistics, history and archaeology, they can widen our understanding of the course of history, including the history of peoples and nations. But let’s not get carried away, or carry our conclusions beyond the evidence.

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy, and often writes on topics related to genetic history.

Paul S. Appelbaum, MD, is the Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine & Law at Columbia, where he conducts research on the ethical, legal and social implications of advances in genetics.

Jews Are a ‘Race,’ Genes Reveal

Author Uncovers DNA Links Between Members of Tribe

By Jon Entine, Jewish Forward
May 04, 2012, issue of May 11, 2012

Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People
By Harry Ostrer
Oxford University Press, 288 Pages, $24.95

In his new book, “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People,” Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, claims that Jews are different, and the differences are not just skin deep. Jews exhibit, he writes, a distinctive genetic signature. Considering that the Nazis tried to exterminate Jews based on their supposed racial distinctiveness, such a conclusion might be a cause for concern. But Ostrer sees it as central to Jewish identity.

“Who is a Jew?” has been a poignant question for Jews throughout our history. It evokes a complex tapestry of Jewish identity made up of different strains of religious beliefs, cultural practices and blood ties to ancient Palestine and modern Israel. But the question, with its echoes of genetic determinism, also has a dark side.

Geneticists have long been aware that certain diseases, from breast cancer to Tay-Sachs, disproportionately affect Jews. Ostrer, who is also director of genetic and genomic testing at Montefiore Medical Center, goes further, maintaining that Jews are a homogeneous group with all the scientific trappings of what we used to call a “race.”

That special Jewish tailoring gene. Photo by Getty images

For most of the 3,000-year history of the Jewish people, the notion of what came to be known as “Jewish exceptionalism” was hardly controversial. Because of our history of inmarriage and cultural isolation, imposed or self-selected, Jews were considered by gentiles (and usually referred to themselves) as a “race.” Scholars from Josephus to Disraeli proudly proclaimed their membership in “the tribe.”

Ostrer explains how this concept took on special meaning in the 20th century, as genetics emerged as a viable scientific enterprise. Jewish distinctiveness might actually be measurable empirically. In “Legacy,” he first introduces us to Maurice Fishberg, an upwardly mobile Russian-Jewish immigrant to New York at the fin de siècle. Fishberg fervently embraced the anthropological fashion of the era, measuring skull sizes to explain why Jews seemed to be afflicted with more diseases than other groups — what he called the “peculiarities of the comparative pathology of the Jews.” It turns out that Fishberg and his contemporary phrenologists were wrong: Skull shape provides limited information about human differences. But his studies ushered in a century of research linking Jews to genetics.

Ostrer divides his book into six chapters representing the various aspects of Jewishness: Looking Jewish, Founders, Genealogies, Tribes, Traits and Identity. Each chapter features a prominent scientist or historical figure who dramatically advanced our understanding of Jewishness. The snippets of biography lighten a dense forest of sometimes-obscure science. The narrative, which consists of a lot of potboiler history, is a slog at times. But for the specialist and anyone touched by the enduring debate over Jewish identity, this book is indispensable.

“Legacy” may cause its readers discomfort. To some Jews, the notion of a genetically related people is an embarrassing remnant of early Zionism that came into vogue at the height of the Western obsession with race, in the late 19th century. Celebrating blood ancestry is divisive, they claim: The authors of “The Bell Curve” were vilified 15 years ago for suggesting that genes play a major role in IQ differences among racial groups.

Furthermore, sociologists and cultural anthropologists, a disproportionate number of whom are Jewish, ridicule the term “race,” claiming there are no meaningful differences between ethnic groups. For Jews, the word still carries the especially odious historical association with Nazism and the Nuremberg Laws. They argue that Judaism has morphed from a tribal cult into a worldwide religion enhanced by thousands of years of cultural traditions.

Is Judaism a people or a religion? Or both? The belief that Jews may be psychologically or physically distinct remains a controversial fixture in the gentile and Jewish consciousness, and Ostrer places himself directly in the line of fire. Yes, he writes, the term “race” carries nefarious associations of inferiority and ranking of people. Anything that marks Jews as essentially different runs the risk of stirring either anti- or philo-Semitism. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the factual reality of what he calls the “biological basis of Jewishness” and “Jewish genetics.” Acknowledging the distinctiveness of Jews is “fraught with peril,” but we must grapple with the hard evidence of “human differences” if we seek to understand the new age of genetics.

Although he readily acknowledges the formative role of culture and environment, Ostrer believes that Jewish identity has multiple threads, including DNA. He offers a cogent, scientifically based review of the evidence, which serves as a model of scientific restraint.

“On the one hand, the study of Jewish genetics might be viewed as an elitist effort, promoting a certain genetic view of Jewish superiority,” he writes. “On the other, it might provide fodder for anti-Semitism by providing evidence of a genetic basis for undesirable traits that are present among some Jews. These issues will newly challenge the liberal view that humans are created equal but with genetic liabilities.”

Jews, he notes, are one of the most distinctive population groups in the world because of our history of endogamy. Jews — Ashkenazim in particular — are relatively homogeneous despite the fact that they are spread throughout Europe and have since immigrated to the Americas and back to Israel. The Inquisition shattered Sephardi Jewry, leading to far more incidences of intermarriage and to a less distinctive DNA.

In traversing this minefield of the genetics of human differences, Ostrer bolsters his analysis with volumes of genetic data, which are both the book’s greatest strength and its weakness. Two complementary books on this subject — my own “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People” and “Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History” by Duke University geneticist David Goldstein, who is well quoted in both “Abraham’s Children” and “Legacy” — are more narrative driven, weaving history and genetics, and are consequently much more congenial reads.

The concept of the “Jewish people” remains controversial. The Law of Return, which establishes the right of Jews to come to Israel, is a central tenet of Zionism and a founding legal principle of the State of Israel. The DNA that tightly links Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi, three prominent culturally and geographically distinct Jewish groups, could be used to support Zionist territorial claims — except, as Ostrer points out, some of the same markers can be found in Palestinians, our distant genetic cousins, as well. Palestinians, understandably, want their own right of return.

That disagreement over the meaning of DNA also pits Jewish traditionalists against a particular strain of secular Jewish liberals that has joined with Arabs and many non-Jews to argue for an end to Israel as a Jewish nation. Their hero is Shlomo Sand, an Austrian-born Israeli historian who reignited this complex controversy with the 2008 publication of “The Invention of the Jewish People.”

Sand contends that Zionists who claim an ancestral link to ancient Palestine are manipulating history. But he has taken his thesis from novelist Arthur Koestler’s 1976 book, “The Thirteenth Tribe,” which was part of an attempt by post-World War II Jewish liberals to reconfigure Jews not as a biological group, but as a religious ideology and ethnic identity.

The majority of the Ashkenazi Jewish population, as Koestler, and now Sand, writes, are not the children of Abraham but descendants of pagan Eastern Europeans and Eurasians, concentrated mostly in the ancient Kingdom of Khazaria in what is now Ukraine and Western Russia. The Khazarian nobility converted during the early Middle Ages, when European Jewry was forming.

Although scholars challenged Koestler’s and now Sand’s selective manipulation of the facts — the conversion was almost certainly limited to the tiny ruling class and not to the vast pagan population — the historical record has been just fragmentary enough to titillate determined critics of Israel, who turned both Koestler’s and Sand’s books into roaring best-sellers.

Fortunately, re-creating history now depends not only on pottery shards, flaking manuscripts and faded coins, but on something far less ambiguous: DNA. Ostrer’s book is an impressive counterpoint to the dubious historical methodology of Sand and his admirers. And, as a co-founder of the Jewish HapMap — the study of haplotypes, or blocks of genetic markers, that are common to Jews around the world — he is well positioned to write the definitive response.
In accord with most geneticists, Ostrer firmly rejects the fashionable postmodernist dismissal of the concept of race as genetically naive, opting for a more nuanced perspective.

When the human genome was first mapped a decade ago, Francis Collins, then head of the National Genome Human Research Institute, said: “Americans, regardless of ethnic group, are 99.9% genetically identical.” Added J. Craig Venter, who at the time was chief scientist at the private firm that helped sequenced the genome, Celera Genomics, “Race has no genetic or scientific basis.” Those declarations appeared to suggest that “race,” or the notion of distinct but overlapping genetic groups, is “meaningless.”

But Collins and Venter have issued clarifications of their much-misrepresented comments. Almost every minority group has faced, at one time or another, being branded as racially inferior based on a superficial understanding of how genes peculiar to its population work. The inclination by politicians, educators and even some scientists to underplay our separateness is certainly understandable. But it’s also misleading. DNA ensures that we differ not only as individuals, but also as groups.

However slight the differences (and geneticists now believe that they are significantly greater than 0.1%), they are defining. That 0.1% contains some 3 million nucleotide pairs in the human genome, and these determine such things as skin or hair color and susceptibility to certain diseases. They contain the map of our family trees back to the first modern humans.

Both the human genome project and disease research rest on the premise of finding distinguishable differences between individuals and often among populations. Scientists have ditched the term “race,” with all its normative baggage, and adopted more neutral terms, such as “population” and “clime,” which have much of the same meaning. Boiled down to its essence, race equates to “region of ancestral origin.”

Ostrer has devoted his career to investigating these extended family trees, which help explain the genetic basis of common and rare disorders. Today, Jews remain identifiable in large measure by the 40 or so diseases we disproportionately carry, the inescapable consequence of inbreeding. He traces the fascinating history of numerous “Jewish diseases,” such as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher, Niemann-Pick, Mucolipidosis IV, as well as breast and ovarian cancer. Indeed, 10 years ago I was diagnosed as carrying one of the three genetic mutations for breast and ovarian cancer that mark my family and me as indelibly Jewish, prompting me to write “Abraham’s Children.”

Like East Asians, the Amish, Icelanders, Aboriginals, the Basque people, African tribes and other groups, Jews have remained isolated for centuries because of geography, religion or cultural practices. It’s stamped on our DNA. As Ostrer explains in fascinating detail, threads of Jewish ancestry link the sizable Jewish communities of North America and Europe to Yemenite and other Middle Eastern Jews who have relocated to Israel, as well as to the black Lemba of southern Africa and to India’s Cochin Jews. But, in a twist, the links include neither the Bene Israel of India nor Ethiopian Jews. Genetic tests show that both groups are converts, contradicting their founding myths.

Why, then, are Jews so different looking, usually sharing the characteristics of the surrounding populations? Think of red-haired Jews, Jews with blue eyes or the black Jews of Africa. Like any cluster — a genetic term Ostrer uses in place of the more inflammatory “race” — Jews throughout history moved around and fooled around, although mixing occurred comparatively infrequently until recent decades. Although there are identifiable gene variations that are common among Jews, we are not a “pure” race. The time machine of our genes may show that most Jews have a shared ancestry that traces back to ancient Palestine but, like all of humanity, Jews are mutts.

About 80% of Jewish males and 50% of Jewish females trace their ancestry back to the Middle East. The rest entered the “Jewish gene pool” through conversion or intermarriage. Those who did intermarry often left the faith in a generation or two, in effect pruning the Jewish genetic tree. But many converts became interwoven into the Jewish genealogical line. Reflect on the iconic convert, the biblical Ruth, who married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David. She began as an outsider, but you don’t get much more Jewish than the bloodline of King David!

To his credit, Ostrer also addresses the third rail of discussions about Jewishness and race: the issue of intelligence. Jews were latecomers to the age of freethinking. While the Enlightenment swept through Christian Europe in the 17th century, the Haskalah did not gather strength until the early 19th century.

By the beginning of the new millennium, however, Jews were thought of as among the smartest people on earth. The trend is most prominent in America, which has the largest concentration of Jews outside Israel and a history of tolerance.

Although Jews make up less than 3% of the population, they have won more than 25% of the Nobel Prizes awarded to American scientists since 1950. Jews also account for 20% of this country’s chief executives and make up 22% of Ivy League students. Psychologists and educational researchers have pegged their average IQ at 107.5 to 115, with their verbal IQ at more than 120, a stunning standard deviation above the average of 100 found in those of European ancestry. Like it or not, the IQ debate will become an increasingly important issue going forward, as medical geneticists focus on unlocking the mysteries of the brain.


Do Jews have a cobblers’ gene? Shoe repair shopkeeper, Spitalfields, London 1969

Many liberal Jews maintain, at least in public, that the plethora of Jewish lawyers, doctors and comedians is the product of our cultural heritage, but the science tells a more complex story. Jewish success is a product of Jewish genes as much as of Jewish moms.

Is it “good for the Jews” to be exploring such controversial subjects? We can’t avoid engaging the most challenging questions in the age of genetics. Because of our history of endogamy, Jews are a goldmine for geneticists studying human differences in the quest to cure disease. Because of our cultural commitment to education, Jews are among the top genetic researchers in the world.

As humankind becomes more genetically sophisticated, identity becomes both more fluid and more fixed. Jews in particular can find threads of our ancestry literally anywhere, muddying traditional categories of nationhood, ethnicity, religious belief and “race.” But such discussions, ultimately, are subsumed by the reality of the common shared ancestry of humankind. Ostrer’s “Legacy” points out that — regardless of the pros and cons of being Jewish — we are all, genetically, in it together. And, in doing so, he gets it just right.

Jon Entine is the founder and director of the Genetic Literacy Project at George Mason University, where he is senior research fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication. His website is

Who Are the Jews? Genetic Studies Spark Identity Debate

By Michael Balte, Science, Vol. 328 no. 5984 p. 1342
11 June 2010

The world’s 13 million Jews are strongly linked by religion and culture. But do they share a common genetic heritage? Two new studies conclude that most members of the far-fl ung Jewish Diaspora can trace their roots to ancestors who lived in the Middle East more than 2000 years ago. The new research, based on recent advances in genome technology, apparently refutes controversial claims that most of today’s Jews descend from more recent converts. And it finds that Jews in Ethiopia and India who also claim origins in ancient Israel are more distantly related to other Jewish groups. Yet some researchers argue that although science can track Jewish ancestry, it has little to say about who is a Jew today.

The studies “clearly show a genetic common ancestry” of most Jewish populations, says Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania, thus indicating a distinct Jewish people through history. Indeed, says Harry Ostrer, a geneticist at New York University Medical School and leaderof one of the teams, the genomewide scans used in the studies can detect Jewish ancestry in anonymous DNA samples. But Doron Behar, a geneticist at the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, Israel, and lead author of the second report, argues that genes do not necessarily make the Jew. There is no “metaphysical” difference between someone born Jewish and a convert to Judaism, Behar says.

The two studies—one led by Behar and published online this week in Nature, and Ostrer’s, published last week in TheAmerican Journal of Human Genetics—speak to a current debate about Jewish origins, including that of the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe, who make up 90% of American Jews and nearly 50% of Israeli Jews. Tel Aviv University historian Shlomo Sand’s 2008 book The Invention of the Jewish People argued that few modern Jews can trace their heritage to ancient Israel. He in part resurrects a thesis, made famous by writer Arthur Koestler in the 1970s, that Ashkenazi Jews are actually descended from a Turkic people in Central Asia whose rulers converted to Judaism in the 8th century C.E.

The new studies contradict that conclusion. Both teams used DNA microarrays to examine variation within Jewish groups worldwide and between those groups and non-Jewish populations. Microarrays allow comparisons of thousands of genetic differences, from single nucleotide pairs to longer stretches of DNA, between different individuals (Science, 21 December 2007, p. 1842). This genomewide approach is much more powerful than previous analyses of Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA, which
were often inconclusive.

The Ostrer team analyzed nuclear DNA from 237 Jews representing the three main Diaspora groups: Ashkenazi Jews; Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal; and Middle Eastern, or Oriental, Jews. Their DNA was compared with that of about 2800 presumably non-Jewish people from around the world. The Behar study employed smaller sample sizes—121 Jews and 1166 nonJews—but from more population groups and also analyzed 8000 non-Jewish Y chromosomes and 14,000 mtDNA genomes.

The studies came up with very similar results: Jews from the three Diaspora groups were closer to each other genetically than to non-Jews from the same geographic region.

Indeed, the Ostrer study found that Ashkenazi Jews were as closely related to each other as fourth or fi fth cousins, even though their genetic profi les indicated between 30% and 60% admixture with non-Jewish Europeans. Jewish groups also clustered tightly with non-Jewish Middle Eastern populations such as the Druze and the Cypriots, strongly suggesting an origin in that geographic region. “I would hope that these observations would put the idea that Jewishness is just a cultural construct to rest,” Ostrer says.

The Behar study also included three Jewish groups whose ancestry has been uncertain: the Beta Israel Jews of Ethiopia, the Cochin Jews of southern India, and the Bene Israel Jews of northern India. It found that all three groups genetically clustered with non-Jewish Ethiopians and Indians rather than with the Diaspora groups. However, analysis of the Y chromosomes of the Bene Israel Jews showed paternal links to the Middle East, suggesting that they might share ancient roots with Jews from that region.

So it’s possible, Behar and other researchers say, that the Ethiopian and Indian Jewish groups were founded by Jews from other regions who then intermarried and/or converted many local non-Jews to Judaism, thus expanding their numbers but diluting their Jewish genetic signatures.

Overall, “these results confirm the common wisdom that Jews have always held,”
that they stem from a common Middle Eastern origin and heritage, says historian Anita Shapira, also from Tel Aviv University. “It is nice to get support from modern genetics, which refutes [Sand’s] assertions,” she says.Sand counters that the whole concept of identifying Jews genetically is fallacious. “No study … has succeeded in identifying a genetic marker specifi c to Jews,” he insists.

He adds, “It is a bitter irony to see the descendants of Holocaust survivors set out to find a biological Jewish identity. Hitler would certainly have been very pleased.” But Ostrer says that Sand has not kept up with advances in genetic research: “We can tell who the Jews are genetically.”

How religion made Jews genetically distinct
By Andy Coghlan, New Scientist
June 04 2010

Jewish populations around the world share more than traditions and laws – they also have a common genetic background. That is the conclusion of the most comprehensive genetic study yet aimed at tracing the ancestry of Jewish people.

In a study of over 200 Jews from cities in three different countries, researchers found that all of them descended from a founding community that lived 2500 years ago in Mesopotamia.

Harry Ostrer of New York University, whose team carried out the study, likens modern Jewish populations to a series of genetic islands spread across the world.

The main reason that Jews continue to form a distinct genetic group, despite their wide dispersal is the exclusivity of the Jewish religion and the tight restrictions it imposes on marriage to those outside the Jewish faith.

Ostrer’s colleague Gil Atzmon of Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York says that the religious traditions and laws shared by practising Jews around the world, and their isolation from their non-Jewish neighbours, means that Jews share many more genomic segments with each other than they do with non-Jewish people.

Marrying out
Jewish law makes it hard for non-Jews to convert. Communities that do accept converts expect them to spend several years studying the traditions and laws of Judaism. Most observant Jews marry other Jews, which limits genetic mixing with other populations, although in the past century some communities have become more accepting of marriage outside the faith.

Atzmon and his colleagues studied the DNA of 237 Jews from New York, Seattle, Athens and Rome, representing Ashkenazi, Turkish, Greek, Italian, Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi groups. They searched for genetic similarities among these populations, and compared them with the DNA of 418 non-Jews.

The study compared 2 million distinct DNA markers known as SNPs spread across the entire genome. That’s four times the number of markers used in previous studies. “We are the first to analyse genome-wide differences,” says Atzmon.

Atzmon’s team found that the SNP markers in genetic segments of 3 million DNA letters or longer were 10 times more likely to be identical among Jews than non-Jews.

Atzmon says that overall, the genetic similarity among Jews is equivalent to what would be expected among fifth cousins from a random population.

Results of the analysis also tally with biblical accounts of the fate of the Jews. Using their DNA analysis, the authors traced the ancestors of all Jews to Persia and Babylon, areas that now form part of Iran and Iraq.

Exiled from Babylon
The genetic tree shows that between 100 and 150 generations ago – the equivalent of 2500 years – the founder population split in two, with half the Jews being dispersed into Europe and North Africa, the other half remaining in the Middle East.

This corresponds with accounts of the expulsion of the Jews into exile in 587 BC by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.

The genetic analysis shows that amongst modern Jews, the populations that are most genetically similar are those originating from Iraq and Iran. The rest share much more of their DNA with non-Jewish Europeans and North Africans, which may be why many Jews whose recent ancestors lived in Europe or Syria have blond hair or blue eyes.

The team found genetic traces of a period of intense conversion to Judaism during the time of the Roman Empire, when up to 10 per cent of citizens were Jewish. Among modern non-Jewish Europeans, Italians, Sardinians and the French are most closely genetically similar to modern Jews, the team found.

Atzmon says that the analysis could bring medical benefits by helping to identify genetic markers for diseases common in Jewish communities breast cancer, prostate cancer and the inherited metabolic condition, Tay-Sachs disease, which kills in infanthood.

Journal reference: American Journal of Human Genetics, DOI: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2010.04/015

 Many European Jews worked as rag-pickers or rag and bone men.

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