A study published last week in the American Journal of Human Genetics confirmed what many Jews have long believed, and what many non-Jews have often hoped to be untrue.
The study finds that one can really ‘be’ Jewish based on one’s genetic makeup.
The Jewish genome sets Jews apart from non-Jews, but is not quite different enough to be deemed an entirely separate race. The finding obviously holds more than scientific significance.
The study was conducted by Dr. Harry Ostrer and others, geneticists at the New York University. While it was conducted with the purpose of exploring genetic diseases (such as Tay-Sachs, which is famously frequent in the Ashkenazi bloodline), the study does more than just enriching and enlarging textbooks.
For Jews this confirmation can bring a peace of mind. ‘Being Jewish’ can be practiced and celebrated in several ways, often through culture and religion. To in a way be ‘officially’ Jewish based on genetic coding deepens an already strong bond that coarses through many Jewish communities. The study finds that (Ashkenazi) Jews from all over the globe are as genetically similar as fourth or fifth cousins would be. This then in fact makes them more similar to each other than their fellow countrymen.
To know that as a people there is more than a feeling that connects us, but a similar blood coursing through us all, allows for more familial growth in Jewish communities. With recent current events and an excess of negative press towards Israel, now is especially a time when such a bond and closeness is needed. This study can explain a phenomenon that even the most secular of Jews (such as myself) experience when setting foot in Israel. You feel a connection, you feel love, you feel home, and you feel like family.
While this recent finding is a reason to celebrate, it can also lead to some concern. One of the reasons for so many genetic similarities across the globe is due to the severe amount of isolation of the Jews throughout history. The genetic finding could scare some, possibly leading some radicals to desire Jews to be isolated, or worse, rid of. To be almost familial with neighbors should not lead Jews to isolate themselves, as that would be detrimental to the future security and successes of the Jewish people.
Jewish immigrants became successful in the United States by forming strong communities and assimilation. This study, primarily conducted to further medical knowledge, also rejects the highly controversial idea, often espoused by white supremacists and anti-Zionists that Ashkenazi Jews are descended from the Khasars of Eastern Europe who converted to Judaism. This argument, used by anti-Semetic sources in the 20th century and by those who seek to downplay the connection between Ashkenazi Jews and Israel, in favor of their own.
So does this mean that now the best definition of being Jewish is being a member of a family with a long and storied culture and history? Does this mean that I am directly connected to ancestors who are directly connected to the story of Exodus in the land of Israel? Being Jewish is a religion, a race, and a country. In fact the study found that there is:
“Clearly a shared genetic common ancestry among geographically diverse populations [of Jews] consistent with oral traditions and culture… and that traces back to the Middle East.”
The study brings peace of mind to Jews concerned over the debate of Israel as the Jewish homeland finding a common denominator with the genetic makeup of our ancestors in the Middle East and their modern day predecessors. The study found that:
“The Jewish people, according to archaeologists, originated in Babylon and Persia between the 4th and 6th centuries BC. The modern-day Jews most closely related to that original population are those in Iran, Iraq and Syria, whose closest non-Jewish relatives are the Druze, Bedouins and Palestinians.”
This point is almost ironic, but sad in its irony. Israel is famous for its fighting, disagreements, and brawls with Palestine when they are genetically almost one in the same. This is when a lament from many Jewish mothers comes in: ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ It is believed that Ishmael was the eldest son of Abraham. The father of Judaism fathered the father of Islam. Family dysfunction that has gone far too awry. In the midst of the all the fighting and tension it is hard to remember that again, we are all as human beings, nearly one in the same.
It has always been hard to describe ‘what is a Jew.’ One could be Jewish while not particularly an adherent of Judiasm. There has always been something intangible to Jewish identity that keeps one connected without exactly knowing why. The significance and importance of this study and its finding were best summed up by a spokesman for the Jewish Federations of North America, Joe Berkofsky. “This finding in a way underscores what Jewish Federations believe and act upon through our central mission, which is to care for and protect Jews around the world, no matter where they are.”
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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Thank you for the interesting article Illana. I think there are several important issues raised. One is the concept of race, more familiar to our common understanding through the lens of racial sciences from the late 19th Century through the mid 20th. Matthew Frye Jacobson of Yale has some interesting books on the concept of race. In Germany, Hitler and the Nazi leadership, even through the implementation of the Final Solution, struggled to define who a Jew was “racially.” Even the atheist or Christian convert did not escape the net of a racially classification. Historically though, the Jew was not necessarily a member of a “race” as we know it today, but a member of religious community or a “Goy” (nation) as the Torah puts it. Nations aren’t races. Abraham himself was the first convert, and originated from Ur (possibly the historic Ur of Sumer in modern day Iraq). From a strict social-scientific perspective though all cultures are social constructions and therefore the concept of race socially constructed. For example, the Palestinians of today are a very recent construction with no direct connection to the Philistines, a people connected to Greek speaking sea peoples in the 2nd Mellinium BCE. While I think the historic connection to Eretz Yisrael is important, I don’t think we need a DNA test to verify that connection. Strict reliance upon DNA or race has the potential for divisiveness, especially with the Ethiopian and convert communities. Yes Jews are a family, but adopted sons and daughters are as much part of the family as blood. My 2 cents….