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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.