Jews Are a 'Race,' Genes Reveal

Author Uncovers DNA Links Between Members of Tribe

montage kurt hoffman

By Jon Entine

Published May 04, 2012, issue of May 11, 2012.
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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.

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 www.jonentine.com.


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