Are Jews genetically homogenous? Though it’s certainly been a loaded question historically, the quandary has been the domain of scientists for a number of years now, all of whom have pretty much come up with the same answer: yes. But that was before Eran Elhaik entered the picture. An Israeli molecular geneticist, Elhaik is interested, it seems, not just in doing science, but in reveling in his role as a spoiler.
As a Forward story recently described it, he has written a report that claims Ashkenazi Jews are descendent from Khazars, a Turkic people from the Caucasus who converted to Judaism in the eighth century. This flies in the face of that established genetic research, which did prove a continuous genetic link between Ashkenazi Jews and the Middle East, positing that they descended from Jews who fled Palestine after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. As Elhaik put it in the article, he sees this fairly well accepted theory as “nonsense.”
Perhaps to be expected, the comments section of this article became a microcosm for all the heated emotion that this issue inspires. Elhaik himself even jumped into the fray.
The person who kicked off the fierce debate was Jon Entine, who wrote a book, “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People”, which presents the more established reading of Jewish genetic history. He also runs the Genetic Literacy Project at George Mason University. Entine insisted that the evidence is “incontrovertible”: “Ashkenazi Jewry is a coherent population, much like blacks descended from western Africa, the Amish or Icelanders.” Pointing out the Caucasian/Asiatic markers on his own chromosome – which he says typically makes up 20% of Ashkenazi genes – Entine says this might be because of the Khazar conversion, which took place among the elites of Khazaria and not the general population, as Elhaik contends. “When Khazaria collapsed, a fraction of the elite integrated themselves into the then tiny Eastern European Jewish communities,” Entine notes. “Today’s percentage of Khazarian like markers is congruent with the extrapolation of that core group to the founding of Ashkenazi Jewry in the 12-14 centuries, when Jews in Eastern Europe numbered only 15,000-20,000.” In other words, he writes, “Elhaik is just wrong.”
And Entine has a bigger point. He thinks that what really troubles Elhaik is the notion of Judaism as being tribally or ethnically founded in any way:
For those of you pulling out your hair over suggestions that modern Judaism has “racial roots,” get a grip. Christianity and Islam are faith-based religions…anyone can join at a proverbial drop of a hat. Judaism has never been just a faith based religion. It’s a triple helix: belief in god (yet many Jews are atheists/agnostics); belief in the state of Israel as a founding principle of our religion; and recognition of our “blood” connection to fellow Jews. Judaism is one of only two surviving tribal religions (Zoroastrianism, which shares many tribal attributes with Judaism is the other). All or any of those qualities can define one as a Jew. But one can’t just junk the “blood” part in an attempt to be “modern”–that’s an abandonment of a central tenet of what makes us Jewish.
This is when Elhaik chimes in. For him, Entine has revealed his own prejudice in his comments: “I would like to thank Jon Entine for disclosing his scientific guidelines for studying Judaism as believe in God (though it is ok not to), patriotism (though living afar is also okay), and the purity of the blood line…Not surprisingly, the last two scientific principles of Entine share a common ground with the Nazi ideology. While this may makes sense to some people and may fit with their belief, for those of us who actually practice science this is mere nonsense.”
The only thing that matters to Elhaik, the only point of his research, he says, is to discover the cure for genetic disorders in Jews and non-Jews. Identifying the correct genetic provenance of Jews will help find cures for diseases. “Today, we still don’t understand genetic diseases nor do we have a cure (for a large number of them),” Elhaik writes. “Non-Jews who have ‘Jews-only diseases’ are misdiagnosed because they are not Jews. There are serious problems requiring serious solution. The only method that works is the scientific method.”
The frustrating aspect of scientific debates (for us, outside observers, that is) is that both sides assume objective fact is on their side, and so they never really engage with each other’s arguments. As Entine has the last word, this tussle in the comments section is no different. They both seem to be talking past each other:
Elhaik is young enough and immature enough to be a young son of mine. All his rants aside, Judaism is a modernized version of a tribal religion, a fact thatshows up in the genes of Jews, across a range of disease and other traits. Elhaik, in either his overheated “academic” article or his posts just does not come across as a serious intellect. I have not found a mainstream geneticist who thinks much of his analytical ability let alone his care in assembling and analyzing genetic data. Sorry…just stating the facts.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “ When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, ” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman