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Studying Our Genes

This week’s issue of the Forward includes the 10th-anniversary edition of our annual supplement on Jewish genetic research. It’s a feature that provides a unique service both to the Jewish community and to the broader society, and we’re proud to be able to offer it.

The scientific field of Jewish genetics doesn’t receive much public attention, and it’s not hard to understand why. The very name suggests an arrogant racial fascination of the sort that has brought grief to millions in recent generations, not least to Jews. It’s sometimes whispered that in scrutinizing our DNA, we’re following some unsavory, triumphalist instinct best left buried.

The truth is very nearly the opposite. Scientists study Jewish genetics not in pride, but in humility. Their target is one of the most painful aspects of our legacy. Over the centuries, the Jewish custom of in-marriage, for all its merits in preserving an embattled minority, has left Jews, especially those of Ashkenazic or European background, with an elevated rate of susceptibility to heritable diseases. The values and traditions that we pass along to our children are accompanied, all too often, by a legacy of new suffering. Jewish genetic research is aimed at prevention, relief and cure of these diseases. By reporting on the research and on its successes and challenges, we hope to inform the public and to assist in the advance of life-giving knowledge.

It must be noted that as agonizing as it is to the families stricken by disease, the close-knit Jewish gene pool offers scientists an opportunity that’s often overlooked. In recent decades, researchers have found Ashkenazic Jews to be a valuable resource for studying the workings of heredity, permitting advances not just in the ailments that strike our own community, but also in the larger fight against disease. The community has been divided in recent years on the ethical implications of such research, which implies the singling out of one ethnic community for genetic scrutiny. There is an honorable case to be made on both sides. We believe the work, when conducted with care, is justified by the results in relieving human suffering.

These are inflamed times. With the intensification of violent religious and ethnic conflict around the globe, there’s a troubling rise in loose talk — on all sides — about the supposedly innate propensity of this or that group for good or, more often, for evil. New advances in genetic research are teaching us the foolishness of such ideas. Several studies in recent years have found that the Jews’ closest genetic relatives may well be the Palestinians.

More recently, as Talia Bloch reports on Page B1 of our supplement, DNA research has found that there’s more diversity than commonly suspected in the Jewish family tree. Even the ancient Levite caste turns out to have some unexpected ancestors. That diversity continues to expand, as more and more newcomers enter the Jewish community through marriage, adoption and conversion. Studying our genes reminds us that this diversity is a source of strength.

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