Jewish Genes and Anti-Semitism

Some worry that the discovery of "Jewish" genetic diseases will negatively affect the image and treatment of Jews.

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“Couldn’t you just choose someone else for a change?” Tevye the dairyman implored the Lord. These days, in the wake of headlines announcing yet another “Ashkenazi gene” for a fatal disease--colon cancer this time--some Jews are asking scientific researchers the same question. 

The Washington Post, for example, reported that the recent discovery that a particular mutation common in Ashkenazim doubles the risk of colon cancer has “stirred deep anxieties within the Jewish community…Some said they are worried that reports of such findings may have a negative impact on the image of Jews among non‑Jews.”

Given our history, of course, the fear that genetic information can be used against us is entirely rational, and no one wants to give the anti‑Semites any new ammunition. But I, for one, do not object in the least if outstanding scientists continue to devote their time and financial resources to studying diseases that afflict people like me. The problem isn’t that researchers keep finding disease‑related mutations in Jewish populations, but that these results get foolish and misleading publicity.

Our challenge is not preventing scientists from studying Jews, but educating the public, ourselves included, about what genetic information means. In any case, there’s no chance of slowing the momentum of genetic research, given the current multi‑billion dollar international effort to map the human genome. But seeing to it that people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds develop clearer and less emotional ideas about genetics and its new role in our lives is eminently feasible--especially since education is something that we Jews know a lot about.

genetics testing screeningScientists have not discovered so many “Jewish” genes through any evil conspiracy or nefarious plot, but simply because we Ashkenazim are a geneticist’s dream of a research population. Highly inbred, bound by intense loyalty, often identifiable by names or culture, geographically concentrated, densely organized into countless voluntary associations, well educated, health conscious, and numerous enough to provide experimenters real statistical power, we are easy to reach and rally whenever scientists need volunteers.

Two decades ago, in the very dawn of genetic epidemiology, the community‑wide drive to identify Tay‑Sachs carriers introduced us to the idea of giving blood samples for genetic studies, and several highly publicized searches for bone-marrow donors have kept us in practice. Last year’s Familial Breast Cancer study of the “Jewish” BRCA‑1 breast cancer mutation, for example, enrolled more than 5,000 subjects in the Washington, D.C., area in record time.

A new look at Tay‑Sachs blood samples, in fact, revealed that Ashkenazim have elevated levels of certain mutations linked to breast cancer. But no reputable figure suggests that Jews carry any more disease genes than anyone else.

Sickle cell mutations, for example, occur disproportionately in people of African descent, cystic fibrosis mutations in northern Europeans, thalassemia mutations among Greeks and Italians in its alpha form and among East Asians in its beta form, and hemophilia mutations in the Russian imperial family. A number of rare genetic diseases afflict the Amish, and diabetes occurs extremely commonly in certain Native American peoples.

And we are only at the beginning of understanding what else lurks in people’s genes. It doesn’t take Gregor Mendel to figure out that inbred populations have high concentrations of particular genes. And since eschewing marriage with outsiders has ranked among important Jewish values at least since the early rabbinic period (though not, interestingly, in biblical times, when everyone from King Solomon to Naomi’s sons eagerly wed neighboring peoples), 30 or more generations of marrying fellow Ashkenazim have produced a distinctive gene pool.

But still, many Jews say, “Us again?” when they read of a new “Jewish” gene. The Post quotes National Cancer Institute epidemiologist Patricia Hartge, who points out that “it could have been the Icelanders, the Finns, or anyone else you might be studying.” And in fact, Iceland’s small, island‑bound population does have its own characteristic breast cancer mutation of the BRCA‑2 gene. But Jewish geography may also play a special role in the high rate of “Jewish” discoveries.

Ashkenazim are over‑represented among the nation’s medical researchers. Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins, for example, discovered the new “Jewish” colon cancer mutation because he recognized that two men who carried it were both Jews. Vogelstein’s own Ashkenazi background undoubtedly helped him make a potentially life‑saving connection that a non-Jew might have missed.

I, for example, have a friend of Finnish descent. Certain details of her appearance, name, and cultural background probably shout her ethnic identity to fellow Finns, but they mean absolutely nothing to me. I wouldn’t have known that she belongs to that small, long‑isolated, and genetically and linguistically distinctive people unless she told me. And neither, presumably, would a medical researcher of non‑Finnish background.

But even as information on more and more “Jewish” genes accumulates, they’re not going to stay Jewish for very long. With increasing intermarriage, our gene pool is becoming more like other peoples. Our genes become theirs, and theirs ours.

These days, the Jewish child of, say, one Ashkenazi and one African-American parent might carry a sickle cell gene, while the non‑Jewish child of an Ashkenazi parent and his or her WASP or Irish or Chinese or Peruvian spouse might carry one or more of the erstwhile “Jewish” genes.

The important fact is that studying particular genetic defects elucidates particular, often deadly diseases, not that this or that gene “belongs” to a particular population. The more scientists can study the genetic factor in illnesses, the sooner research might lead them to pay less attention to diseases that affect Jews.

The anti-Semites will just find other rationalizations for their hatred. The potential for genetically based discrimination will soon exist for all human individuals and groups, since everyone carries some deleterious genes.

Our task, therefore, is not to argue against research but in favor of legal protection against bigotry and unfairness; not to discourage further studies but to assure broad public understanding and equitable use of their results.

We will continue suffering from “Jewish” genetic diseases, and other people will continue suffering from their own characteristic ailments until science succeeds in finding preventions or cures. Stopping research can hurt us a lot more than any theoretical threat of anti‑Semitism can.

Reprinted with permission from Moment Magazine, December 1997.

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Beryl L. Benderly

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes frequently on scientific and medical subjects. She is the co-author of Her Works Praise Her.