Jewish DNA Speaks

Print this page Print this page

And now science is extending and expanding our view still farther back in time. A paper published earlier this year in the American Journal of Human Genetics sampled seven Jewish communities (Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Italian, Turkish, Greek, and Ashkenazi). Provocatively titled "Abraham's Children in the Genome Era," it shows how groups sharing a common ancestry formed independent clusters over time. Thus, Ashkenazi Jews bear the closest similarity to Europeans, while Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian Jews are closer to Druze, Bedouins, and Palestinians. The split between Middle Eastern and European Jews (the oldest group in the latter category being Italian Jewry) is estimated to have occurred between 100 and 150 generations ago, that is, between roughly 500 B.C.E. and the first century of the Common Era. In all cases, the farther away the group is in distance and time from Near Eastern origins, the greater its similarity to the local populations.

Several things stand out. First and foremost, the origins of the vast majority of today's Jews, when plotted, overwhelmingly cluster in the Levant, between Europeans to the north and Middle Easterners to the south. Second, the challenge of maintaining the cohesion of Jewish communities in the Diaspora, though obviously a matter of religious and cultural mandate, was also biological, met through fundamentally intimate choices about marriage and reproduction (and complicated by incidences of rape and intermarriage). Reflected in the highly sophisticated science and dizzying statistics are innumerable individual decisions concerning what we would now call Jewish identity.

Even as the scientific data lend a poignant human dimension to the already well-known history of Jewish dispersal and survival, they also provide factual validation of that history. In doing so, they simultaneously make a hash of certain counter-narratives—most recently and notoriously, Shlomo Sand's imagined creation tale of Eastern European Jewry by means of the mass conversion of the Khazars, a notion cribbed from Arthur Koestler's The Thirteenth Tribe (1976) and reworked by Sand in his The Invention of the Jewish People.

Most research into Jewish genetics research is undertaken for a purpose: namely, to address heritable diseases. Historical observations are a secondary byproduct. Learning more about breast cancer and Tay-Sachs is vastly more critical than locating the Ten Lost Tribes. The point is an important one, rebutting invidious assertions that Jews are primarily concerned with understanding and preserving their "bloodlines." In any case, similar genetic research goes on around the world, from Lebanon to Korea. Finally, the results of the research say nothing about questions of "intelligence" or about Jewish "genius."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States.