Commentary Magazine


Is There a Jewish Race?

To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin’s discussion of my book Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People and of Jewish genetics generally is well meaning, but he skirts the issue most critical to understanding Jewish identity: namely, race [“Jews and Their DNA,” September].

As he notes, most secular Jews and almost all Gentiles consider the notion that Jews are somehow biologically distinct an “embarrassing anachronism”—yet this has historically been the bedrock of Jewishness and remains so today, politically-correct denials notwithstanding. Depending on their fancy, many liberal Jews either reject categorically or embrace the fact that Jews have an evolved genetic pedigree affecting everything from proclivities to certain diseases to innately high IQ.

Mr. Halkin himself struggles with what to make of “Jewish DNA.” In his evocative book Across the Sabbath River (2002), he promoted the romantic notion that the B’nei Menashe, a Tibetan-Burmese people, are descendants of a lost “biblical tribe” that “retain[ed] its identity for nearly 3,000 years.” How convinced was he? “One hundred and seven percent certain,” he wrote, and eagerly anticipated that DNA evidence would support his certainty. It did not.

Mr. Halkin backpedals considerably in his COMMENTARY essay, now claiming that he had had his “doubts” and taking umbrage at geneticist David Goldstein’s observation that he was motivated by an intense desire to “vindicate” the B’nei Menashe’s claims of ancient-Israelite ancestry. He also writes that historical accuracy does not really matter anyway: all humans require a steady diet of fabrications (which he calls “myths”) and truth for their psychological health.

Hold on. Mythmaking can be benign up to a point. It is fine for Mr. Halkin to remain enthralled with the legend of the B’nei Menashe as a lost tribe. And true, the fact that they lack Israelite forebears by blood—like the Ethiopian Bene Israel, whose own myth of Israelite lineage also failed the DNA test—does not diminish their Jewish faith. But the facts still matter, and the geopolitical implications are huge, especially when the fate of the modern state of Israel revolves in part around competing Jewish and Arab claims to an ancestral connection with ancient Palestine.

Facts are the only guardian against the misuse of myths. Jews need to acknowledge the relevance of race to Jewishness or risk trapping themselves in a Philip Roth novel, constantly at battle with neuroses about their identity. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Judaism is grounded in more than faith. It is the only major tribal religion to have survived. Jews have seen themselves and been seen by Gentiles as a race for their entire history, except for the post-Holocaust period.

Even if we now conclude, as most scientists and I do, that race can be a simplistic concept, distorted by centuries of execrable social prejudices, we are now coming to understand that human population groups have unique characteristics as a result of their different evolutionary histories. Genetic anthropology has also awakened us to the promise of designer therapies to target afflictions that disproportionately affect one group.

Our DNA tells contrasting stories. The first crude map produced by the Human Genome Project in 2000 suggests that all individuals have a shared past; at the same time, they divide into clusters of small but meaningful differences ––in some cases, racial differences. The challenge is to harmonize these competing narratives of unity and separation. The great paradox of human biodiversity is that the only way to understand how similar humans are is to learn how we differ.

Jon Entine
Cincinnati, Ohio

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin suggests that historically, many non-Jews entered the Jewish fold without formal conversion. Traveling Jewish men, he surmises,

married local women who, while consenting to live as Jews, were not halakhically Jewish. By halakhic standards, therefore, their descendants were not Jewish, either, even though their Jewishness was not challenged by the rabbinical authorities.

And again:

Had a rabbi arrived in Yemen or Bukhara soon after the founding of its Jewish community, he might have been able to insist on the halakhic conversion of its handful of Jews. But this would no longer have been practicable after several generations had gone by, especially since Yemenite and Bukharan Jews would have forgotten by then that their maternal progenitors were not halakhically Jewish and would have reacted with resentment to such a demand.

According to Jewish law, however, a conversion (and most other rituals) need not be performed by rabbis. It would have been sufficient for wandering Jews to convene a court of three co-
religionists.

Gilad J. Gevaryahu
Merion Station, Pennsylvania

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin points to the fact that similar DNA configurations have been observed among Jewish males from widely differing geographical locations, and that such configurations set Jewish males apart from non-Jewish males within their locales. The DNA of Jewish females, by contrast, tends to bear a closer relationship to the DNA of local non-Jewish females than to that of Jewish females from other areas.

A possible partial explanation for these findings may lie with a feature of Judaism in antiquity. According to the research of Shaye J.D. Cohen, Jewishness was passed down through one’s father until roughly the 2nd century c.e., at which time matrilineal descent became the normative factor. Previously, as is widely recorded in the Bible and in post-biblical literature, it was fairly common for Jewish men to take foreign women for wives.

Hans Fisher
Highland Park, New Jersey

_____________

 

Hillel Halkin writes:

I am, frankly, taken aback by Jon Entine’s letter. Fortunately, his book is more sensible.

To start with his misreading of my book, Across the Sabbath River: nowhere in it did I say that the Tibeto-Burmese people known as the Kuki-Chin-Mizo (not as the “B’nei Menashe,” a small Judaizing group within the Kuki-Chin-Mizo) are “descendants” of a “lost biblical tribe.” What I tentatively suggested was that two small clans within the traditional Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribal structure may have been composed of, or joined at some point by, the progeny of Israelites exiled by the Assyrians in the period of the First Temple. Since these two clans constitute barely one percent of the total Kuki-Chin-Mizo population, I obviously did not expect any study to show more than a tiny fraction of the latter having “Jewish”—that is, Middle-Eastern-profile—Y-chromosome or mitochondrial DNA.

As for the DNA study I have been involved in, had Mr. Entine read my article in COMMENTARY with the slightest attention, he would know that I “took umbrage” not at the notion that I hoped my theories would be vindicated (is there anyone who does not wish as much for his theories?) but at David Goldstein’s ridiculous statement that I “agitated” for a study to take place. As if any amount of agitation on my part could have convinced distinguished scientists to engage in research that did not interest them!

And what have the study’s preliminary results shown? Two things: (1) That I was wrong about the two clans, in which no Middle-Eastern-profile DNA has turned up; and (2) that another Kuki-Chin-Mizo group, a tribe I pointed to in Across the Sabbath River as the next most likely source of Israelite-like traditions in the old Kuki-Chin-Mizo religion, does have a very small percentage of Middle-Eastern-profile DNA—the only Tibeto-Burmese population ever sampled of which this can be said. Are Israelite ancestors the explanation? Not necessarily, because, as I wrote in my article, the Middle East is not the only conceivable source of such DNA. Might they be the explanation? Yes.

Mr. Entine says that I have now changed my mind and come to the conclusion that the genetic facts about the Kuki-Chin-Mizo do not matter. This, too, is a willful distortion of what I wrote. Of course the facts matter; the writing of Kuki-Chin-Mizo history depends on them. They matter less, however, when it comes to the Kuki-Chin-Mizo’s or the B’nei Menashe’s sense of their own identity. In such cases, I wrote, what people believe about themselves is more important than what scientists determine. There is no society that does not have its crucial myths—and when these lose their credibility, they are generally replaced, not by the historical or scientific truth, but by other myths.

Are the Jews, as Mr. Entine implies in his letter, a “race”? Well, that all depends on what one means by the word. A hundred years ago, it was common to use “race” to denote peoples and linguistic groups, so that one spoke of the “Italian race,” the “French race,” the “Slavic race,” the “Celtic race,” and so forth, even though this was obviously not the same as speaking of the “Caucasian race,” the “African race,” or the “Mongoloid race.” The word was used loosely—and if we wish to go on using it loosely today, there would be nothing wrong, I suppose, with speaking, as many people once did, of a “Jewish race.”

But there are excellent reasons, which I need not rehearse here, for not using “race” loosely any more. And if we use it more narrowly, the Jews are no more a race than are the French, Italians, Slavs, or Celts. True, Jews have their own distinctive pattern of Y-chromosome- and mitochondrial-DNA distribution, their own genetic diseases, and high average IQ scores. But averages are all we are talking about. Jews do not belong to any specific Y-chromosome- or mitochondrial-DNA haplogroups that cannot be found elsewhere, often in equally high percentages, and most Jews do not carry the genes for “Jewish” genetic diseases and do not score especially high on IQ tests. Moreover, the statistics for Jews from different parts of the world are not the same. Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, for example, have different genetic diseases, and overall Sephardi IQ scores are much the same as those of other peoples. It is doubtful in fact whether there is a single “Jewish” genetic trait that is possessed by a majority of Jews.

Do Jews then belong to a distinct “race” in the sense that, with considerable justification (although more politically-correct scientists oppose such terminology, too), the Chinese can be said to belong to the “northern Mongoloid race” or the Congolese to the “sub-Saharan African race,” to use two classifications mentioned by Mr. Entine in his book? Obviously not. Northern Mongoloids have certain characteristics—yellowish skin, straight black hair, inner eye folds, little facial or body hair, etc.—that are universal among them. If you were to find an inhabitant of China who did not have these things, you would say that, as Chinese as he might feel, he was not racially a northern Mongoloid.

But what analogous characteristics do Jews have? None at all. Does Jon Entine believe that one is racially Jewish only if one has certain genetic traits that most Jews lack? What possible point could there be in defining a “Jewish race” in such a manner? Although Judaism has indeed been, as he calls it, a “tribal religion,” and the world’s Jews can be compared to an extended family, tribes and families, however unique, are not races in any meaningful sense. Let us not use the word, as Jon Entine does in his letter, meaninglessly, misleadingly, and possibly harmfully.

I have checked with those who know better than I do and Gilad J. Gevaryahu is—at least theoretically—right. According to Maimonides (1135-1204), the three members of a bet din or Jewish religious court that performs a conversion need not be rabbinically ordained. Whether such non-rabbinical courts were actually ever convened, either before Maimonides’ time or after, is of course another matter. Despite his authoritative standing in Jewish law, Maimonides’ position has certainly not been accepted by Orthodox rabbis in recent centuries, and no such conversion would be recognized by them today. (Or, to the best of my knowledge, by any Conservative or Reform rabbi.) But Mr. Gevaryahu’s point is an interesting one, as is Hans Fisher’s. I would welcome further information on the possible relevance of either to a better understanding of the origins of remote Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

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