Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Jews Are a Race, Geneticist Says

Bar Refaeli: She's my race.

Harry Ostrer is a medical geneticist and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. His new book, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, argues that Jews exhibit a distinctive genetic signature that is central to Jewish identity. Jews are, in other words, a race of people.

Personally, I am not surprised at this because insularity seems to be a common historical factor across Jewish populations worldwide. Yet, the book aims partly to counteract a general uneasiness with the concept of "race." In particular, Ostrer seems to argue against a view that racial differences are purely social constructions. Yes, Ostrer says, human beings are 99.9 percent similar, but that 0.1 percent difference is important because that's where Jewish distinction emerges in physical features, ancestral origins, genealogies, communities, traits, and shared identification.

I have no problem with the notion of race as "population" and "region of ancestral origin." The problem with race is the problem of using it to express ideas that some human populations are superior or inferior. Ostrter seems to be operating in a post-racial sense of race, where we can talk about race without making it a human competition.

I also think there's no need to attach religious significance to the racial homogeneity of the Jews. It's not as if biological relatedness tells us anything about the patriarchs, the Bible, or God. If the Jews are a race, they are one of many races and sub-races. Humanity is internally diverse. The Jews, too, are racially diverse, and this is perhaps the most interesting and valuable lesson of the subject.

The genetics of the Jewish people (or peoples?) are fascinating. I highly recommend Razib Khan's assessment of a 2010 paper in the American Journal of Human Genetics. The paper, in which Ostrer has an author credit, demonstrated "that European/Syrian and Middle Eastern Jews represent a series of geographical isolates or clusters woven together by shared IBD [identity by descent] genetic threads" (see figure, right).

The paper is very detailed, and Khan does a nice job explaining it. Let me first quote from the paper, where its findings are summarized:
The Middle Eastern populations were formed by Jews in the Babylonian and Persian empires who are thought to have remained geographically continuous in those locales. In contrast, the other Jewish populations were formed more recently from Jews who migrated or were expelled from Palestine and from individuals who were converted to Judaism during Hellenic-Hasmonean times, when proselytism was a common Jewish practice. During Greco-Roman times, recorded mass conversions led to 6 million people practicing Judaism in Roman times or up to 10% of the population of the Roman Empire. Thus, the genetic proximity of these European/Syrian Jewish populations, including Ashkenazi Jews, to each other and to French, Northern Italian, and Sardinian populations favors the idea of non-Semitic Mediterranean ancestry in the formation of the European/Syrian Jewish groups and is incompatible with theories that Ashkenazi Jews are for the most part the direct lineal descendants of converted Khazars or Slavs. The genetic proximity of Ashkenazi Jews to southern European populations has been observed in several other recent studies.The paper here challenges the hypothesis, based on an historical interpretation, that Ashkenazi Jews descend from eastern Europeans and Eurasians who converted to Judaism in the early Middle Ages. The paper's genetic findings indicate that Semitic Jews gained massive Greco-Roman converts much earlier.

The early history matters greatly, and Khan neatly encapsulates the paper's cultural and historical assessment:
In the time of Augustus Jews were divided between different sects and persuasions, and there was a welter of diversity. Additionally, in the marketplace of Roman religion Jews were a moderately entrepreneurial group. The dynasty of Herod himself was of convert origin. There was a wide spectrum of Jewish religious practice and belief, from the near monastic isolation of the Essenes, to the engaged but separatist Pharisees, and finally to the wide range of more syncretistic practices which fall under the rubric of “Hellenistic Judaism.” Many scholars assert that it was from the last sector which Christianity finally arose as a Jewish sect, and that Christianity eventually absorbed all the other forms of Hellenistic Judaism. Judaism of the Pharisees, which became Rabbinical Judaism, and more recently Judaism qua Judaism, was shaped in large part by having to accommodate and placate the dominant Christian and Islamic religious cultures in which it was integrated by the early medieval period. Conversion to Judaism from Christianity or Islam was often a capital crime (though conversion from Christianity to Judaism was not forbidden in Muslim lands, while presumably conversion from Islam to Judaism in Christian lands would not have been, though few Muslims lived in Christian lands). So after 500 A.D. it seems that what may have occurred was that a Jewish Diaspora characterized by geographically determined genetic diversity, despite some common original Levantine origin, was genetically isolated from surrounding populations. This explains why there seems relatively little influx of Slavic genes into the Ashkenazim despite their long sojourn within Poland-Lithuania and later the Russian Empire. In contrast, the Roman Jewish community was already large in the days of Julius Caesar, and presumably intermarried with the urban proletariat of diverse origins. In an ironic twist these data suggest that modern Jews, in particular the Ashkenazim, but to a lesser extent the Sephardim as well, share common ancestry with gentile Europeans due to the unconstrained character of the pagan Greco-Roman world which Jews were to a great extent strident critics of.

Genetics, culture, history: all are intertwined. The lesson is that to call a human population a race is not--or should not be--tantamount to calling them a different species of human. We all know, however, that race has often been used precisely to separate and politicize groups of people. Postmodernist analyses of race focus on the ways race is politicized and used to political ends. The political, politicized race is often the fiction pointed to by postmodernists. I am, like many, a postmodernist about the interpretations, not about the facts. Now, a postmodernist might snidely question how/whether one separates interpretations from facts--and it is an interesting philosophical discussion that may amount to little else than sophistry--but the clear target is interpretation.

I would be interested to read informed challenges to Ostrer's thesis.

Footnote: The image of model Bar Rafaeli and the caption are an ironic--and attempted humorous--comment on the racial politics I discuss in this post.

1 comment:

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