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January 16, 2008

GUEST POST: The History of Ashkenazi Jewry through the Prism of DNA

I promised you a few weeks ago that I would have a post on genetics and Jewish history. A bit delayed, but here it is, from Jon Entine, the author of Abraham's Children – Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People.

Jon touches on the Khazars, the genetic origins of Ashkenazi Jews, Jews and IQ, and other hot button issues.

As always, the normal disclaimer for Guest Posts applies. The views expressed by the author of this post do not necessarily reflect my own.

The History of Ashkenazi Jewry through the Prism of DNA
By Jon Entine

Jon_entine_book It wasn’t surprising that in its end of the year issue, Science magazine named “human genetic variation” as the scientific breakthrough of the year. Science has moved out of the kum-ba-ya phase of genetic variation—the factoid that humans are 99 percent the same—to the reality that we are not only significantly different from person to person but that humans have evolved in populations, almost like pack animals, over the course of history. And in the center of that story is…

…Ashkenazi Jewry.

Despite being scattered to ends of the earth in the two millenia Diaspora, the once tribal religion of the ancient Hebrews has remained remarkably insular. Askhenazi Jewry, which has its roots in Central and Eastern Europe more than a thousand years ago, and still numbered as few as 25,000 people into the fourteenth century, are the most genetically distinct population of all. In my recent book, Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People I quote the estimate of Michael Hammer, the famous geneticist and Y-chromosomal expert, who believes that that the rate of non-Jews who entered the Ashkenazi Jewish gene pool over these many centuries was less than .5 percent per generation until recent decades. What does that mean? After all, Jews have paid a heavy price throughout history for being considered a race. They’ve been targeted for their religious beliefs and their cultural distinctiveness.

Scientists are studying group genetic variation because it offers the key to understanding the origins of diseases, which is the real focus of human genome research. The fact that scientists now acknowledge group-to-group differences should not be seen as resurrecting problematic racial theories. But it does mean we need a vocabularly to discuss human differences. This is particularly important to Ashkenazi Jews who are at the center of this debate.

Race is a taboo question to ask in this politically correct era but for Jews interested in the survival of the state of Israel, it must be confronted. Because the “right of return”––the principle that Jews have a right to immigrate to Israel and become citizens if they can verify Jewish ancestry—depends on it. In the age of DNA, we can now answer that question with some assuredness.

A walk through the geopolitical hazard zone known as the Internet finds untold numbers of screeds by anti-Israeli groups challenging the very premise of the right of return, claiming that Ashkenazi Jews are converts, so Jews have no ancestral, let alone Biblical, association with Israel. They base their inflammatory contentions on the writings of a Jewish journalist, Arthur Koestler, whose 30-year old book, The Thirteenth Tribe claimed that most European Jews were not Semites but descendants of Khazarians, part of the once-Jewish Khazarian empire whose nobility converted to Judaism during the late first millennium. The historical record was never clear about this, which left an opening for anti-Zionists like Koestler to turn their ideology into pop history. His book was embraced by some Jews and the general public. But its become gospel in many Arab circles, which contend that displaced Palestinians are the real native sons of the Levant.

What does the DNA say?

According to Hammer and numerous other scientists, Jewish and Christians, Jews are one of the most distinctive populations—a term scientists use rather than the folkloric notion of “race”—in the world. On our male side, approximately 70-80 percent of Ashkenazi Jews can trace their ancestry back to ancient Israel. A vast majority of Cohanim even trace back to one man who lived approximately 3300 years ago—perhaps Aaron, the first High Priest, if he indeed existed. DNA provides genetic witness to key stories in the Hebrew Bible and clearly rebukes Koestler’s thesis. As much as 20 percent of Ashkenazi Jews—me including—do have what might likely be Khazarian genes, which geneticists believes lead credence to the story of the conversion to Jewry of a tiny segment of the Khazarian population—the nobility. Many of them reportedly also were granted Levite status, which is a reasonable explanation for why half of all Levites have non-Jewish Khazarian origins.

Our maternal Ashkenazi lineage is more complicated and still to be fully unraveled. Israeli geneticist Doron Behar found that about 4 million of today’s Ashkenazi Jews ––about 40 percent of Jews originating in Central and Eastern Europe––descend from just four women. But as many as half of all Ashkenazi Jews might have as its founding mother a non-Jew, as Jewish traders plying the back roads of Europe took on local wives and then subsequently raised their children as Jews, sometimes without the new Jewish mother having undergone formal conversion.

The bottom line: Ashkenazi Jews are by the measure of population genetics one of the most distinctive populations in the world, which explains why there are so many “Jewish diseases” and (scientists speculate) why Ashkenazi Jews have the highest IQ of any population in the world as a consequence, some scientists believe, of both cultural and genetic factors. We are a genetic goldmine, as scientists peer into our genes to solve the mysteries of life and death.

Jon Entine is author of Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People and can be contacted here.

Comments

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I have read of genetic studies some discussing the Cohain gene that is shared by members of the Levite tribe. Interestingly a good number of black folk in Africa who claim to be Jews indeed have this gene. The bottom line is Jews are truly a bastardized group (I do not used the term "bastardized" in a derogatory sense but only to describe significant intermingling.) This is true of the Jews of India and China. Because the male gene pool was so small of Jews in China and India significant intermarriage has occurred.

I find this subject very interesitng because I am married to a non-Jewish woman and have suffered the slings and arrows of Jewish prejudice and crudity from time to time vis a vis my marriage.

Yet the notion of a kind of purity among Jews is reminiscent to the Nazi notion of Aryan purity. Many of us are so mixed with Turkish, Moroccan, Berber, Nordic, and Slavic blood to make any notion of purity quite a joke.

What say you AVI that your great great great great great great grandmother was probably a non-Jew who did not undergo proper conversion?

Oy vey -- Your are non-Kosher

Yes, Jews have undergone some intermixing over the 3,300 years or so since the local Canaanites, the arriving tribes from Mesopotamia, and the Sea Peoples crystallized into a people. And despite the desire for religious and ethnic purity as reflected in the writings of the biblical scribes, there has always been introgression from non-Jewish lineages. I describe this in Abraham's Children as the "Ruth Phenomenon" named after you know who. So clearly, the notion of "racial purity" is absurd. That said, I would not agree that it is a joke to talk about Jews as a unique population. In fact, ALL population groups--larger population groups are known folklorically as "races"--are the result of considerable mixing. Look for example at East Africans, who have undergone considerable intermixing with Arab populations and other groups who have crossed through the Rift Valley into the Middle East. Yet, populations geneticists refer all the time to sub-Saharan Africans as a mega-populatio--a "race" in casual terms. Relative to many other rather distinct populations, Jews have undergone far less intermixing. To use a loaded word, they are "purer." It's one of the "purest" sizable populations in existence -- evidenced by the high prevalence of some 40-odd diseases distinct to Jews and the 30+ diseases distinct to Ashkenazim. Yes, Jews were the product of lots of mixing, but Ashkenazi Jewry in particular had relatively little introgression after its founding. That's why they are of such interest to science. This is dicey stuff, yes, but it's the kind of research that population and medical geneticists are pursuing because the payoff--medical cures--is worth the social risks.

Based on the genetic diseases, it seems possible that inbreeding is more of a problem than "impurity." Maybe we should seek fresh blood, i.e. converts. Just a thought...

Jon, what is your view of the book by
Wexler "The Ashkenazi Jews- A Slavo-Turkic people in search of a Jewish identity"?
To my Ashkenazi brethren who are offended by the title, I apologize. However, I point out that Wexler also has written a book about Sephardim postulating that they are "mixed multitude" of Arabs, Berbers, etc., a thesis I am quite happy with.
Yochanan, I agree with you that inbreeding is a problem. As you know I am very keen on promoting converts. I have also found that most converts are way more serious about their Judaism than born Jews.
I believe personally that if we are not spiritually and religously Jewish, we are lost. This obsession with the Jews as "people" is so overdone. If we do not keep a modicum of Jewish belief and ethics, we shall die out and become a footnote to history.

Excuse me, I meant to write "this obsession with the Jews as a "people" (as opposed to a religion) is so overdone".

This is not nearly explosive as I thought Shmarya would make it although that bit about traders raising families with unconverted women is obviously exaggerated. I completely agree with the Khazar theory (which the Hungarians get very uncomfortable over) except I believe based on historical data that not just the elite among them converted.

I don't know why the Jewish gene pool is being presented as the most insulated. As far as I know, the Icelandic gene pool is even less diluted.

"I don't know why the Jewish gene pool is being presented as the most insulated. As far as I know, the Icelandic gene pool is even less diluted."

Yes, yes,... of course, and not only them Icelandics, so with the australian aboriginals, those also of papua new guinea.
It's the anti jewish (particularly ashkenazic) conspiracy! And, why? Why I ask? noooobody conspires against them Icelandics, Papuans etc?

All this talk of genetic studies of jewish uberman(?) -is the spelling right?- unfortunately, evokes the image of a poor caricature of the german genetic scientists in WWII camps, yimach shemam veyovad zichram.
Yiikes!
In my nightmares, I see Jewish scientists in white gowns going around our shuls and measuring with a measure tape and recording the diameters of the worshipers skulls, the breadth of the nostrils, the length of the nose and the angle they rise at from the face.
Those diagnosed as genuine ashkenazim, will be given aliyos although due to the dearth of cohanim, they invariably have to start "ein kan cohen".

Yosef: There was a Shmarya post last year about a Russian BT who was made to do giyur "just in case" because he didn't shuckle during tefillot or like tcholent. I am not making this up. This kid was a born Jew from Jewish parents- not a 1/2 Jew. Maybe the Jewish eugenecists will pass a bowl of tcholent (or chamin) around, as the litmus test.

"Maybe the Jewish eugenecists will pass a bowl of tcholent (or chamin) around, as the litmus test." :-)
r' yochanan
i am afraid that i would fail this test, since for various reasons, allergies, adventurism in the kitchen, health and personal taste preferences, our chamin has evolved, not always in accordance with tradition. not that we G-d forbids use non kosher meat or mix bassar bechalav, but where my mother uses beef or better yet lamb, you may find chicken in ours, where my grandmother included fat as a constituent member ingredient in the chamin in ours, the chicken would be skinless.
I do miss the Mishna time where rabbis were not stupid. most readers here would recognise the adage of Emperor Antoninus dining on Shabbat @ Rebbi's table and the only litmus test was that of the spice called shabbath.

This is quite an intrestining post, to be sure, but I hope this dosn't get out of hand, sort of like what Yosef said.

What nonsense. Amazing what people claim as science. Here are the facts: If you are English, or Dutch, etc, you have a relatively easy time of finding a marrow donor, that is, someone with exactly the same immune regulatory makeup as yourself, due to the small number of people in stable towns intermarrying over hundreds of years. Whereas Jews have an impossible time finding matched unrelated donors, because of mobility; Jews from Poland marrying Jews from Hungary, in recent times, and in early medieval times, marrying their converted maids, etc, as is well documented. The rigorous halachic impediments we currently have for conversion were actually set as a reaction to the Catholic laws endangering whole towns if there was conversion, because there was so much "intermarriage" in early Europe, when the current conversion halacha was not in force (this is well documented in Israeli seforim, where there's been pressure on rethinking the current process).
Why Jews are suddenly so positive about racial descriptions so close to the Shoah is of some interest. Lucy Davidowicz argued that at Yom HaShoah commemorations we have been exposed to so much Nazi propaganda that we may have internalized too much of it (after all, it was meant to glorify the Reich, not be shown at Young Israels).

I’ve been asked to share my impressions of Mr. Entine’s book from a professional scientific perspective. To be frank, I’ve never heard of this book; it hasn’t made the rounds in genetics research circles and I’ve not seen it prominently displayed in a bookstore. I haven’t read it, and am basing my comments on his guest post and later comments.

I’m a researcher, so I decided to do a little peripheral work to see what was up. I realized that I’d come across Mr. Entine’s work before- he wrote a controversial book called Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk about It (http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/04/16/reviews/000416.16holtlt.html)- and he’s written profusely and with a neo-con’s zeal to expose the corruption he sees behind many corporations and organizations which claim an environmental or social justice motive (he’s gone to town on Anita Roddick and the Body Shop, Ben & Jerry’s and those who favor a cautious approach to genetically engineered crops, among many others). Described as a “media mongrel”, he writes about anything and everything.

I wondered, where does he get his plethora of information, and what are his professional qualifications to analyze the data? It’s hard to imagine he had the time to personally research everything from the specifics of rainforest nut products to business ethics to population genetics. His 7-page cv (available on his website, www.jonentine.com) lists a BA in Philosophy/Religion from Trinity College in Hartford, CT and a one-year journalism fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. And then pages and pages of speaking engagements, awards and articles. If nothing else, he’s prolific, but I don’t see much in the way of scientific education or experience.

I checked a little into whose research went into this latest book. One name popped out at me; Gregory Cochran. Dr. Cochran is cited as a source in the section of the book that deals with “disease genes”. I am familiar with Dr. Cochran’s controversial pathogenic theory of disease. That is, pathogens- bacteria, viruses- not genes or environmental agents cause many diseases, including cancers. He also believes that homosexuality is caused the same way (which would make it contagious- watch out!)

I also found a few mentions from 2005 of an upcoming Journal of Biosocial Science paper, coauthored by Henry Harpending, Jason Harding and Gregory Cochran, on the link between Askenazi intelligence and genetically transmitted diseases. Oddly, I couldn’t find any record of the actual paper online, not even an abstract on the JBS site. Was it ever published? Did it go through the peer review process? Who funded the study?

Scratching my head, I thought of a conversation I’d had with a colleague, a well-respected population geneticist. I’d asked him his opinion of the “Cohen Modal Haplotype” and was told it’s considered to be a fairly common semitic marker, not limited to Jews. And about Jewish population genetics in general, he told me that he stopped talking to people about it because it’s very politicized and is used to support some pretty useless and crackpot theories. Everyone, he said, likes to think they’re special-er than everyone else.

So, from my perspective as someone who works daily with genetic research, this book seems more of a pop science with plenty of spin work of writing at first glance. It might be an attempt to manipulate data in order to prove how special we are, ‘cause we Jews love this stuff. Maybe I’ll find a copy and read it in depth, but it’s not high on my priority list of good science reading.

I read the book today. It is uninspired and is essentially a rehash of the works of others. The ideas are not knew. But it is an informative book and entertaining. It does not come from the research of Entine but other folk in the field of genetic anthropology.

correction above: the ideas are not NEW

Whatever the merits of the book or its author, The Body Shop is pro-Palestinean. I would not buy a bar of soap from people who want to turn me into a bar of soap.

(Note: Yes, I know not all Palestineans are genocidal Jew haters).

Great news! I found the Cochran et al. paper’s abstract online. It was published in 2006 and instantly refuted:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1687817,00.html

and

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/03/science/03gene.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5090&en=efcc603583e17b54&ex=1275451200&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss

The journal that published the paper seems to have a niche appeal. Last year it published a paper titled “Intelligence differences between European and oriental Jews in Israel”.

One of that paper’s authors, Richard Lynn, is quoted as having once said

"What is called for here is not genocide, the killing off of the populations of incompetent cultures. But we do need to think realistically in terms of "phasing out" of such peoples. If the world is to evolve more better humans, then obviously someone has to make way for them. ... To think otherwise is mere sentimentality."

Lynn’s research is largely supported by The Pioneer Fund, an organization that was founded in the late 1900’s to promote "racial hygiene", i.e. eugenics.

Mordecai,

"What say you AVI that ... "did not undergo proper conversion?"

Anyone who is Jewish according to Halacha is OK by me.

There have been many converts to Judaism.
It's the soul that counts, not the body.

Regards,

Avi


Right on, Avi. It's the soul that counts, not the body, as far as religious inheritance is concerned.
This Jewish people-hood stuff is the last gasp of assimilitionists. If it's Jewish people-hood/ culture-hood, since my ancestors didn't live in Eastern Europe, but in the Middle East, I guess I am not Jewish. If I were an Ethiopian Jew, well if we're doing the old "Jewish people-hood/ culture-hood" nonsense, I guess I wouldn't be Jewish. According to the people-hood, culture-hood definition of Judaism, a convert to Judaism is not Jewish because she/ he hasn't assimilated that culture-hood people-hood feeling.
It reminds me of a passage from George Orwell's 1984- "Oldthinkers unbellyfeel EngSoc".
So amazingly enough, the Torah definition of Judaism is actually the most fair and tolerant.

Avi:

"It is the soul that counts." From the context of your statement it is clear you mean it is the Jewish soul that counts. As you and I well know the terrible Tanya accords the non-Jewish soul a lesser status.

I will go you one better and say it IS the soul that counts -- ANY SOUL, not just the Jewish soul.

Mordecai, please understand, I agree that all human souls are equally important. I just meant that, as far as I am concerned, Judaism is a religion and a spiritual inheritance, so basically anyone who is born Jewish or converts is Jewish, there is no such thing as being racially Jewish.

Another scientist: "It might be an attempt to manipulate data in order to prove how special we are, ‘cause we Jews love this stuff. "

Or perhaps it's simply a continuation of his erroneous previous work, meant to fortify his racial views (along with whatever agenda he seeks to push with them), espoused (and however spuriously developed) in "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk about It"

Mordecai,

Yes, anyone who is Jewish according to Halacha has a Jewish Soul. (Nefesh HaElokis)

We've been through this before. You disparage the concept. I do not.

All souls are dear to G-d. That is why the Angels weren't allowed to
sing when the Egyptians were drowning in the sea. ( even though they were trying to annihilate the Jews)

BTW, it's quite ironic that Dave quotes Orwell to rebuff you (LOL).


Regards,

Avi

p.s My friend used to be the gabbai in Rabbi Hecht's shul in the 80's

p.p.s Check out the Metzudah Chumash. It's a linear translation and is quite good.

who said askenazim are smarter than sefardim???????????????

yona loriner:
"who said askenazim are smarter than sefardim???????????????"

Proponents of the eugenics movement.

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These elitist and racist comments are quite alarming and offensive!!!
I cannot believe the vigor of this quest for genetic purity!
I am so shocked, I cannot refrain from commenting.


See, to me this contrevesy is still a part of history, in fact as I type this it becomes a part of history. History isn't just important dates and speeches to me. It's not just the major figures involved in those dates or giving those speeches. It's everything that has happened or is currently happening. But it's broken down into the present, recent history, not so recent history, distant history, ancient history, and prehistoric history. Present history are things that are currently happening to within the last few days all others are covered in terms of days and years.

When did people start making the claim that "Jewishness" is a simply a "religion" and not a RACE?

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