Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People
by Jon Entine
The Jews are an ideal subject for studies in population genetics, forming as they do an unusually well-defined "genetic island": small founder group, little exogamy, long history. It is therefore rather odd that Jewish scholars have been especially prominent in the resistance to population-genetics research. The paradigm of an infinitely plastic human nature imbedded in a uniform, static biological substratum — the "blank slate" — that dominated the human sciences through the later decades of the 20th century was essentially the creation of anthropologist Franz Boas and his student Ashley Montagu, both of whom were Jewish. The paradigm was upheld, and ferociously policed, by Jewish scholars of the following generation: Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Stephen Rose.
Things look even odder when you factor in the strenuous efforts undertaken by religious Jews to combat exogamy. The January 21 issue of Newsweek magazine contains a short news item headed "Sex and the Synagogue":
The rise of interfaith marriage is a sensitive issue among American Jews, and now two powerful forces in the religion are teaming up to do something about it: rabbis and JDate, the top matchmaking Website for Jewish single … the site is offering a bulk rate to rabbis who want to buy membership accounts for their congregants …
"All is race, there is no other truth," wrote Benjamin Disraeli. Michelle Obama might agree, but most Jews of our time would swoon in horror to hear such a thing said. Jon Entine told me that when he showed the cover of this book to a rabbi of his acquaintance, directing the rabbi's attention to the subtitle, the gentleman shook his head vigorously, saying: "No DNA! No DNA!" In the book itself, Entine writes of a California businessman named John Haedrick, who was raised as a Christian but who discovered, after taking a DNA test, that his ancestry included "a rather populous pedigree of Ashkenazi Polish Jews." Mr. Haedrick set about getting himself accepted as a Jew, only to be rebuffed by his own local rabbi with: "DNA, schmee-NA."
DNA is real stuff, though; and with the discoveries in population genetics that have been coming thick and fast this past few years, it is getting more and more difficult to find any serious researchers, Jewish or otherwise, who still cling to the Boasian "blank slate" paradigm. You don't have to go all the way to Disraeli's position to be convinced, by the sheer and fast-accumulating weight of evidence, that the common processes of population-genetic change did not come to a sudden dead stop when Homo sap. emerged from the African homeland 60,000 years ago.
Those changes continued through the Paleolithic, the isolated endogamous populations of that long era slowly diverging from each other according to well-understood biological laws. The big modern "continental" races were probably formed in very much their present states when the Neolithic arrived 10,000 years ago; yet still the genetics of inbreeding populations continued their slow mutations, down into recorded history and through to the present day. This is not speculation but observed fact. We can tick off the changes, and even date them reasonably well, right there on the human genome.
You would think that all this would be of absorbing interest to Jews, who are so keenly interested in their own group identity, so fearful — like the rabbis in that Newsweek item up above — of that group identity becoming diluted, and so proud of their long history and ancestry. Think of all those "begats" in the Old Testament.
But there is, of course, much more to Jewish identity than that. Jon Entine documents it all here: the history, the migrations and scatterings, the genetics (including that grimmest of all genetic terms of art, the "population bottleneck"), the paradoxes. So many paradoxes! For example: The first rule of Jewish identity — the one currently used by the government of Israel — is that you are Jewish if your mother is a Jew, or if you have been formally and correctly converted. The identity is therefore basically matrilineal. And yet, as Entine explains, "most Ashkenazi Jewish women descended from Gentiles"! Again, in defiance of those rabbis fretting about exogamy, it is often the case, as Entine says, that "nothing can be more Jewish than not wanting to be."
The author himself is of East-European Jewish ancestry, and was raised as a Reform Jew. He seems now to be an agnostic or atheist; but of course that gets you a mere few inches away from your Jewish identity. ("I'm an atheist," pleads the Ulsterman under questioning by a terrorist gun squad. "All right," snarl the gunmen, "but are ye a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?")
Entine is the author of the 2000 book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It. As can be seen from that title, our author is not shy about discussing group differences. He certainly pulls no punches here, speaking straightforwardly about those differences as they relate to Jewish populations.
Note that last plural: the processes of group-genetic change have caused divergence among Jews themselves. The sensational average IQ scores of Ashkenazi Jews, for example, are not found in populations of Sephardim and Oriental Jews.
The variety of sub-populations within world Jewry is, in fact, another of those paradoxes that give Jewish identity its weird optical-illusion character. Abraham's Children tells the full astonishing story of the Lemba, a black South African tribe who carry the ancient Cohen Modal Haplotype at high frequency, and whose menfolk are therefore in direct line of patrilineal descent from Aaron. There is another sub-population scattered among Hispanics in the American southwest, who have a tendency to discover, to their surprise, that they descend from Jewish conversos in late-medieval Spain. (Entine missed one of my own favorites: the non-Sephardic Romaniotes of Greece, who have a fine old synagogue in New York's Broome Street, right opposite the first lodgings I ever had in the U.S.A. I used to sit at my window on idle Saturday mornings watching the minyan assemble.)
Some other lineages claimed as Jewish are shown by genetics to be not part of the common ancestry: the Falashas of Ethiopia, for instance, and the Bene-Menashe of far northeastern India. Myths are exploded, too. The Khazars of early-medieval central Asia did not supply the founding stock of East European Jewry, as claimed in Arthur Koestler's 1976 book The Thirteenth Tribe.
The studies of the Y chromosome and mtDNA do not support the once-popular notion that Jews are descended in any great numbers from the Khazars or some Slavic group, although it's evident some Jews do have Khazarian blood. … Perhaps not every Jew is descended solely from the ancient populations in Judea and Samaria … but most Jews do share a common ancient ancestry. Most Jewish males appear to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean, with at most 20 percent showing a central Asian origin similar to that of most Europeans. After being expelled from the Middle East, and after diaspora stops along separate routes in Italy and Asia, Jews trickled into Europe. They brought with them some wives, but more often than not, they coupled with local women.
Note, however, that:
[University of Arizona geneticist] Michael Hammer has calculated that after the initial trysts and founding of various Jewish villages, less than 0.5 percent of each succeeding generation of Ashkenazi women had children with non-Jewish Europeans.
In the matter of myths, genetic studies have also exploded the story told in the Book of Mormon that American aborigines are descended from the ten Lost Tribes. Nor is there any substance to claims by the British Israel movement that the Island Race is an offshoot of the Chosen People. Those ten tribes seem, in fact, to be well and truly lost — absorbed, probably, into Middle Eastern and West Asian populations.
Abraham's Children is a fascinating book, packed with well-researched information on every conceivable aspect of Jewish history and identity, as illuminated by our marvelous new understandings of the human genome. The basic framework of the book is historical — it contains within itself, in fact, a good outline history of the Jews. All the interesting byways are thoroughly explored, though. There is, for instance, a very good account of characteristically Jewish diseases, with a full list of them in an appendix.
Entine visited key people and places when making the book, and includes appropriate interviews and travelogue. One of the interviews is with Kevin MacDonald, whose name will be known to VDARE.com readers. MacDonald has taken exception to the interview's published version. However, Entine's account seems fair to me. (I have read MacDonald's trilogy on the Jews' "group evolutionary strategy," and reviewed the third volume for The American Conservative.)
Entine has done a splendid job here, writing in a clear and unpretentious style, uncovering many curious facts, and putting everything together in a good connected narrative.
murmured W.N. Ewer. Possibly so: but if He had not chosen them, the world would have been a much less interesting place. The population geneticists of today would have much less good material to work with; and we curious laypersons would have been deprived of at least two very fine recent books: Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century and Jon Entine's Abraham's Children.