Race or Religion? Jewish Genes Identified

August 2013. The age-old debate over whether Jews constitute a race or a religion appears to have been settled by the science of DNA—and it is a Jewish scientist who has finally established the facts.

According to an article, “The Chosen Genes,”  published in the Washington DC-based journal,The Chronicle of Higher Education, the “story of Jewish origins, once the province of historians and religion scholars, is now being told by DNA.”

Harry Ostrer, Jewish Professor of Genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (located in the Bronx, New York), said that he had “developed systematic ways to separate Jews from non-Jews.”

According to The Chronicle, Ostrer’s work “shows that geographically and culturally distant Jews still have more genes in common than they do with non-Jews around them, and that those genes can be traced back to the Levant, an area including modern-day Israel.”

 ”It shows we share in a biological tapestry, and are connected by these genetic threads,” Ostrer was quoted as saying in the article.

The DNA that he found also tightly linked Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, two prominent culturally and geographically distinct groups; and some of these markers are shared by the present-day Palestinians.

Ostrer has published a new book, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, issued by the Oxford University Press (one can bet the OUP will not be publishing anytime soon a “Genetic history of the European People,” though).

In the book, Ostrer “traces efforts by himself and others to map both the genes and the culture of Jews as they spread throughout the world, and he shows how the approaches can complement one another. He also takes on the volatile topic of population traits, arguing that it is extremely difficult to ascribe things like higher IQ to Jews,”The Chronicle continues.

Ostrer’s work has been endorsed by other leading geneticists, the article says. “Mary-Claire King, a professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington who was the first scientist to use molecular analysis to date the evolutionary split between humans and chimpanzees, writes in an e-mail, ‘The approach that Harry uses … lets the data speak for itself. It does not group people from different traditions a priori. The result is that people sort out, based on their genetics.’

Ostrers’ work has provoked a hysterical reaction from some other Jews, though. Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University whose 2009 book, The Invention of the Jews (Verso Books), argued that Jews arose from converting many local communities in Europe and elsewhere, told Science magazine regarding Ostrer’s findings that “Hitler would certainly have been very pleased.”

Ostrer was however, less pleased with this comment. “Bringing up Hitler was overheated and misconstrues my work,” he responded.

The Chronicle went on to discuss the reality of genetics and how it could help determine racially-specific medical treatment:

“He [Ostrer] has been lobbying the New York City Council for half a million dollars to buy four gene-sequencing machines for the medical college. They would be used, he says, to analyze genetic risk factors for diseases like prostate cancer or diabetes in the African-American and Hispanic populations that surround the college in the East Bronx. ‘The council seemed very receptive to my argument, which is that the poorer people in New York should have access to the most modern medicine,’ he says.

“His interest in the genetics of Jews also originated in medicine and attempts to understand why certain populations have higher risks of particular diseases, like specific forms of breast cancer. Years ago, while a professor at NYU, Ostrer started a project to identify DNA sequences that marked such populations. The sequences could also indicate how closely such groups were related, a kind of Jewish family tree.

“The differing DNA stretches are called haplotypes, and what Ostrer initiated, with several colleagues, was called the Jewish HapMap Project,” The Chronicle said.

This project has definitively shown a genetic commonality amongst Jews the world over, a remarkable achievement given the nature and length of the Jewish Diaspora.

“The only people it [Ostrer’s findings] would shock, says Seth Schwartz, associate director of Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, are those who believe that Judaism was created through conversion and intermarriage in many places outside the Middle East. ‘I think that paper blew Shlomo Sand’s arguments out of the water,’ he says.

“That argument, Schwartz says, is a modern reflection of a mid-19th century view among some Jews in the reform branch of the religion that Jewish identity had become secondary to the rise of the nation-state. ‘That view didn’t deny the genetics of Jews. It just said it wasn’t important. It said that now we are part of nations like Italy or Germany, and that’s our primary national identity and affiliation. Judaism is our religion.’ But it was not a widely held view. Traditionally, most Jews believed in a shared Middle Eastern origin. ‘Now we have a biological translation of the traditional story,’ says Schwartz.”

*See also: “Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era: Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern Ancestry,” Study Finds Genetic Links Among Jewish People, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, June 3 2010.

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