Who Are the Jews?

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, May 2008

Shelves of books have been written about Jewish history and identity, but many ancient accounts have been impossible to verify independently. Now, advances in DNA analysis have added much greater precision to our understanding of Jewish origins, and can be used to test many of the oral traditions Jews have passed on for millennia. Jon Entine’s Abraham’s Children is a good summary of recent work in this field, and covers several other areas of genetic research, most notably Jewish diseases and Jewish intelligence.

Abraham's Children by Jon Entine

Mr. Entine is the author of the 2000 book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, in which he investigated the physical—and by implication genetic—reasons why blacks dominate many sports. He therefore understands race and racial differences. He also knows the penalties for writing about the biological distinctiveness of Jews or any other group, but plunges in bravely all the same. Abraham’s Children is not without flaws, but any mass-market book that takes group differences seriously is important.

Children of Israel?

Most Jews fall into two groups, Ashkenazi (European) or Sephardic (Middle Eastern). Are they the descendants of the Biblical Children of Israel? Because of where they lived and how they looked, Sephardic Jews always had a plausible link to the people who wrote the Old Testament, but there have been doubts about the origins of Ashkenazim. Of the non-Biblical theories about their origins, the best known is that they are descended from the Khazars, a Central Asian people said to have converted to Judaism in approximately the 8th century.

DNA evidence of two kinds has been brought to bear on this question. DNA from the Y chromosome can be used to trace the male ancestry of a population, and mitochondrial DNA can be used to trace female ancestry. This approach works because both these kinds of DNA are passed from generation to generation without recombination, unlike all other DNA, which is mixed and recombined during reproduction. Of the 23 pairs of chromosomes, the pair found only in males, composed of a Y from the father and an X from the mother, does not recombine. This means the Y is passed from father to son without any changes other than those that appear through chance mutation. Because mutations occur on the Y at a predictable rate, by comparing the accumulated differences on their Ys it is possible to estimate how long ago two men had a common ancestor.

This method has been used to calculate how far back we must go to find a common ancestor of all men living today, and the figure seems to be around 180,000 years. Of all the people on the planet, Bushmen appear to be most similar to that distant ancestor. Mutations have been constantly building up on the Y, and men of the same race or ethnic groups have similar sets of mutations.

What does the Y chromosome tell us about Jews? Mr. Entine reports that some of the early research in this area focused on the Cohanim or Jewish priestly class. According to the Bible, Moses’ older brother Aaron became the first high priest, and only his male descendants could aspire to this role. After the Romans sacked the Second Temple in 70 AD the Cohanim lost their job, but Jews have handed down the oral tradition of priestly status ever since, and about 3 percent of Jewish men claim to be Cohanim.

Geneticists have found a marker on the Y that is so closely associated with claims to be Cohanim that they call it the Cohen Modal Haplotype. The best estimates of mutation rates suggest the marker originated about the time Aaron would have lived. Most Jewish men show evidence of several different male lineages, meaning that they are not descended from the same man, but the majority of Cohanim appear to trace their paternity to the same root.

In one test of Cohanim claimants, no fewer than 98.5 percent had the Cohen Modal Haplotype. Wherever this marker came from, it is a sure sign of common descent, and if it really does mean descent from Aaron’s time, it supports two extraordinary conclusions: that the oral tradition has been very durable and accurate, and that many generations of mothers were faithful to their husbands.

Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim have the Cohen Modal Haplotype, as well as other markers that trace back to the Middle East, and this strongly supports the view that both groups originated in the area of Biblical Israel. The haplotype is not exclusive to Jews, however. A few Kurds, Armenians, Hungarians, and Italians—all of whom have had long association with Jews—carry the same marker, which suggests that some Cohanim either abandoned Judaism and assimilated, or had affairs with gentiles.

The other kind of DNA most useful for tracing ancestry is mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Mitochondria are energy-producing organelles outside the nucleus but within the cell, and contain their own primitive DNA. They are passed on only by the mother. Sperm cells contain mitochondria but it is only the nucleus of the sperm that fertilizes the egg. The cytoplasm of the fertilized egg therefore contains mtDNA only from the mother, which, like the Y chromosome, is passed on to succeeding generations unchanged except for mutations.

Again like the Y chromosome, mutations accumulate at more or less predictable rates, so differences in mtDNA show how distantly related people are, and how far back one must go to find a common mother. The best estimates are that the most recent common mother of all the world’s inhabitants lived about 145,000 years ago. It should be noted that there was never a time when there was just one man or one woman. If an ancient man had no sons, that was the end of his line of Y DNA, and if an ancient woman had no daughters, her mtDNA ended with her sons. In either case, descendants could have gone on to contribute DNA to many succeeding generations, but not Y or mitochondrial DNA.

The story of Jewish mtDNA is quite different from that of Y DNA; there are no distinctively Jewish lineages. Instead, the female ancestors of today’s Jews appear to have been primarily the women among whom Diaspora Jews lived: Europeans for Ashkenazim and Middle Easterners for Sephardim.

This is not to say Jews have not been endogamous. However, once the Jews dispersed from Palestine, many men appear to have taken gentile wives who adopted their husbands’ religion. This means the founding mothers of many of today’s Jewish communities were not Jews by present Israeli standards, which require proof of a Jewish mother. Once they established communities in their new homelands, however, Jews appear to have been remarkably endogamous. By the time the descent-from-a-Jewish-mother rule was adopted, it had no doubt been long forgotten that distant ancestresses were gentiles.

Early Origins

Mr. Entine points out that no record other than the Bible reports a sizable Israelite presence in Egypt or the Exodus. History and archeology suggest the Jews were local Canaanites who later wrote a fanciful account of their origins. At some early stage in their history, however, they acquired two distinctive characteristics: a belief in monotheism and a fanatical sense of chosenness. From Deuteronomy on, there is fierce condemnation of intermarriage with outsiders, and some of the prophets even called for death for anyone who married out.

A civil war around 930 BC divided the Israelite kingdoms into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. In 720 BC the Assyrians conquered the north, and the ten tribes of that kingdom—the “lost tribes”—left the historical record. The Assyrians conquered the southern kingdom of Judah in the early 6th century BC and were in turn conquered by the Persians in 539 BC. It is from the time that Judah was a Persian province that its inhabitants came to be known as Jews.

Palestine came under Roman rule from 63 BC to 313 AD, but was a troublesome province. Emperor Hadrian, who put down a revolt from 132 to 135 AD, decided that Israel “should be destroyed and the Jewish people annihilated because they were the only people on earth who refused to associate with the rest of humanity.” He tried to obliterate Judaism, which he considered the root of the problem, and many of the Jews he drove out of Palestine gathered in Rome and on the Iberian Peninsula, which became the main centers of Jewish population. The Sephardic/Ashkenazi split appears to date from this period; Iberian Jews later became the Sephardim, and Italian Jews the Ashkenazim.

When the Muslims invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711, the forebears of the Sephardic Jews welcomed them as liberators and thrived under Muslim rule. Ferdinand and Isabella, who completed the reconquest of the peninsula in 1492, expelled the Jews that same year, and that group of refugees, along with Jews later expelled from Portugal, are known as Sephardic or Spanish Jews. Most of them fled to North Africa and the Middle East, though a handful went to the New World. Genetic testing suggests that Sephardim, especially Iraqi, Moroccan, and Tunisian Jews are probably most like the Israelites of Biblical times.

The forebears of the Ashkenazim appear to have been Jews living in Italy, who went north after the chaos that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. The Rhineland region, which the Jews called Ashkenaz, became the spiritual center of the migration and gave the group its name. Jews lived separately from and in some antagonism with the populations among whom they lived, and were expelled from Britain in 1270, France in 1306, and later even from the Rhineland.

Mr. Entine writes that Jews suffered greatly during the Black Death of 1348 to 1351, which wiped out a third of Europe’s population. Jews were blamed for the plague and many were massacred. A remnant fled into Lithuania, Poland, and Moravia, but by the early 16th century, there may have been only a few tens of thousands of European Jews. This drastic fall in numbers shrank the gene pool, and centuries of subsequent endogamy have, for better or worse, made Ashkenazi Jews an extremely inbred population.

It is the progeny of this group that account for an estimated 10 million of today’s 13 million Jews, and are the vast majority of the Jews of Europe and the United States. Mr. Entine notes that Dutch Jews show the greatest gentile admixture on the paternal line, and are probably least related to the Biblical Hebrews.

The Lost Tribes

Another question about Jewish identity that has arisen with varying degrees of urgency over the centuries is what happened to the “ten lost tribes” after the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 720 BC. At times, Christians have been more exercised about this question than Jews because some believe Christ will not come again until the Jews, including the lost tribes, are converted to Christianity. During the Middle Ages, Europeans worked themselves into frenzies over the importance of tracking down the tribes and converting them. The lost tribes were imagined variously to be in India, Ethiopia, or Asia, usually under the leadership of Prester John. They were thought to live by the miraculous Sambatyon River, which rested on the Sabbath and did not flow.

There have been many alleged sightings. When Columbus discovered the New World, otherwise sensible people thought he had located the lost tribes. Bartolomé de las Casas, an early evangelist to the New World, was convinced Indians spoke a corrupted form of Hebrew. William Penn thought he detected traces of Jewishness in the Lenape Indians. Mormons believe the lost tribes escaped to South America, where they had the adventures recounted in the Book of Mormon. Mormons continue to preach to Indians in the hope of returning them to their “original faith.”

Mr. Entine introduces many far-flung peoples who claim, with varying degrees of plausibility, to be Jewish. In some cases, missionaries pounced on obscure tribes that seemed promising only by accident—perhaps they refrained from pork or circumcised their men—and convinced them they were lost tribesmen. Other groups may have been converted to crude forms of Judaism, and yet others appear actually to reflect colonies founded by traveling Jews.

Perhaps the best known of these are the Falasha of Ethiopia, blacks who claim to be descended from the queen of Sheba and King Solomon. In 1984 they convinced the Israeli government to airlift them to Israel, where they have remained segregated and unhappy. Mr. Entine reports that their DNA seems to be 100 percent African, with no sign of Semitic ancestry. No one knows how they converted to an apparently sincere Judaism.

Less well-known groups include the Cochin or Malabar Jews of south India. In 1948, Israel accepted 2,500 of them for resettlement, and most have since moved there, but Mr. Entine says their DNA has never been tested. Another small group of Indians call themselves Bene Israel. They have always claimed descent from Moses, and their DNA actually suggests some Jewish ancestry. The so-called Bnei Menashe live along the Burmese/Indian border. Their DNA shows no Jewish ancestry, but some have been allowed into Israel, where they have been settled in the occupied territories. Mr. Entine quotes one Israeli partisan of the Bnei Menashe who describes them as “front-line troops for Israel’s demographic war with the Palestinians.”

Perhaps the most interesting pretenders to Jewishness are the Lemba, a tribe of some 50,000 who live in South Africa and Zimbabwe. They have long practiced Jewish-like rituals, and Mr. Entine says about 50 percent of their Y chromosome shows Semitic markers. Even more surprising, 53 percent of the men of the Buba clan, a subgroup within the tribe, have the Cohen Modal Haplotype. The Buba reportedly consider themselves a superior, priestly group, and do not often intermarry with other Lemba. The Buba also have lighter skin and sharper noses. Mr. Entine reports that the scientific consensus is that they could well be descended from wandering Jewish men; their mtDNA, however, does not suggest a Semitic maternal line. According to Lemba tradition, their ancestors built Great Zimbabwe, the ruins of which have long baffled archeologists.

Studies like these that use DNA to gauge the probable accuracy of oral traditions also raise the possibility of establishing a genetic standard to determine who is a Jew. Israeli authorities do not now accept DNA evidence, insisting instead on the traditional standards of birth from a Jewish mother or conversion according to strict rules (rabbis are supposed to make three serious efforts to dissuade converts). The logic of DNA could eventually prevail. Mr. Entine reports that an American who was rejected as a Jew according to customary standards has sued the Israeli government, demanding that it establish genetic criteria.

Genetics make Israeli authorities nervous. Much as they take pride in their distinctiveness and ancient peoplehood, many Jews are reluctant to establish clearly biological boundaries for Jewishness. The same skittishness surrounds two other important themes of Abraham’s Children that may be linked: Jewish diseases and Jewish intelligence.

Disease and Intelligence

It has long been known that Ashkenazi Jews are prone to a number of genetic diseases rare in other populations. Tay-Sachs disease and cystic fibrosis are probably the best known, but Mr. Entine includes an appendix of 29 Ashkenazi “Jewish Diseases,” including such tongue-twisters as abetalipoproteinemia, lipoamide dehydrogenase deficiency, and mucolipidosis IV. Sephardic Jews also suffer from distinctive diseases, and certain national subpopulations of Sephardics have unusually high rates of others. However, as Mr. Entine explains, the DNA of Sephardic Jews shows more interbreeding with gentile populations, which has helped weed out genetic diseases.

Of all the “Jewish” diseases, Mr. Entine spends the most time on a type of breast cancer brought on by a mutation of the BRCA2 gene. Women with the mutation are an estimated eight times more likely to get breast cancer, and Jews have the mutation 20 times more often than gentiles. This condition is so typically Jewish that its appearance among Mexican and American Hispanics has raised questions about their origins. Although most of the women have been Catholic, further DNA testing has shown strong evidence of Jewish ancestry, and many patients tell of secret Judaism-like rituals handed down in their families. These women are almost certainly descended from converted Jews, many of whom retained a few Jewish practices. Oral traditions of Jewish descent could never have been confirmed without DNA analysis.

Although the Jews of classical times did not show signs of unusual intelligence, Jews today have a reputation for braininess, and ever since the 1920s, American Jews have scored an average of about 15 points higher than white gentiles on IQ tests. Statistically, only about four in 1,000 Europeans have IQs higher than 140, but for Ashkenazi Jews the figure is 23 in 1,000. The Jewish advantage is especially pronounced in verbal ability, which helps explain Jewish success in literature, law, comedy, and the media, but Jews are sharply overrepresented in all intellectually demanding fields—at least Ashkenazim are. Sephardic Jews tend to have IQs close to the Oriental populations among whom they lived, and have nothing like the Ashkenazi record of achievement.

What made European Jews so smart? Richard Lynn has proposed three reasons. Christians persecuted Jews more harshly than Muslims did, and the smarter ones were more likely to survive. Also, Jews who lived among Europeans were more or less forced into professions that required intelligence. They were often not allowed to farm, which meant they had to be traders and artisans. Jews also dominated the relatively high-IQ profession of money-lending because usury was forbidden to Christians. Mr. Entine reports that in 1270, of the 228 adult Jewish males in the city of Perpignan, France, 80 percent were money-lenders. Muslims were not entirely barred from money-lending, so Sephardic Jews did not dominate that activity. Finally, Prof. Lynn notes that when Oriental Jews mated outside the tribe it was with Middle-Easterners, who have a relatively low average intelligence, whereas Ashkenazim mated with Europeans.

Others have suggested that proficiency in the Talmud, which required high intelligence, was a valued skill that led to prestige, wealth, and large families. Another possibility is that when the Ashkenazim went through the genetic bottleneck of the Middle Ages, the survivors were of particularly high intelligence, and passed this advantage on to future generations as a kind of “founder effect.”

According to one provocative theory, some of the Ashkenazi diseases may be related to high intelligence. Recently, Henry Harpending and Gregory Cochran have argued that some of the recessive mutations for Jewish genetic diseases may be linked to high intelligence when they are present in single copies. This would help explain why these diseases have not been bred out. Jews who got the mutation from only one parent might benefit from high intelligence, while those who got it from both parents were afflicted. Mr. Entine notes that Israeli scientists have genetic databases broad enough to test this hypothesis, to determine whether there is a link between torsion dystonia, for example, and intelligence. He writes that there appears to have been a deliberate decision not to pursue this research, since Jews are reluctant to look too deeply into whether there is a genetic basis for either their intelligence or their defects.

There is a distinctively Jewish recollection of recent history behind this hesitation, but Mr. Entine notes that throughout the West there are barriers to free investigation. It is “almost impossible,” he writes, “to have a reasoned public discussion about the causes of human differences, especially intelligence,” and in what appears to be his own obeisance to taboos, he reminds us that race research has led to all sorts of awful things.

All told, however, he seems not to have pulled many punches. He repeatedly points out that no matter how much all humans resemble each other genetically, some of the small differences are obviously significant, and occur in patterns that justify dividing the species into biologically distinct populations for which the word “race” is as good as any. He even pokes fun at one of the heroes of the race-doesn’t-exit crowd, Israel Ehrenberg, for changing his name to the laughably pretentious Montague Francis Ashley Montagu.

Mr. Entine points out that race and ethnicity have become so useful in medicine that doctors have quietly abandoned earlier claims about the insignificance of race. He notes that they try to stay respectable by talking about “population groups” and “continent of ancestry,” but no one is fooled. On the whole, this book is blessed relief from the nonsense so often written about race.

The greatest defect of Abraham’s Children is Mr. Entine’s efforts to make it “popular.” It is too light on the genetic science but even worse, it spends far too much time profiling the people Mr. Entine interviewed and describing the places he visited. Readers do not care about the personalities of this or that geneticist or the view from the Hebron hills. He could have trimmed the book of least 100 pages of fluff.

Defects aside, the strongest impression Abraham’s Children leaves is one common to books about Jews: that they have clung to their identity with astonishing tenacity. Military defeat, exile, persecution, and forced conversion have not quenched a fierce loyalty to the ways of their ancestors. A hundred years from now how many Southerners will celebrate Lee’s and Jackson’s birthdays?

Ironically, as Mr. Entine notes, social acceptance and assimilation may yet destroy what pogroms could not. Except for the Orthodox, Jews have very small families, and about half of American and European Jews now marry outside the tribe. In 1920, fewer than 1 percent married out. At current intermarriage rates, notes Mr. Entine, two-thirds of Jews could be gone in a few generations. It would be an anti-climactic ending for a people who have influenced events in vast disproportion to their numbers.

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