“Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People” by Harry Ostrer— Who Are the Jews?

Ostrer, Harry. “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People”, Oxford University Press, 2012.

Who Are the Jews?

Amos Lassen

To many Jews, one of the most pressing questions is just who they are. Jews have searched for an identity and continue to do so in whatever ways possible. Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist and authority on the genetics of the Jews carefully looks at what has been done in these efforts and tells us what insights he has found about the history of the contemporary Jew. His book tells the stories through the lives of scientific pioneers and these include “Russian immigrant Maurice Fishberg; Australian Joseph Jacobs, the leading Jewish anthropologist in fin-de-siècle Europe; Chaim Sheba, a colorful Israeli geneticist and surgeon general of the Israeli Army; and Arthur Mourant, one of the foremost cataloguers of blood groups in the 20th century”. Ostrer tells us about their work and the work of others and we see that by looking at genetics, we see the history of the Diaspora. As we moved to new places, our numbers changed and we gained and lost members, we faced persecution, war, disease and we intermarried. Sometimes we forget about places where Jews settled and hearing some of the stories here, we are given a fuller picture of life outside of the Promised Land. Now we face assimilation which is changing world Jewry.

The book brings biography, history and science together and because of this we are given a different look at our people and our history. While population genetics is a relatively new field, we shall soon how it changes popular concepts about spirituality, shared social values and cultural legacy.

Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, maintains that Jews are different, and the differences are not just skin deep. Jews share a distinctive genetic signature is his claim and he sees this as central to Jewish identity. Lest we forget that the Nazis also maintained this and used it as a basis for the extermination of the Jewish people. As Jews we are very aware that the question of “What is a Jew?” has been important throughout our history and now we have a genetic answer to it. This is despite the fact that Jewish identity is made up of different strains of religious beliefs, cultural practices and blood ties to ancient Palestine and modern Israel. “Geneticists have long been aware that certain diseases, from breast cancer to Tay-Sachs, disproportionately affect Jews. Ostrer, who is also director of genetic and genomic testing at Montefiore Medical Center, goes further, maintaining that Jews are a homogeneous group with all the scientific trappings of what we used to call a “race.””

“Jewish exceptionalism” has been ever a controversial issue during our history. This is probably because we have intermarried and isolated ourselves culturally or have been isolated culturally. Others have considered us to be a race and many have claimed to be members of the Jews and this implies a race. This idea became extremely important in the 20th century because genetics became a scientific undertaking. Fishberg measured skull sizes to see why Jews were more affected by certain diseases but he proved to be wrong in his theory. The shape of the skull was not effective but his work was a beginning of using genetics for the study of Jews.

The book is divided into chapters each of which has to do with some aspect of being Jewish—“Looking Jewish”, “Founders”, “Genealogies”, “Tribes”, “Traits” and “Identity”. In each chapter, a scientist or historical figure that was responsible for advancing an understanding of “Jewishness” is featured.

This book may be uncomfortable for many. Some will regard the idea of being genetically related is a somewhat embarrassing side of early Zionism. We do not want to know that genes have something to do with differences in IQ. Race has not been an accepted idea by anthropologists and sociologists who feel that there are really no differences between ethnic groups. Now we reach the question—“Is Judaism a people or a religion? Or both?”. The belief that Jews may be psychologically or physically distinct remains a controversial fixture in the gentile and Jewish consciousness, “and Ostrer places himself directly in the line of fire. Yes, he writes, the term “race” carries nefarious associations of inferiority and ranking of people. Anything that marks Jews as essentially different runs the risk of stirring either anti- or philo-Semitism. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the factual reality of what he calls the “biological basis of Jewishness” and “Jewish genetics.” Acknowledging the distinctiveness of Jews is “fraught with peril,” but we must grapple with the hard evidence of “human differences” if we seek to understand the new age of genetics”. Ostrer believes that Jewish identity has several different threads and DNA is one of them. He does say that there exist those elitists who claim that one of the characteristics of being Jewish is superiority. While we may be distinctive, this is because we share a history of endogamy. Despite the fact that Ashkenazi Jews settled throughout Europe and came to America, they remained homogeneous. The Sephardic Jews experienced the Inquisition which caused them to intermarry and lose a distinctive DNA.

There is a great deal of genetic data in the book and this is both the plus and the minus of the book. Instead of being driven by narrative, this book is driven by data. We are all very aware of the controversial concept of what we call the Jewish people. Israel’s Law of Return that provides the right of Jews to come to the land is central to Zionism and one of the most important founding principles of the State. Looking at the main groups of Jews– Ashkenazi, Sephardi and I add Mizrachi, we see how these could come to support territorial claims but the problems is that some of the genetic characteristics of the Jews also exist in Palestinians and they also want their own law of return.

This geneticism divides Jewish liberals and traditionalists as does the way Palestinians (who share our genetics) are treated in Israel today and there are those think that the Jewish people are little more than an invention.

There is a smorgasbord of food for thought here and agree or not, I believe that every thinking Jew will want to have a look at this volume. We live in a world in which mankind is becoming more and more genetically sophisticated and identity becomes more and more fluid and more and more fixed (Contradictory? Of course it is). Whether we like it or not, all Jews share something and we are all in this together–why should we not try to understand it a bit more?

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