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Falk, Raphael
Tziyonut vehabiologia shel hayehudim,
Ressler, Tel Aviv 2006
(Hebrew Only)

Genetics and Zionism is a much abused topic. There is always room to create mischief by harnessing "science" to prove or disprove political ideas. Increasing attention is paid to questions such as "Are the Jews all genetically related, and are they all descended from Abraham and the inhabitants of ancient Israel?" The question itself is wrongheaded. The goal of those who ask it is either to disinherit the Jews because we are not all descendants of Abraham, or to "prove" the validity of the Zionist claim to Israel by proving that we are all descendants of Abraham. Those who raised the issue are racists themselves, because no other nation has ever been asked to prove any such thing in order to qualify for self-determination. Those who try to defend the idea that every Jew is descended from Abraham are fools falling into a trap.

We saw one such effort, in the hands of an amateur, when we considered the theories of professor Shlomo Zand about the origin of the Jews. Zand is primarily an ideologue, and invented facts to fit his fancy. He wove a fairy tale that can be believed by the ignorant to support intellectual impudence.

The book before us is of an entirely different caliber. Raphael Falk is an acknowledged expert in human genetics and a reasonably careful scientist. His careful reasoning brings sanity, logic and decency to counter the demagoguery of political argumentation. It is not a perfect book, but Hebrew readers will find it entertaining, informative and insightful. What a pity that Zand's book, but not this one, is being published in English!

Falk has a reputation for being an excellent science teacher. Apparently it is well-earned. The attentive non-scientific reader will learn quite a bit about the power - and the limitations - of scientific inference. Nobody who reads and understands this book will ever again fall for claims of "absolute proof" of this or that claim about human genetics and the Jews.

Falk gives us two important principles that should always be born in mind. Mixing science and politics is perilous, and can result in bad science and worse politics. Scientific theories are always "underdetermined" - that is, there can never be enough evidence to establish a theory as "absolute truth." We can only say that evidence supports or contradicts a theory or prediction. That is very unsatisfactory for demagogues, and it tends to make the bad "science" - the absolutist quack pronouncements - drive out the good science for audiences that seek certain knowledge to prove a point.

The book consists of two parts. It is not always easy reading for enthusiastic Zionists. The first part of the book is devoted to a historical review of the role of race theories in 19th and 20th century European politics, and their influence on the Zionist movement, which is often embarrassing. Falk denies (in a single sentence) that Zionism was based on racist theories, or requires that the Jews be considered a "race," but the great bulk of his argumentation and evidence tends to leave a very bad impression. Falk set up a straw man, and then proceeds to knock it down. But it is not just his straw man. It is a straw man that many accept. Falk is careful to note, but again only in one brief remark, that the early Zionists who held these theories were not racists, and that their notions must be viewed in the intellectual context of their times. Everyone, especially educated people, spoke of "race" in the 19th century, just as everyone believed in the electromagnetic ether. "Race science" was advanced by the most respected biologists and anthropologists and the terminology found its way into every day life. Nobody could foresee that the more or less harmless notions of the 19th century would degenerate into the driving force of genocidal Nazism, and few could understand that the racist notions underlying colonialism were pernicious in themselves. In fact, though some of their ideas may sound "racist" to modern ears, Zionists like Jabotinsky were among the first to understand that colonial peoples were the equals of colonizers and would demand their rights - and that is why he and a few others understood and foresaw the coming conflict between Arab and Jewish nationalism. Nonetheless, the material Falk has assembled is likely to be abused by the usual intellectual vultures who manufacture "Zionist quotes."

The second major part of the book is a fairly meticulous and conscientious presentation and examination of the modern genetic evidence regarding genetics of the Jewish people. The best evidence, as well as reconstruction of what must have happened, is that the ancient Jewish population represented a genetic matrix, not all descended from a single founder. We know that this must be true from the Bible and Jewish tradition as well. The current population of Jews in their different communities have a genetic makeup that reflects, to a lesser or greater degree, inheritance from this ancient community, which itself shared genes with other Middle Eastern groups, and genetic contributions from intermarriage in their various local Diasporas. The Jewish people, like all peoples, are a cultural and social group, held together both by kinship bonds and by shared traditions and national feelings.

Every human carries a pair of sex-determinant chromosomes. Women have two X chromosomes. Men have a Y chromosome and an X chromosome. The Y chromosome, for technical reasons, is also relatively easy to study. Had we all been descendants of father Abraham, and assuming that genes never mutate, we should all carry similar genetic markers in our Y chromosomes. But the studies do not show that. They show some common factors for many communities of Jewish men, including many Cohanim, who may be highly interrelated, but the kinship relation is very far from perfect. Ashkenazy Jews are more like each other than they are like Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews, and Ashkenazy and Sephardic Jews are more like each other genetically than they are like Welsh people or Khazars. But for any individual, and for some groups such as Yemenites or Ethiopian Jews, we cannot say with certainty that they are Jews or not Jews based on genetic markers alone, or that they are definitely not Cohanim because they lack a particular allele.

Consider where racial criteria and theories of Judaism would lead us. If it is definitely proved, for example, that every "real Jew" must have a certain allele (gene variant), do we exclude from Israel and the Jewish community all those who do not have this allele? What if it turns out that Jabotinsky or Maimonides or Ben Gurion did not have this gene? Do we exclude communities that suffered unspeakable horrors to uphold their Judaism because their Y chromosomes were born on the wrong side of the track? And if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ismail Hanniyeh turn out to have the magic gene (and perhaps one or two million Palestinian Arabs or Africans or others who have no ties to the Jewish people also have this magic set of alleles), should they be given the right to become Israeli citizens and members of the Jewish people? Suppose Mahmoud Abbas has the genes of a Cohen, should we make him Chief Rabbi?

In a sense, Raphael Falk's project in writing this book violates his own dictum against mixing science and politics. He tells us that he was uncomfortable with genetic studies that appeared to be trying to give Zionism a genetic or "racial" basis, and wanted to find a way to reconcile his own Zionism with his understanding of genetics. The outcome, the proposition to be proved, is therefore known in advance. That is not a good way to do science. He needn't have bothered. There is no way to prove a political thesis from biological science and no need to do so. Political theories and ideology must prove themselves in the realm of politics, ideology and history. Zionism appears to have done so, in a unique way that is not true of any other 19th century ideology except perhaps democratic liberalism. Zionism proved itself in the way that is accepted for scientific theories: by making and fulfilling a series of counter-intuitive and unlikely predictions:

Assimilation in Europe is not possible, despite appearances.

The Jews of Europe are about to suffer a catastrophe.

The Jews are a people and can organize themselves as a people and an nation.

It is possible to create a viable Jewish state.

All of the above seemed improbable a hundred and ten years ago, and were bitterly contested. Even today, anti-Zionists deny the evidence of their senses and insist that the Jewish state must fall apart because of internal divisions and that the only future for the Jews is in assimilation or in the most reactionary forms of religious practice. Whatever a nation must be, we are one, and we have proved it.

Falk sees the genetic research from the perspective of an Israeli looking out. He apparently missed the point that as much as some Israelis are trying to prove the impossible thesis that all Jews are literally brothers and sisters or their descendants, anti-Zionists are trying to disinherit us with absurd theories like those of Shlomo Zand and the Khazar hypothesis popularized by Koestler. While no theories can be absolutely proved or disproved, some can be shown to be highly unlikely based on the evidence. If it matters, there is not much evidence that modern Ashkenazy Jews are all descended from Khazars, nor is it possible to support the view that most Palestinian Arabs are the rightful genetic inheritors of the land from Abraham.

Research on Jewish genetics has important medical and scientific implications. Not all the studies of inheritance of "Jewish diseases" and other traits has been motivated by political considerations. Studies of genetics to trace migrations of populations in ancient times are also of interest. We all want to know about our human as well as our national roots. The same researchers who have been doing Jewish genetics studies have also been studying other populations with the same innocent and apolitical goals. We can all learn from this ongoing effort and watch it unfold, but it is wise to do so without expecting that it must have a particular outcome or provide a particular "correct" answer. The Jewish people cannot mortgage their birthright to some gel electrophoresis experiment.

Ami Isseroff

Original content is Copyright by the author 2008. Posted at ZioNation-Zionism and Israel Web Log, http://www.zionism-israel.com/log/archives/00000575.html where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Disributed by ZNN list. Subscribe by sending a message to ZNN-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by e-mail with this notice, cite this article and link to it. Other uses by permission only.

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Replies: 4 Comments

I'm ignorant about this subject. Can somebody tell me if this quote:

"Had we all been descendants of father Abraham, and assuming that genes never mutate, we should all carry similar genetic markers in our Y chromosomes."

means only that not all Jews are lineal descendants of Abraham on the paternal side? It has always been more important to Jews to have a Jewish mother than a Jewish father. It would not seem important to be able to trace one's blood to Abraham via an unbroken succession of fathers, if there is maternal kinship.

Levy, Sunday, June 29th


Of course, while there is likely a strong degree of genetic similarity within other peoples, there are also many stark differences--Northern Italians compared to Southern, for example. But nobody requires that someone "prove" their membership in the Italian, Spanish or Egyptian people by means of their DNA. Neither, then, does membership in the Jewish people require that. On the other hand, what Jacob points out is helpful to back up the fact that we are not just a religion, we are a people.

DrMike, Monday, June 23rd


The only genetic connection I am aware of that correlates in any respect is the drastic climb in rates among Ashkenazi Jews of the incidence of Crohn's disease as well as certain forms of rare blood cancer (polycythemia vera, e.g.). From my admittedly limited understanding of Jewish genetics (which have absolutely nothing to do with Zionism), Ashkenazi Jews have been studied because of the relative homogeneity of the gene pool. But I firmly agree that the positing of the question of genetics (race) and Zionism is wrong-headed but betrays a lack of understanding of the history of Zionism, especially of racial theories that spawned the first Zionist thinkers like Max Nordau, Herzl and Jabotinsky. Nordau especially was a magnificent example of a Social Darwinist. But to hold such fin de siecle racial theories as applicable today is just not understandable based on what we know about the Zionism as envisioned originally and what we know about its actual history as formed in 1948 - an artificial construct that did not put into practice the theory of a Jewish people in a Jewish nation. What we have now are Israelis, not necessarily Jews.

Randy Shiner, Sunday, June 22nd


Hi,

Recent genetic research has clearly shown that despite their long-term residence in different countries and isolation from one another, most Jewish populations were not significantly different from one another at the genetic level. The researchers studied six Jewish populations: Yemenite, Ashkenazic, Near Eastern, North African, Asia Minor and the Balkans, and Ethiopian. The first five showed a strong affinity, with the Ashkenazic and Yemenite populations coming out the closest. That means that the Ethiopian Jewish community descended from local converts.
There was also a strong affinity between the Jewish populations and Palestinians and Syrians.
Another research showed that the Jews in different countries are much closer to Jews in other countries that to their non-Jewish neighbors.
All that means that the Zionists were correct when they claimed that the Jews are indeed a people like all others and not just a group of believers in the same religion. And even though there is no "Jewish DNA", there is definite biological-genetic evidence that the Jews are ONE people which originated in the Middle East.

Jacob, Sunday, June 22nd


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