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Is There a Jewish Gene?

Louvre, Paris/RMN-Grand Palais/Gérard Blot/Art Resource
‘Jews in a Synagogue’; etching by Rembrandt

As an Israeli, Falk’s motivation is directly connected to the political issue of Zionism and the claim of Jews for a national state:

In this book I wish to discuss two issues: the claim that there is a biology of the Jews on the one hand, and the attempts to integrate this claim into a consistent history of national-political Zionism, on the other hand.

For him the biology of the Jews enters not as a determinant of their cognitive abilities but as a tool for defining the Jews as a collection of related people who can lay a claim to a geopolitical existence, and for attempting a reconstruction of their history:

In the present world of scientific-technocratic reasoning, biological research is a major tool that demonstrates and validates links between present-day Jews and the land that for centuries has been, unequivocally, the glue of their socio-cultural bonds.

An example of the ultimate irony of personal history is that the author of The Genealogical Science, which deals with the immense complexity of Jewish ancestry, is the occasionally church-attending daughter of a Protestant mother of Northern European ancestry and a father whose name, Abu El-Haj, tells us that a forebear made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Nadia Abu El-Haj’s avowed purpose is to make clear “the ways in which ‘the past’ is understood to be a constitutive element of the self.” The key word here is “understood.” Her emphasis, over and over, is on how the knowledge of ancestry, revealed by modern techniques of genetics, may serve as a basis for and a legitimation of a self-image. For her, to ignore the genetic information about ancestry “is to abandon a historically authentic self that I carry around within.”

Once again, as in works on the genetics of race, we encounter the concept of an “authentic” self that lies hidden and unexpressed, but which in some sense is the essence of what I am, even if unperceived and without a basis in any scientific demonstration. The concept of a self that is an authentic essence, but not clearly perceived, suggests that my manifest properties and attitudes are a mere patina and that, in ways that I do not recognize, my inherited inner self is struggling to assert itself. The Austrian Catholic Mendel and the Austrian Jew Freud meet on the speculative ground of our inner being.

None of the books being considered claims that there are genetic elements that are characteristic of all or even a large majority of Jews. The closest thing to a “Jewish gene” is an element on the Y chromosome of males that has been passed down at least for several millenia in the male line of the Cohanim family, and whose presence in a man’s genome is evidence of descent from the priestly class. The frequency of this “CMH” (Cohanim Modal Haplotype) is around 50 percent among the members of the Cohen line. This haplotype is by no means exclusive to the Jews. It is found in some other Middle Eastern groups in frequencies of around 20 percent. More unexpected is the very high frequency of the CMH type among the Lemba of southern Africa. These black Africans also have a culture that excludes the eating of pork and the mixing of milk and meat, and includes the circumcision of male children. They claim descent from migrants from the region of what is now Yemen. However, it seems more likely, as Ostrer also concludes, that it was, in fact, the Arab slave traders who spread this culture as Islamic tradition.

In Henry M. Stanley’s account of his passage through southeastern Africa from the region of Dar es Salaam in search of Livingstone, he tells of following the old Arab slavers’ routes through village after village in which the chief was referred to by the title “Sheikh.” Moreover, in a practice very different from the Jewish one, male circumcision among the Lemba occurs not in early infancy but around the age of eight, a practice characterisic of Muslim groups. If one takes account not only of the CMH but of all the genetic variation known on the Y chromosome, the Lemba fall halfway between other sub-Saharan Africans and the populations of the Middle East.

The same kind of questions that are asked about the chain of male ancestry by looking at our Y chromosomes can be investigated in both men and women by studying the mitochondrial DNA we have derived in an unbroken chain from our line of female progenitors.* It turns out that there is much more variation in the mitochondrial DNA of Jewish women than in the Y chromosomal DNA of Jewish men. This is understood by Falk and Ostrer to mean that when the Jews fled ancient Palestine to found the Diaspora, it was not whole families that fled but largely the men, who then found new local mates in the places to which they migrated. Thus, most of the mothers of these founding communities were not themselves Jews but were sources of new genetic variation, and the present genetic variation among Jews is consequently much greater than it was in Palestine three millennia ago.

Y chromosomal DNA or mitochondrial DNA is used by anthropologists and historians precisely because they are each passed down intact from parent to child through the line of parents of one sex unmixed by the genetic information about the parents of the other sex. But what is, on one hand, an advantage for historical information about an ancestor in the remote past is devoid of information about subsequent history, a history that may dominate the present. To satisfy the curiosity of a former student of mine, now the director of the National Geographic Society’s project to reconstruct the history of human migrations using patterns of present human genetic variation, I let him determine that I carry the CMH Y chromosome. Thus, my son, James, also carries it, as does his son. But my wife is of Scandinavian/English ancestry and my son’s wife is of similar stock so, although my grandson must also carry the CMH Y chromosome, his X chromosome is Northern European, as is, given my ignorance of my own distant ancestry, at least three quarters of the rest of his genome. Even the Nuremberg Laws would have exempted him from what would have been my own fate.

Why, then, should he, like most people, be interested in his ancestors? What is the logic of family pride or family shame? He may simply be curious, as so many are.

Abu El-Haj, perhaps because of her own mixed ancestry, has a very sophisticated view of the motivations for and consequences of investigating one’s origins. She argues that the molecular evidence “generates, grounds, and authenticates…narratives of origins, kinship, and history” but its purpose is not to claim that any particular human nature flows from those origins. Rather, she sees such evidence as a manifestation of her belief that the consciousness of being a member of any genetically related ethnic group somehow tells us something fundamental about who we really are, about the solution to our quest for self-knowledge, and

requires that one actively embrace that “ancestry,” that one learn about and fashion oneself according to its cultural or religious principles, thereby transforming ancestry into identity or selfhood.

While this belief in the fundamental importance of a knowledge of ancestral origins is undoubtedly widespread, it is far from universal. Yet an indifference to ancestry is sometimes taken as a rejection of one’s “real” identity, even of “self-hatred.” It seems clear that while one may see oneself as “embracing” one’s ancestry, one may also be indifferent to such ancestry, or reject it. No one, including Abu El-Haj, claims that the genetic facts by themselves exert a force obliging people to take one conscious position or another.

Abu El-Haj was at the center of an academic controversy that arose from her first book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, which appeared in 2001, a year before she became a nontenured member of the faculty in the Department of Anthropology at Barnard, followed several years later by her additional appointment as director of graduate studies at Columbia’s Department of Anthropology. However, when she was being considered for promotion to a tenured professorship in 2007, a bitter struggle over her scholarship was induced by a widely circulated petition claiming that Facts on the Ground was a dishonest, inferior, and biased work that knowingly misrepresented the quality and content of archaeological work on ancient sites in Israel.

The originator of the petition was a graduate of Barnard, Paula Stern, who had emigrated to Israel,2 but her campaign against El-Haj developed considerable support among Barnard and Columbia alumni and some faculty members, as well as a number of writers, political activists, and academic supporters of Israel both inside and outside of Columbia. In the end the campaign against Abu El-Haj failed to prevent her promotion to a tenured position in 2007.

The last chapter of The Genealogical Science considers “the implications of treating DNA as ‘a history book’ for our understandings of both ‘history’ and of its relationship to the self.” For Abu El-Haj, genetic history is an example of a general belief in the “importance and knowability of the past” because, for her, “fundamental aspects of who one is are determined by one’s past” and moreover one can know and reconstruct the past on the basis of remainders of that past, including genetic mutations.

Thus, there is a “fundamental continuity between race science and anthropological genetics” and a belief that “who we really are collectively and individually is given by and legible in biological data.” But she ends by insisting, as in the conclusion about something like embracing “one’s ancestry,” earlier stated, that

the choice to learn about myself, to remain who I am or to realign my sense of self vis-à-vis new revealed bodily facts about who I have always already been, remains mine to make.

What is revealed here in her reference to “bodily facts about who I have always already been” is an underlying biological determinism that seems to make her present persona a cosmetic, deliberately applied to the face of an underlying “authentic self.” What is not revealed in her book is what she regards as the nature of that self.


Distressed Genes: An Exchange January 10, 2013

  1. *

    The version of this article published in the Review ’s December 6 issue contained several errors in my references to the use of RNA found in ribosomes and mitochondria to trace female ancestral lines. The standard method at present is to use so-called mitochondrial DNA, as the mitochondria are essentially excluded from the mature sperm and are thus inherited only through the female line. The text above has been revised to reflect this. 

  2. 2

    A detailed history of the campaign against El-Haj’s promotion can be found in Jane Kramer, “The Petition,” The New Yorker, April 14, 2008. 

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