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On Genetics and Jewish History

Conference on Genomics – From Disease Prevention to Treatment, Population, Medicine and Society, Haifa, Technion and Clalit Health Fund, 2-5 Oct. 2018

During the first international conference on this subject, which took place in Haifa in 2016, I deplored the gap between the fast advancing genetic sciences and Jewish historiography. Historians should have discovered the human genome as a new historical “archive” to dig into and use to corroborate other, written archives. They did not. They were not familiar with the scientific jargon of the geneticist – and let it be said, the latter did not make it easy to be understood by non-scientists. Moreover, they were afraid to be accused of “racism”, the evil heritage of the Nazi period. It seems that the last two years have begun to bring change – and this conference is a sign of this change.

In fact, genetics has had a positive impact on Jewish history writing long before, in the 1990s, but this has generally been forgotten today. Remember the scientific difficulties raised by the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls. Clever Bedouins had shred some of them to pieces: they found out that they could make much more money by selling piece by piece to different customers than to sell complete scrolls. The new DNA based genetics helped to solve the problem. Most scrolls or at least a large part of a scroll were written on parchment from one and the same goat, which allowed scientists to re-compose the scrolls. The AAAS published a special communique celebrating the victory of DNA genetics. Applause was still easy: it was the genetics of dead goats, not of living or dead Jews.

It is geneticists who stepped into Jewish history first. In 2012 Harry Ostrer published his pioneering book Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People. Other scientists followed. But it took five years for an American Jewish history professor to step into genetics. In 2017 Steven Weitzman published his The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age. Weitzman does not answer the “origin” question. He doubts that objective research will ever be able to answer this question. Weitzman presents a large compendium of all disciplines that keep discussing the “origin” of the Jews. Genetic research is one of the largest chapters. Weitzman is neutral. He takes no position. He includes authors who have been rejected by the scientific community as unserious. He explains that the Jewish “origin” question is entangled in religious and political agendas, and increasingly in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Inevitably, the Khazar myth comes to mind in this context – the myth that Ashkenazi Jews – those who built the State of Israel amongst others – are not real Judeans from the Near East but offspring of a long-forgotten Turkic tribe in Central Asia. Geneticists have demonstrated that the myth has no basis in facts.  It is Jews who invented and spread this myth, for ideological reasons.  Jehuda Halevi in the 12th century wrote his famous Khuzari, with a significant sub-title:  The Book of the Refutation and Proof of the Most Despised Religion. In that century both Muslims and Christians despised and attacked Jews and Judaism. Jehuda Halevi revolted: we are not to be despised, see how a proud warrior tribe compared religions and found ours superior to both Islam and Christianity!  In 1976, a well-known Hungarian Jewish writer, Arthur Koestler, published his The Thirteenth Tribe which brings the Khazar myth back to life. More than half of Hungary’s Jews, including members of Koestler’s family, had been murdered a few years before. It is actually a tragic book. What Koestler wants to tell the Anti-Semites is: don’t kill us, the truth is we are not “real” Jews. You want to kill somebody? Go after the Turks, the Turkic speakers or whomever else. Of course, no anti-Semite was impressed by the argument. Finally, in 2009 the anti-Zionist Israeli Shlomo Sand published his The Invention of the Jewish People. Sand revived the Khazar myth in order to question the ideological basis of the State of Israel. He also ridicules the science of human genetics. On both accounts – rejecting that the Jews are a people with a historical basis in the Land of Israel and rejecting modern genetics – Sand remains a late follower of Marxism-Leninism and even of Stalinism. The success of his book, in the entire Muslim world but also beyond – is extraordinary. Fake genetics has mutated into fake history, politics, identity conflicts, war and the speeches of some current Palestinian leaders.

But serious geneticists returned to the subject. In 2018 – just a few months ago – David Reich from the medical faculty of Harvard published his Who We Are and How We got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. He complains about the religious and political agendas, and the taboos that hamper genetics research. A significant chapter has the title ” How the genome explains who we are” – a title that will trigger a lot of arguments. Reich gives examples of recent genetic discoveries beyond Jewish history. It has been shown that the ancestral genomes of North India, Central Asia and Europe are related. This confirms what linguists who compared Sanskrit, Greek, Latin etc. had suggested long before.

To return to the beginning: the gap between genetics and Jewish history is not yet closed, but there are signs that it is slowly closing. Mainstream Jewish historians do not yet seem to consider genetics, but there are pioneers like Weitzman and there is growing awareness of the advances of genetic archeology. It is becoming possible to extract and study the DNA of 2000 year old bones or older ones, in Israel and elsewhere.

Two mainstream Jewish historians presented recent reviews of Jewish history over long periods. Simon Schema The Story of the Jews in two volumes (2013, 2017) sweeps in 1200 pages over 2500 years of Jewish history, but never mention genetics. Botticini-Eckstein, in 2012, published their Chosen Few – How Education Shaped Jewish History 70-1492. They discuss major declines and rises of Jewish population across 1500 years – a question about which genetics has a lot to say but they do not mention this science.

Does genetics inform general historiography? The field is too vast to allow for an answer. If we check the most famous history best seller of the century, Yuval Harari’s 2011 Sapiens- A Brief History of Mankind we will find dozens of mentions of genetics. Harari would not miss a universal catch-word like this. What is his message: an early chapter has the significant title “Bypassing the genome.”

Genetics is opening a new period in history writing. Opinions will oscillate between David Reich’s “How the genome explains who we are” and Yuval Harari’s “Bypassing the genome.”  Geneticist want to do research, they don’t want to be bothered by its impacts, including the misunderstandings and the misuse of their work. But they will be bothered, particularly if they work in genetics of the Jewish people!