Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Here's a lengthy and interesting article on the genetic history of the Jews (and others): Genetics and the Jewish identity
...More studies have been carried out on the genetic history of the Jews than on most ethnic groups, perhaps because there are so many Jewish doctors to take advantage of the fabled willingness of Jews to participate in research. These studies not only show that almost all Jewish populations have origins in the Middle East, but that the DNA of Jews from almost every corner of the Diaspora is more similar to that of other Jews than to any other population. When compared with non-Jewish groups, the closest match is with the Muslims of Kurdistan, not with the European peoples alongside whom Ashkenazi Jews lived for centuries or the Arab neighbors of many Sephardi populations.
Other groups with histories of ancient migrations do not have the same degree of continuity. Hungarians are known to have originated on the Eurasian steppe and moved westward in a migration many centuries long, arriving in the Carpathian basin about 995 CE. They speak a language from the steppe, take pride in their history of migration and military conquest and expected that genetic research would demonstrate their central Asian origins. The evidence to date, however, has shown a varying but quite small element of central Asian ancestry in Hungarian populations, along with great similarities between Hungarians and their Slavic and German neighbors. This does not mean that the Hungarians with Slavic ancestry are not real Hungarians. Rather, Hungarian culture has been so powerfully attractive that for many centuries people of Slavic, Germanic and other ancestry elected to join the Hungarian people. Ironically, the genetic distinctiveness of the Jews in part may reflect the unattractiveness of joining a religious minority that was oppressed and impoverished through much of its history...
Of course, such things are interesting, but don't really dictate anything about politics, culture or "peoplehood" -- there is no genetic test for Israeli citizenship, for instance. But there is a renewing racist trend in antisemitic circles to dismiss Jewish identity on a genetic basis, so it's certainly good to know that in this, as in so many other things, they are wrong. As the authors themselves conclude:
What genetic data cannot tell us is who is a Jew. The answers to that question are, variously, halachic, political and cultural. On a purely technical level, there is no genetic screen that can sort Jews from non-Jews. Population differences do not translate into reliable tests of individual lineage. What genetics can tell us is something about where our ancestors came from - no more. It cannot tell us who we are. Nor can it tell us who we want to become, as individual Jews or as a Jewish people. As new data emerge from genetics laboratories, though, we are likely to learn a great deal more about the history of our people.