Forward Thinking

If Jews Are a Race — Which One?

By Anne Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share
rita rubin

It’s no surprise that Johns Hopkins geneticist Eran Elhaik stirred a hornet’s nest of controversy with his claim to have debunked the scientific theory that Jews are mostly members of a single race, with origins in the land that is now Israel.

But as Rita Rubin, the science writer who penned the Forward’s piece on the dispute, points out, Elhaik isn’t really saying Jews aren’t a distinct race — he’s questioning which race. And that makes all the difference.

“I think what’s at stake is how we Jews view ourselves,” Rubin told the Forward’s Paul Berger during the paper’s weekly podcast. “The conventional wisdom is that we are a people descended from the indigenous Jews of Judea and Samaria …. This new study says that’s all wrong even though it’s been backed up by well-respected scientists in well-respected journals.”

Elhaik’s study flies in the face of 15 years of studies by notable scientists and geneticists who found that Jews — and Ashkenazi Jews in particular — bear more genetic similarities to fellow Jews than their non-Jewish neighbors.

The theory, most strongly promulgated by Yeshiva University geneticist Harry Ostrer, asserts that Jews are mostly descended from a group of people who lived in what is now Israel during Biblical times. That theory, of course, is a critical emotional and political cornerstone of the Jewish claim to Israel.

Elhaik doesn’t dispute that Ashkenazi Jews are mostly descended from a single group of people.

But he identifies their forefathers as the Khazars, a genetically heterogenous Turkic people with links to many other peoples in the Caucasus. A group of Khazars migrated from present-day Armenia to Eastern Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. According to Elhaik’s research, the Khazars later massively converted to Judaism, forming the basis of today’s Ashkenazi Jews.

It’s a perfectly respectable story about ancestry. But it pointedly leaves out the connection to the land of Israel, which is the most important part for many Zionists.

Indeed, the real issue, Rubin pointed out, is how this information is being used. Critics of Israel and anti-Semitic bigots have used Elhaik’s claims to trash the Jewish claim to Israel.

“Bloggers have kind of jumped on his research,” she said. “Anti-Zionist bloggers are saying ‘See, Jews don’t have a claim to Israel.’”

There are also a few snags in the study itself, as Rubin points out in the Forward podcast.

Because the Khazars have not existed as a distinct people for “hundreds of years,” Elhaik used modern-day Georgians and Armenians to test for genetic markers. Many scientists have pointed to this decision as a reason to question his findings.

“The critics of this research argue that ‘Well, Armenians also have Middle Eastern ancestry,’” Rubin explained. “It’s not because they’re all descended from the Khazars, it’s because they’re all descended from people from the Mideast.”

So who to believe?

After spending weeks researching the story, Rubin says she still has plenty of questions about Elhaik’s findings. And she finds the reaction to his study, in many ways, as interesting as the scientific debate itself.

“It’s tough,” she said. “What [Elhaik] is saying is that [it] used to be anti-Semitic to say that Jews are a race. And now he’s being called anti-Semite because he’s saying Jews aren’t a race, it’s a religion.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: jewish, genetics, elhaik, DNA

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.