Forward Thinking

Researchers Feud Over Jewish Genes

By Gal Beckerman

  • Print
  • Share Share
rita rubin
Eran Elhaik

Are Jews genetically homogenous? Though it’s certainly been a loaded question historically, the quandary has been the domain of scientists for a number of years now, all of whom have pretty much come up with the same answer: yes. But that was before Eran Elhaik entered the picture. An Israeli molecular geneticist, Elhaik is interested, it seems, not just in doing science, but in reveling in his role as a spoiler.

As a Forward story recently described it, he has written a report that claims Ashkenazi Jews are descendent from Khazars, a Turkic people from the Caucasus who converted to Judaism in the eighth century. This flies in the face of that established genetic research, which did prove a continuous genetic link between Ashkenazi Jews and the Middle East, positing that they descended from Jews who fled Palestine after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. As Elhaik put it in the article, he sees this fairly well accepted theory as “nonsense.”

Perhaps to be expected, the comments section of this article became a microcosm for all the heated emotion that this issue inspires. Elhaik himself even jumped into the fray.

The person who kicked off the fierce debate was Jon Entine, who wrote a book, “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People”, which presents the more established reading of Jewish genetic history. He also runs the Genetic Literacy Project at George Mason University. Entine insisted that the evidence is “incontrovertible”: “Ashkenazi Jewry is a coherent population, much like blacks descended from western Africa, the Amish or Icelanders.” Pointing out the Caucasian/Asiatic markers on his own chromosome – which he says typically makes up 20% of Ashkenazi genes – Entine says this might be because of the Khazar conversion, which took place among the elites of Khazaria and not the general population, as Elhaik contends. “When Khazaria collapsed, a fraction of the elite integrated themselves into the then tiny Eastern European Jewish communities,” Entine notes. “Today’s percentage of Khazarian like markers is congruent with the extrapolation of that core group to the founding of Ashkenazi Jewry in the 12-14 centuries, when Jews in Eastern Europe numbered only 15,000-20,000.” In other words, he writes, “Elhaik is just wrong.”

And Entine has a bigger point. He thinks that what really troubles Elhaik is the notion of Judaism as being tribally or ethnically founded in any way:

For those of you pulling out your hair over suggestions that modern Judaism has “racial roots,” get a grip. Christianity and Islam are faith-based religions…anyone can join at a proverbial drop of a hat. Judaism has never been just a faith based religion. It’s a triple helix: belief in god (yet many Jews are atheists/agnostics); belief in the state of Israel as a founding principle of our religion; and recognition of our “blood” connection to fellow Jews. Judaism is one of only two surviving tribal religions (Zoroastrianism, which shares many tribal attributes with Judaism is the other). All or any of those qualities can define one as a Jew. But one can’t just junk the “blood” part in an attempt to be “modern”–that’s an abandonment of a central tenet of what makes us Jewish.

This is when Elhaik chimes in. For him, Entine has revealed his own prejudice in his comments: “I would like to thank Jon Entine for disclosing his scientific guidelines for studying Judaism as believe in God (though it is ok not to), patriotism (though living afar is also okay), and the purity of the blood line…Not surprisingly, the last two scientific principles of Entine share a common ground with the Nazi ideology. While this may makes sense to some people and may fit with their belief, for those of us who actually practice science this is mere nonsense.”

The only thing that matters to Elhaik, the only point of his research, he says, is to discover the cure for genetic disorders in Jews and non-Jews. Identifying the correct genetic provenance of Jews will help find cures for diseases. “Today, we still don’t understand genetic diseases nor do we have a cure (for a large number of them),” Elhaik writes. “Non-Jews who have ‘Jews-only diseases’ are misdiagnosed because they are not Jews. There are serious problems requiring serious solution. The only method that works is the scientific method.”

The frustrating aspect of scientific debates (for us, outside observers, that is) is that both sides assume objective fact is on their side, and so they never really engage with each other’s arguments. As Entine has the last word, this tussle in the comments section is no different. They both seem to be talking past each other:

Elhaik is young enough and immature enough to be a young son of mine. All his rants aside, Judaism is a modernized version of a tribal religion, a fact thatshows up in the genes of Jews, across a range of disease and other traits. Elhaik, in either his overheated “academic” article or his posts just does not come across as a serious intellect. I have not found a mainstream geneticist who thinks much of his analytical ability let alone his care in assembling and analyzing genetic data. Sorry…just stating the facts.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Eran Elhaik, Race, Jon Entine, Jews

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!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • 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.