Jewish peoplehood, what does science say?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJan 11, 2010 10:13 AM


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The New Republic has published a review of the book The Invention of the Jewish People. There is a genetic aspect to the story:

But in fact we can go far back in time, with the help of historical DNA studies, which have burgeoned in the last twenty years, and the most disgraceful pages in Sand's book are those in which he displays an ignorant disdain for the work that has been done in this field by serious investigators. Without the least apparent understanding of how historical genetics works or what it can tell us, he attacks some of its most distinguished practitioners, such as Batsheva Bonné-Tamir of Tel Aviv University, Karl Skorecki of the Haifa Technion, and Doron Behar of the Rappaport Institute, for "internalizing the Zionist myth" and "seeking at all costs to discover a biological homogeneity" in order to create a "new discipline" designed to confirm "the Zionist idea of the Jewish nation-race." Having myself worked for many years on a research project with Skorecki and Behar, I can testify that this impugning of their scientific integrity is libelous. The irony is that the genetic studies that Sand dismisses lend him a measure of support. Overall, they show that while there is a high Y-chromosome correlation with an eastern Mediterranean profile among Jewish men from most parts of the world, indicating that many of them do have common Palestinian ancestors, the mitochondrial DNA correlation of Jewish women is much lower. Or, in less technical terms: while male gentiles have on the average entered Diaspora Jewish communities in only small percentages per generation over time, female gentiles --presumably because they were local inhabitants taken for wives by Jewish men in places like Yemen or North Africa--have done so more significantly.

I've had a few people ask me about Shlomo Sand's work of scholarship. Like many interpretations of history a little bit of shading can go a long way, and even without genetic science Sand's assertions seem highly tendentious without some extremely flexible semantic gymnastics (i.e., how one defines nation and people can probably be twisted sufficiently so as to allow one to not dismiss Sand's thesis on prima facie grounds). But it is interesting to see how people interpret the findings of natural science. My previous posts on Ashkenazi Jewish genetics have been used as evidence by both those wishing to assert that Jews are white and non-white for either anti-Semitic or philo-Semitic reasons. Just as terms such as "nation" are not always clear and distinct, the implications from statistical sciences whose categories only roughly correspond to social ones can be fuzzy. The filter with which we view the world can quickly generate a wide range of conclusions from the same exact data. Through the glass darkly indeed.... Note: As one of the world's many who are outside of the two sets of those who consider themselves Zionist and anti-Zionist, the political implications are of academic interest only.

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