Is there such a thing as Jewish DNA?
By Evan R. Goldstein
It all began with a "serendipitous feeling" that hit him while he stumbled through Auschwitz in 2000. Like most visitors John Haedrich was deeply moved by what he saw. But this was something different. A kind of epiphany. Though raised a Christian, for reasons Mr. Haedrich cannot quite articulate, he began to suspect that he might be Jewish. Gradually, this hunch became too vital to ignore. He decided to investigate his origins by taking a DNA test, the results of which confirmed that he had, according to the test conclusion, "rather populous pedigree of Ashkenazi Polish Jews."
Though he readily admits to not having the "traditional paperwork," Mr. Haedrich petitioned the Israeli government for citizenship under the Law of Return, by which any Jew with at least a single, confirmed Jewish grandparent can move to Israel. His appeal was denied on grounds that DNA does not prove Jewish identity. Undeterred, the 44-year-old nursing-home director from Glendale, Calif., took out advertisements in the Israeli and American Jewish press pleading his case and established the Jewish by DNA Research Institute. He hopes the institute will help others who want to establish their Jewish identity on biological grounds. As "a matter of principle," Mr. Haedrich will not convert to Judaism because, he insists, he is already Jewish.
But is he? What exactly does it mean to be a "Jew by DNA"? Is it even possible to define Jewishness biologically? And after Nazism perverted similar notions about heredity and race to justify ghastly, mechanized slaughter, is there something indecent about even posing the question?
"There is no biological marker that is unique to Jewish people," Raphael Falk, professor emeritus of genetics at Hebrew University, tells me. "There are no markers that can define an individual, man or woman, as a Jew or as belonging to any other community." A pioneer in the field, Mr. Falk is the author of a fascinating new book, "Zionism and the Biology of the Jews" (currently available only in Israel), in which he explores the science, philosophy and history of various biological theories that have clung to the Jewish people.
One of Mr. Falk's most provocative themes is how many leading Jewish figures in the early 20th century embraced the language of race as a tool of positive self-definition. This was an era when ideas about blood and heredity enjoyed great intellectual prestige at the leading centers of scientific inquiry. Both Jews and anti-Semites adopted these terms of debate. At a press conference at the Hebrew University in 1934 renowned Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik declared: "I too, like Hitler, believe in the power of the blood idea."
Many Zionists heralded these biological conceptions of race as objective evidence of organic peoplehood. And both anti-Semites and Jews subscribed to the myth of the degenerate Diaspora Jew as having, in the words of one prominent Russian Zionist, "weak muscles, badly developed respiratory organs, weak bone structure, slight physical strength, little capacity for labor." While the anti-Semites warned that the disease-prone Jew presented a grave threat to the racial vigor of those they lived among, the Jewish nationalists insisted that a healthy "new Jew" could only be forged in a Jewish state.
It is critical that these statements be placed in the proper historical context. Eugenics did not then bear the taint of Nazism. In fact, it was a "quite respectable scientific branch," according to Mr. Falk--not least in America.----------
In our own time the increasingly widespread use of genetic testing raises a host of difficult questions about what it means to be a Jew. It seems that not a day goes by without word of some newly discovered genetic explanation for who we are physically, morally and spiritually. And it is now conventional medical wisdom that certain diseases, like breast cancer, are more common among the Ashkenazim. Some scientists even make the dubious claim that this imbues Ashkenazi Jews with an inherited advantage in intelligence.
But these genetic circumstances reflect not Judaism but rather the relatively isolated history of the people who descend from Ashkenaz--the medieval Hebrew name for the vast lands of Central and Eastern Europe from which Jews were exiled into the Pale of Settlement. The genomes of other Jews, for instance the Sephardim who originate from the Iberian Peninsula, reflect their different histories.
As it did to the early Zionists, the reasserting of Jewish distinctiveness as biological fact may hold some appeal to those who fret about Jewish continuity. A recent essay in Commentary magazine ["Whatever Happened to the Jewish People" (PDF)] laments precisely this erosion of "ethnic cohesiveness." The authors, Steve Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, despair that American Jews, particularly younger ones, are forsaking their "tribal" bonds. "American Jews are now regarded, and appear largely to regard themselves, as part of the undifferentiated mass of American whites," they write, "not as a distinctive group. . . ."
But there is great peril in such a desire. If we accept that Jewishness can be transmitted by DNA it would impose upon us a reductive, clinical Judaism of molecules and genes, rather than texts and arguments.
Mr. Goldstein is contributing editor at Moment magazine.
For another angle on Jews and DNA see: What Is It With Jews and DNA