It is important to notice that the Israelites’ conception of the nation has nothing to do with biology, or what we call race. For biblical nations, everything depends on a shared understanding of history, language, and religion that is passed from parents to children, but which outsiders can join as well. Thus the book of Exodus teaches that there were many Egyptians who attached themselves to the Hebrew slaves in fleeing Egypt, and that they received the Ten Commandments (more accurately translated as the “Ten Precepts”) at Sinai with the rest of Israel. Similarly, Moses invites the Midianite sheikh Jethro to join the Jewish people. And Ruth the Moabite becomes part of Israel by declaring “your people will be my people and your God will be my God”—her son being the forefather of King David himself.
But the ability of Israel to bring foreign-born individuals into its ranks always depends on these individuals’ willingness to accept Israel’s God, its view of history, and its laws. Without embracing these elements of the national identity, foreigners will not be able to contribute to Israel’s cohesion and strength in times of hardship. They will not be part of the Israelite nation.
And yet Jews form a distinct gene pool aka a race. Jon Entine writes for the Forward, May 4, 2012:
Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People
By Harry Ostrer
Oxford University Press, 288 Pages, $24.95
In his new book, “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People,” Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, claims that Jews are different, and the differences are not just skin deep. Jews exhibit, he writes, a distinctive genetic signature. Considering that the Nazis tried to exterminate Jews based on their supposed racial distinctiveness, such a conclusion might be a cause for concern. But Ostrer sees it as central to Jewish identity.
“Who is a Jew?” has been a poignant question for Jews throughout our history. It evokes a complex tapestry of Jewish identity made up of different strains of religious beliefs, cultural practices and blood ties to ancient Palestine and modern Israel. But the question, with its echoes of genetic determinism, also has a dark side.
Geneticists have long been aware that certain diseases, from breast cancer to Tay-Sachs, disproportionately affect Jews. Ostrer, who is also director of genetic and genomic testing at Montefiore Medical Center, goes further, maintaining that Jews are a homogeneous group with all the scientific trappings of what we used to call a “race.”
For most of the 3,000-year history of the Jewish people, the notion of what came to be known as “Jewish exceptionalism” was hardly controversial. Because of our history of inmarriage and cultural isolation, imposed or self-selected, Jews were considered by gentiles (and usually referred to themselves) as a “race.” Scholars from Josephus to Disraeli proudly proclaimed their membership in “the tribe.”
Ostrer explains how this concept took on special meaning in the 20th century, as genetics emerged as a viable scientific enterprise. Jewish distinctiveness might actually be measurable empirically. In “Legacy,” he first introduces us to Maurice Fishberg, an upwardly mobile Russian-Jewish immigrant to New York at the fin de siècle. Fishberg fervently embraced the anthropological fashion of the era, measuring skull sizes to explain why Jews seemed to be afflicted with more diseases than other groups — what he called the “peculiarities of the comparative pathology of the Jews.” It turns out that Fishberg and his contemporary phrenologists were wrong: Skull shape provides limited information about human differences. But his studies ushered in a century of research linking Jews to genetics.
“Legacy” may cause its readers discomfort. To some Jews, the notion of a genetically related people is an embarrassing remnant of early Zionism that came into vogue at the height of the Western obsession with race, in the late 19th century. Celebrating blood ancestry is divisive, they claim: The authors of “The Bell Curve” were vilified 15 years ago for suggesting that genes play a major role in IQ differences among racial groups.
Furthermore, sociologists and cultural anthropologists, a disproportionate number of whom are Jewish, ridicule the term “race,” claiming there are no meaningful differences between ethnic groups. For Jews, the word still carries the especially odious historical association with Nazism and the Nuremberg Laws. They argue that Judaism has morphed from a tribal cult into a worldwide religion enhanced by thousands of years of cultural traditions.
Is Judaism a people or a religion? Or both? The belief that Jews may be psychologically or physically distinct remains a controversial fixture in the gentile and Jewish consciousness, and Ostrer places himself directly in the line of fire. Yes, he writes, the term “race” carries nefarious associations of inferiority and ranking of people. Anything that marks Jews as essentially different runs the risk of stirring either anti- or philo-Semitism. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the factual reality of what he calls the “biological basis of Jewishness” and “Jewish genetics.” Acknowledging the distinctiveness of Jews is “fraught with peril,” but we must grapple with the hard evidence of “human differences” if we seek to understand the new age of genetics.
Although he readily acknowledges the formative role of culture and environment, Ostrer believes that Jewish identity has multiple threads, including DNA. He offers a cogent, scientifically based review of the evidence, which serves as a model of scientific restraint.
“On the one hand, the study of Jewish genetics might be viewed as an elitist effort, promoting a certain genetic view of Jewish superiority,” he writes. “On the other, it might provide fodder for anti-Semitism by providing evidence of a genetic basis for undesirable traits that are present among some Jews. These issues will newly challenge the liberal view that humans are created equal but with genetic liabilities.”
…Both the human genome project and disease research rest on the premise of finding distinguishable differences between individuals and often among populations. Scientists have ditched the term “race,” with all its normative baggage, and adopted more neutral terms, such as “population” and “clime,” which have much of the same meaning. Boiled down to its essence, race equates to “region of ancestral origin.”
Ostrer has devoted his career to investigating these extended family trees, which help explain the genetic basis of common and rare disorders. Today, Jews remain identifiable in large measure by the 40 or so diseases we disproportionately carry, the inescapable consequence of inbreeding. He traces the fascinating history of numerous “Jewish diseases,” such as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher, Niemann-Pick, Mucolipidosis IV, as well as breast and ovarian cancer. Indeed, 10 years ago I was diagnosed as carrying one of the three genetic mutations for breast and ovarian cancer that mark my family and me as indelibly Jewish, prompting me to write “Abraham’s Children.”
Like East Asians, the Amish, Icelanders, Aboriginals, the Basque people, African tribes and other groups, Jews have remained isolated for centuries because of geography, religion or cultural practices. It’s stamped on our DNA. As Ostrer explains in fascinating detail, threads of Jewish ancestry link the sizable Jewish communities of North America and Europe to Yemenite and other Middle Eastern Jews who have relocated to Israel, as well as to the black Lemba of southern Africa and to India’s Cochin Jews. But, in a twist, the links include neither the Bene Israel of India nor Ethiopian Jews. Genetic tests show that both groups are converts, contradicting their founding myths…
Although Jews make up less than 3% of the population, they have won more than 25% of the Nobel Prizes awarded to American scientists since 1950. Jews also account for 20% of this country’s chief executives and make up 22% of Ivy League students. Psychologists and educational researchers have pegged their average IQ at 107.5 to 115, with their verbal IQ at more than 120, a stunning standard deviation above the average of 100 found in those of European ancestry. Like it or not, the IQ debate will become an increasingly important issue going forward, as medical geneticists focus on unlocking the mysteries of the brain.