An article in the New York Times a few days ago, humorously and appropriately titled “The Elephant in the Map Room,” described the history of the borders of Jewish states in the Holy Land (or the Levant, or whatever politically correct term one wishes to use). Written much more from a cartography point of view than from a political one, I thought it a refreshing view, and a fun read. Very interesting.
In it, he cites Shlomo Sand’s book “The Invention of the Jewish People.” To be honest, growing up Jewish, I never once questioned that Jewish identity was genetic, a true ethnicity. That I, and most Jews around the world, possessed some percentage of our ethnic background tracing back to antiquity, to the ancient Israel of Biblical times. Now, I’ll admit I haven’t read Sand’s book, but, skimming the inside cover excerpt and such, I found the core of his argument quite eye-opening, or should I say shocking. As described in today’s NY Times article, Sand argues
that Judaism used to be a proselytizing religion like Christianity or Islam, and that consequently many of today’s Jewish Israelis are descendants of converts, without an ancestral link to Eretz-Israel. Inversely, many of the Palestinians may just be the descendants of the large Jewish community who remained to toil the land, even after the destruction of the Temple and the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt in the first and second centuries, respectively — and who gradually converted to Islam in the centuries after the Arab conquest.
Well, yeah, I suppose that could be a possibility. It hadn’t really ever occurred to me. I’d never doubted my identity as ethnically Jewish. Just as Jewish as you, dear reader, might be Irish or Italian. If we are indeed descended overwhelmingly from converts, and not in fact genetically/ethnically related to the Hebrews of the Exodus, the Israelites of Biblical Judea and Samaria, then, that would have dramatic ramifications for our conceptions, or understandings, of our personal, individual, self-identity, and that of our people as a whole. Furthermore, if many Palestinians are indeed descended from the Hebrews or Israelites, who later converted to Islam, rather than, as I’d always assumed, descended from Arab invaders, or from Canaanites and other non-Hebrew peoples, that too would be a dramatic thing with great ramifications, in terms of political questions of legitimacy and heritage, among others.
An image from the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, ostensibly depicting “French Jews,” but really symbolizing, for my purposes, the great diversity of Jews in the world. And yet, we are all Jews. We all share genetic/ethnic links to a single “Jewish people.” Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Sand’s assertion, on the surface, even without reading his whole argument, is quite compelling and thought-provoking. But, then, on the other hand, we have studies such as this one, which have revealed via genetics testing that there are in fact genetic elements that the vast majority of Jews share, regardless of the color of their skin. The study described at this link, led by Harry Ostrer of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, is not the only one I have heard about which has indicated that “the genomes of Jewish North African groups are distinct from one another, but that they show linkages to each other absent from their non-Jewish North African neighbors.” Ostrer is, in fact, quoted in the article as saying that
Virtually all the Jewish groups we’ve studied tend to be quite closely related to one another. It would seem for most Jewish groups, there is a biological basis for their Jewishness which is based on their sharing of DNA segments.
Groups such as the Abayudaya of Uganda, who trace their Jewishness to a single leader in the 1910s who declared himself and his followers Jewish, may be a different story, but groups as distant (racially/ethnically and geographically), removed and remote as the Lemba people of Zimbabwe have been confirmed by DNA tests to possess the Kohen gene in roughly the same demographic percentages as Ashkenazi (Eastern European), Sephardic (Mediterranean), and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews. Kohens (or Kohanim) are the Jewish priestly class, supposedly descended in a direct line from Moses’ brother Aaron; one generally knows to consider oneself a Kohen as a result of being told that their father is a Kohen. I guess we’d call that oral tradition. Many Kohanim also have the surname Cohen, or something similar – also passed down from father to son – further securing the suspicion, or traditional belief, that one belongs to that class or tribe. But, getting to the point, though I imagine there is extremely little historical evidence to prove that Moses or his brother Aaron actually existed, or that those who consider themselves Kohanim (members of the Jewish priestly class) are in fact descended directly from Aaron, tests have determined that the vast majority of Kohanim possess a given gene which other Jews (and the vast majority of non-Jews?) lack – a gene marking them as Kohanim and seemingly confirming the idea that Kohen identity is something genuinely inherited.
I met a lot of people in Hawaii who are “Jews by choice,” or “sons & daughters of Abraham & Sarah” – that is to say, they are converts, with no reason to believe they should possess genetically or ethnically Jewish identity. Perhaps in future this will become more common, at least in certain communities. But, while I think Sand’s assertions about the “invention” of the Jewish people are important in that they are thought-provoking and challenge the dominant discourse on the subject, it would seem there are some reassuring scientific, genetic facts which present problems for his theory.
All nations, all ethnic identities, are to one extent or another, modern inventions. Even the Japanese, who on the surface seem (and claim to be) pretty ethnically homogenous, are in fact not, for one thing, given the incorporation of Okinawans, Ainu, and some small number of Chinese, Koreans, Dutch, and others in the early modern & modern periods, not to mention the ethnically mixed origins of the Jômon/Yayoi/Yamato people back in the early centuries of the Common Era; and, perhaps more to the point, the concept of being “Japanese,” of belonging to a single ethnic identity shared by people all across the archipelago, is arguably a concept that didn’t quite exist as such prior to the 19th century. Yet, all of that said, there are, nevertheless, genuine underlying genetic truths to ethnic identity, in most cases.